It was probably in the Eighties that I first met Ustad Bale Khan. Strangely, I didn’t even know his name; I knew him only as my cousin’s “sitar teacher”. He used to come once a month, all the way from Dharwad, and camp in one of his student’s house in Basavangudi for two days. And all that he did – from the time he got off his train in the morning, till he boarded his train the next night – was to teach.

What I distinctly remember from this first encounter with the maestro is the absolute silence in the hall, but for the resonating notes of the sitar.

Reputation often precedes most maestros. Their tantrums, attitudes, mood swings take on legendary proportions. The masses – which comprise family, students and sundry – one had heard, shuddered to make even a meek presence, let alone speak before these stalwarts.

For someone in primary school and full of such popular mythology about musicians, to me, Bale Khan was an aberration. That’s also probably why I never fathomed the greatness of this musician till many years later: his grand lineage, his achievements. If there was any fuss over ‘sir’ it was always in the background; I remember how students, friends and the hosts in hushed tones fretted and worried over sir not putting his sitar down even for a cup of chai!

There was a soothing quietitude about him. He hardly spoke, but there was infinite warmth for everyone who came into his range of vision. His kind eyes did most of the speaking.

At most, it would be a pat on the back to express his affection. His deep engagement and commitment to his music, his value for human relationships and an egalitarian space that was ever so accommodative, every aspect of his persona came through his sitar. Bale Khan sir would shut his eyes to the ways of the world and play with undiminished devotion; to life, to music.

In his death, and as I journey back to two decades ago, I realise how Ustad Bale Khan was a true musician in more than sense.

A liberal humanist who could speak only the language of music. That’s probably why he hardly trusted words.

DEEPA GANESH