Large, scholarly, comprehensive and intimate biographies of musicians are extremely valuable — especially if they are well-written and readable. And yet they can rarely be read in one or two sittings. They tend to sit by your bedside to be savoured daily (or nightly). Some give you a complex, nuanced, human-scale picture of the musician and his or her times, and some are merely hagiographies and paeans, designed mainly to plant the person unquestioningly on a pedestal.
In this rather ‘august assembly’ genre, comes along a little book (just 36 pages, and illustrated), possibly the first of a series of little books, on some of the legends of Indian classical music. This one is on the late Pandit Firoz Dastur, one of the doyens of the Kirana gharana. Modest in scope, the book assumes little or no knowledge on the part of the reader about the musician or the world of Hindustani classical music and is aimed at all generations of music lovers and readers.
Basic concepts and terms are introduced in the course of the narrative. What is compelling about the format is the way Dasturji’s personality emerges — predominantly as a loving, supportive and vastly knowledgeable musician and guru, whose many achievements, awards and accolades sat easily on his unassuming shoulders. The unique inclusion in this book is a set of 10 tracks that the reader can access by pointing your phone at the QR codes. A rich representation, a jhalak , of the musician’s oeuvre is, in this way, quite literally at your fingertips.
A few old records
For some of us, our live listening only just intersected with Dasturji’s performing days. He was the frail, smiling man, lovingly and respectfully brought on stage to sing the iconic ‘Gopala’ by popular demand during the Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav in Pune long ago. That’s all we knew, besides a couple of old records the family may have owned from his early years.
Now, thanks to the efforts of his sishyas, the Pt. Firoz Dastur Memorial Foundation, and young music organisations such as the Baithak Foundation, we get to attend guided listening sessions that give us access to his body of musical work as well as his thought. Add to that this almost playful but informative book titled Freddy , by Dakshayani Athalye and Mandar Karanjkar, illustrated by Sneha Uplekar, from a young indie publisher Tania Kamath (Watering Can Foundation), and you have a larger circle of people included and introduced to this enchanting genius of a musician.
Many little facets
The book provides many little facets, known and unknown to most fans and followers of the singer. We read about Dasturji’s precise watch-repairing talent. We hear about his rare ability to tune a tanpura quickly, his skills with the craft of tanpura making and maintenance, and the uncanny and legendary true story: that tanpura strings near him would spontaneously cry out in empathetic resonance when he sang a Sa or a Pa to which they had been tuned! We also read about the many gracious and hospitable gestures he quite naturally made towards his disciples, his kindness to animals, his love of food.
Putting together a ‘simple’ book about a well-known personality from an ancient musical tradition is no easy task — what do you include and what do you leave out? Formats, design, content, all have little or no precedence, and have to be forged, custom-made.
The book needs a few tucks and tweaks, which will be carried out in its next print run. Anyone who would like to see any of their favourite musicians and his or her works introduced in this simple and accessible format, could send in their suggestions to Baithak or to Watering Can. That’s the fun of having young people enter the genre of biographies: access, openness to ideas, and a willingness to be involved in non-clannish collaboration.
The writer is a novelist, counsellor and music lover who takes readers on a ramble through the Aladdin’s cave of Indian music.