Off-Centre | Society

The brightest star: Remembering Sheila Dhar, writer and singer

Sheila Dhar with her mother.   | Photo Credit: Courtesy Abhinav Dhar

One story that writer and singer Sheila Dhar told but did not write was about smoking on the sly. She was a young medical student then, before switching to English literature, and had just discovered the stolen joys of cigarettes. She smoked at college and thought rinsing out her mouth before her music classes insured her against being found out, but she was mistaken. One day after a somewhat dispiriting session, her music teacher dismissed her saying, “Bibi, ya toh gaana gayo, ya sutta maaro.” [“Young lady, you can either sing or light a fag.”]

Helpless guffaws shook her as she imitated his tone, relishing the coarseness of the teacher’s phrasing. She was speaking to a three-person audience: Rukun Advani and I had begun as her editors and become her friends; and Partho Datta was by then one of her closest musical friends. He is now a professor of Arts and Aesthetics at JNU, and scholarly rummagings through musical archives are part of a day’s work for him. Yesterday, he unearthed and sent across a treasure: a rare recording of a live performance, complete with crackling, occasional distortions, applause.

Mrs. Dhar’s recorded performances are few and scattered. Set beside her acute, brilliantly comic writing, the deeply meditative, interiorised quality of her singing is scarcely believable. This is not a performer telling stories with a merry twinkle and watching for the effect of her words on her audience; it is someone singing as a way of communing with the deepest reaches of her own being. It is as if the voice that sings and the one that speaks come from two different people.

Echoes of the singing voice can be found in the early part of her book Raga’n Josh, especially in the moving chapter on her mother, titled ‘Baua’, which reflects the introspective, sometimes deeply melancholic moods that overcame her. Her book is a memoir of a kind but it is not about herself. She writes of the gifts, struggles, comicality and joy of those who surround her: at times, family and friends, but centrally, musicians. When she does write about her own music, it is with a dismissive air, as if she were a comic misfit, a magpie among nightingales.

Someone asked me the other day why I had written in an article that working in the world of books was the best kind of work. One of the reasons is Mrs. Dhar, whom I would never have known but for my job. When I met her, I was a junior editor ordered to put her first book into paperback. She sailed into my room unexpectedly one afternoon to inspect me, infuriated at being thus relegated — few authors like a change of editors, especially if they are rolled downhill, from senior to junior. That first meeting went badly; she left with looks of withering exasperation. But she returned a fortnight later. She sank into a chair and dabbed at one of her eyes. It was half-closed, twitching, probably with an injury.

What’s so funny?

I felt a tide of unseemly giggles rise inside me. It must have been from panic at having to meet her again and the more I tried to clamp down on it, the worse it got.

“What’s so funny?” she said in an ominous tone. She was large, tall, imperious, a woman who would have inspired fear and awe if she were the head of a university or a government.

In the way people dig deeper graves in desperation, I managed to gasp, “You look like Lalita Pawar.” I was thinking of the actor from the 1960s who was known for her winking eye, a tic that was endlessly deployed in Hindi movies to comic effect. Having uttered the actor’s name, I knew it was all over for me. Mentally, I began emptying my recently acquired desk.

After a moment’s stunned silence, Mrs. Dhar started to twinkle and the open, guffawing laughter I came to know well began bubbling out of her. I think this merriment about herself is what made her dismissive of her own singing. Similarly, she refused to believe that her stories were worth telling. They were coaxed out of her with great patience by the publisher Esha Béteille, then a senior editor at Oxford University Press.

Mrs. Dhar’s next book, The Cooking of Music, was published by Permanent Black, and frequent editorial meetings were deemed essential by her and by us. We would get to work at mid-morning and by afternoon, distracting scents of mutton pasanda and fried lotus stem would waft across from the kitchen; after a huge lunch that left us comatose, there would be late afternoon tea with mung dal halwa from Ghantewala in Old Delhi. Before each such meeting, she would phone Partho Datta and plan the menu, especially the carnivorous part of it.

Culinary planning

“What should I cook for Anuradha, poor thing, a Bengali married to a vegetarian.”

“Why bother so much?” Partho would reply, pulling her leg.

She would say only half-joking, “Arre, kya kehte ho, beti ghar aa rahi hai.” [“Don’t say that. It’s my daughter coming home.”]

Mrs. Dhar died in 2001 of lung complications at 72. Right at the end, no visitors were allowed near her because she was vulnerable to infection. My last sight of her was from outside the door of her room, across many metres, masked. This seems an average daily cruelty now, but it was unnerving and heartbreaking then.

She would have liked this story, narrated by the Icelandic writer Andri Snær Magnason about his friend, the scientist Gudmunder Páll Ólafsson:

‘We were convinced that if he came back he would come as a bird, not as a majestic eagle or a great northern diver, but a misunderstood bird like a starling. Gudmunder Páll always took the side of misunderstood animals. Two days before his funeral, I opened the door to my office and heard a strange whistling of wings and a chirping. A little starling had somehow come in and was beating its wings frantically against the window. I could hardly believe my own eyes. I carefully caught the bird, held it gently in my grasp, and my eyes filled with tears. I opened the window, released the bird and watched him fly out into the late summer sun.’ (On Time and Water, 2020)

The writer is the author of several novels, including All the Lives We Never Lived.

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 4:01:20 AM |

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