Served with love

PROUD SON OF KASHMIR Santoor exponent Pandit Bhajan Sopori at Castle 9 in Connaught Place, New Delhi

PROUD SON OF KASHMIR Santoor exponent Pandit Bhajan Sopori at Castle 9 in Connaught Place, New Delhi   | Photo Credit: PHOTO: ANU PUSHKARNA

Music or food, restrictions are not for him. Meet celebrated santoor player Bhajan Sopori, an inveterate non-vegetarian

He fits the image of the quintessential Indian performing artiste: hair falling over his shoulders, a beard covering his face, deep eyes and, de rigueur, the long kurta. But an image isn't merely an appearance. From this description, don't expect Pandit Bhajan Sopori to be the pampered soul, requiring all the comforts of life. The santoor exponent, from his own description, seems to be a tough guy inside. And were he not, he wouldn't be hailed as one of the foremost practitioners of Hindustani music. At Castle 9 in the heart of New Delhi's Connaught Place, the celebrated performer and teacher is catching a quick lunch with son Abhay Rustom. As a guru to Abhay and several other students, he may take all the important decisions, but here, Abhay calls the shots. While the maestro is busy on the phone, Abhay has done the ordering. Just a way of helping out, notes the loyal son, "He has so much on his mind." A traditional eater might consider it late for lunch. The clock has long passed 3 p.m., but Panditji is unfazed. "I have never let restrictions like food timings bother me," he laughs. "I might get home from a recording at 3-4 o'clock in the morning. But I will still have a proper dinner before I go to sleep. And when I wake up, I am ready for breakfast at 8!"


It turns out it is not a Bohemian but a Spartan lifestyle in his native Kashmir that has given him this hardy digestive system. "My life has always been topsy-turvy. As a youngster I would do my riyaaz at night. I had studies too. Then, I played several instruments," he begins. "My father (Pandit S.N. Sopori) was very strict. Even if I went to sleep at midnight, he would wake me up at 3.30 in the morning. My mother would cry! But he was not bothered, and he would expect me to play whatever he had taught."Today there is only gratitude for this approach. "If he hadn't taught me like that I wouldn't have been able to accomplish what I have," says the founder of the organisation SaMaPa, who prides himself on having taken music to the most violence-affected regions of his home State. The SaMaPa music festival, which ended recently in the Capital, is part of his continuous efforts to serve the cause of music and Kashmir.

Inveterate non-vegetarian

The Castle 9 menu includes appetising soups like lemon coriander and an array of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. As the duo tries vegetable spring rolls, the elder Sopori explains that Kashmiris are inveterate non-vegetarians. "Until told by the doctor to stop eating meat, a Kashmiri won't turn vegetarian," he declares cheerfully. "It's the same with rotis. Until the doctor says to stop rice, a Kashmiri has to have rice for both lunch and dinner."Sounds surprising, considering the traditional view that rice cools the body. "True, but in Kashmir, even if the temperature is below zero outside, people will still have their lassi with rice." By comparison, Delhi is still in spring. The steamed rice combines beautifully with prawns sweet and sour, and crispy lamb in chilli oyster sauce. Recommending the vegetable salt and pepper, Panditji recalls another instance of food concepts Kashmiris don't seem to abide by. "I've seen people here who don't eat mooli (radish) during winter," says the maestro who has been settled in Delhi for some time now. "In Kashmir, we make chutney out of mooli, and many other varieties - mashed, fried, you name it."Performing since 1954, when he gave his first radio broadcast at the age of six, he has seen cuisine and time zones change like costumes. From the Kashmir jungles, where he played on the request of sufi ascetics, to the plush concert halls of metropolitan cities, the only common factor is the love he receives. It fits when he says, "I like whatever people serve with love." ANJANA RAJAN

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