As a journalist, one has always been nervous before meeting a musical legend the first time. The thought process was simple – Would I ask the right questions, and how would they respond? From Pt Ravi Shankar to Asha Bhosle and Louiz Banks, it was the same story.
And then I met ace flautist Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia at his Khar flat in Mumbai. This was in 1998 a few months after I attended his 60th birthday concert at Nehru Centre and probably 20 years after I saw his first performance in New Delhi and in the interim, loving the music of Silsila and Darr, without knowing they were composed by him and my other favourite, santoor maestro Pt Shivkumar Sharma.
My hands were shaking when we first met. He would have never accepted me as a disciple, and never did, not that I wanted to learn the bansuri. Never had those lungs. But Chaurasia had the same qualities I have seen among the true legends over the years. Humility, warmth, hospitality and humour.
We spoke 45 minutes about his forthcoming show with the first line-up of Remember Shakti, featuring him, guitatist John McLaughlin, tabla wizard Zakir Hussain and ghatam genius Vikku Vinayakram. They were gearing up for a show at Rang Bhavan and also recording an album based on their performances abroad.
A good 20 years have passed, and Chaurasia, who we all call Hari-Ji, turns 80 today. What a journey he has had, coming from a family of wrestlers in Allahabad to learning the flute on the banks of river Ganga to working with All India Radio in Orissa to his Mumbai journey both in classical music and films. Raags Pahadi and Hansadhwani blended with ‘Suno Sajna’, the pathbreaking album Call Of The Valley and the film Chandni. Am not getting into his detailed biography – it’s there all over the Net.
I was 35 when I first met him, a good 25 years younger. And in five minutes, my fingers stopped shaking as he personally served samosas and tea. He spoke at length and even took out his bansuri to play. It was an exclusive concert.
I decided to attend every show I could. To use that rock music term, I became a groupie. And just like I did with Shivkumar Sharma and Zakir Hussain, I would go backstage after his concerts, just to be happy with his acknowledging me, when 50 others would bombard him with pleas for attention and autographs.
At this point, I would like to share a few anecdotes. There are many but I will restrict myself to three. Chaurasia has an uncanny sense of humour and a style of speaking. Mostly he speaks in a natural Uttar Pradesh Hindi accent, but is ready to communicate in English where required.
The first time was when St Xavier’s College was organising its debut fusion event. For years, they had stuck to Hindustani classical. Maybe the year 2000. Jazz keyboardist Louiz Banks was to team up with Chaurasia. There was a press conference. The compere announced, “For the next event we have the legendary jazz player Louis Armstrong (referring to the American pioneer who had died years ago).”
The audience was in splits but the compere never realised the goof-up. One still wonders whether Chaurasia knew what was happening but he responded. “Banks is not Armstrong, I am Armstrong. I did kushti as a child. I am ready to take off my kurta and demonstrate.” Thankfully, Banks, still unable to control his laughter and blushed embarrassed look, diverted the topic.
The next was when Chaurasia was to do a show in Mumbai with British rock band Jethro Tull, fronted by Ian Anderson. There was a press conference. They had performed in Dubai a few days ago. Another compere, very fashionable and dumb-pretty, asked Anderson to narrate his experience.
Anderson is a natural wit. “I have always loved Indian music but as per tradition I would allow my senior to speak first.” Now most people had come to hear Anderson. But Chaurasia spoke for 20 minutes, explaining the difference between Indian bansuri and western concert flute, besides saying it was one of the best concerts in his life. Barring a few exceptions, including me, the journalists were fast asleep.
Anderson, being Anderson, quipped, “Oh it was like anybody’s first date. Nothing went right.” The journalists rose from their slumber. Chaurasia retorted, “Since I play the bansuri, I have many more Radhas, Miras and Gopis than you.” Anderson never got the joke till later. Neither did many reporters, ever.
Anecdote No 3 is personal. This was January 2010. I had taken a break from journalism but was in Chennai when he performed with saxophonist George Brooks, harp player Gwyneth Wentink and tabla exponent Fazal Qureshi. Thanks to the organisers, I met Chaurasia backstage, after years.
I touched his feet. And the way he greeted me was memorable. “Aama yaar kahan ho? Bahut din baad mulaqaat hui. Dekho, Ishwar ne mujhe bahut kuch diya hai. Sangeet, naam, thoda dhan. Kaash tumhare jaise kaan mil jaate mujhe. (Where are you my friend? Meeting after such a long time. Look, God has given me a lot. Music, name and some wealth. Hope he had given me your ears).”
Obviously, that has to be the best compliment I have ever received, and it will stay with me forever. And Hari-Ji, your music shall do so. Happy 80th Birthday, once again.