Saturday Story 10: Radha and her Shyam
Her fingers ran over the cool surface of the hollow bamboo, caressing the carefully engineered grooves. Bansuri was her friend, her constant companion, her muse, her very reason to exist. For the last 16 years Rachna Bharti had been inseparable from this instrument. And now, it was the day of reckoning. Do or die.
‘This is the most important performance of your life,’ said Guruji, when she sought his blessings.
Indeed, Rachna wasn’t feeling like her usual self. Her mind was frozen, her body felt numb. She knew only one thing – Bansuri had never let her down. The more you loved it, the more it loved you back. Producing sound which transported anyone who heard it, into another realm. The realm of the Gods.
After all, Bansuri was the instrument chosen by Shri Krishna, during his lifetime on this earth. It was once a humble folk instrument, played in the moonlight, under the peepul tree. If you closed your eyes you could imagine Murli Manohar and his gopis, performing the Raas Leela. But when Rachna closed her eyes she could see only one person: Ma.
She was a little girl, snuggled against a bosom. Ma’s cotton sari smelt of sunshine and 501 bar, coupled with the sweet scent of mogra in her hair. Every night she hummed the same lullaby to hush Rachna to sleep. That was her first initiation into music. The power of sound, to soothe, to stimulate, to leave a lasting impression. On the mind, and the heart.
“Sangeet chaaron taraf hai,” Guruji always said. “In the chirping of the birds, the whisper of trees.”
In the short span of 40 years, Harilal Prasad had established the flute as a pre-eminent instrument of Indian classical music. At par with the sitar, sarangi and sarod. His contemporaries marvelled at how he made it look so effortless. Coaxing the humble bamboo flute to release sound of such clarity, and complexity. In the style of dhrupad, and even khayal.
Rachna was just 8 years old, when she met Guruji. She was a lonely child, who had no interest in a roomful of toys. But one day, she picked up a wooden flute, bought at a fair for ten rupees. The moment she put it to her lips, was the moment her life changed.The sadness, and the pain, simply melted away. As she became one with the music.
Her father was quick to recognise this and put her under the stewardship of a teacher. Masterji came to him, just 6 months later, with an unusual request. He could no longer teach this child, for she was no ordinary student. Rachna beti must learn from the ‘best of the best’. He pulled some strings and lo and behold, here they were, in the presence of the great Harilal Prasad.
“Man hai to kuch baja kar sunao,” said the legend, to the little girl in a pink frock and pigtails.
Within 30 seconds, he knew this girl was destined for greatness. If only her father let her walk this difficult path. Music as a hobby, and music as one’s life – are two very different things. And a woman taking up the flute was practically unheard of. To Harlial’s surprise, the girl’s father was ready and willing. With folded hands, and tears in his eyes, he knelt on the ground.
“Harilal ji,” he said. “My daughter has been in shock, ever since her mother passed away. Only when she plays the bansuri, I see some life in her eyes…”
Entrusting his daughter to the guru, a father returned to an empty home, with peace in his heart.
And now, 16 years later, she was facing the Ultimate Test.
“You can start playing now,” said a voice. It was time to find out.
16 hours later
When Rachna was diagnosed with a brain tumour, her mind was in panic. Would she be able to play her beloved Bansuri after the craniotomy? The doctors had reassured her.
“We will perform ‘awake brain surgery’. You will play the flute during the operation, and guide us.”
Later, Rachna could recall the surgeons fiddling around with her right frontal lobe. But her most vivid memory was the presence of Murli Manohar.
Standing by her bedside, watching over her.
Inside the Musician’s Mind: This week, instead of my usual audio commentary, I am sharing a link to a wonderful documentary called ‘Romancing the Bansuri’ on the life and art of Hariprasad Chaurasia. I watched this in order to ‘get into the shoes’ of Rachna Bharti.