| Movement and discovery
For some time now, I've been meaning to write about how one work of art might catalyse, and bring into existence, another. I have two works in mind; both show ' and this is the reason for my interest in them ' that an artist's absorption, conscious or unconscious, of another artist's work can lead to a regeneration, a taking stock, and a change in direction in his or her own craft. It's not so much the business of influences I'm interested in, then, or valuation, but that change of direction and its moment; that instant of regeneration and the encounter and process of absorption and alchemy that led to it.
My thoughts, though, and my intention to write about them have been interrupted in the week that's just passed, interrupted by the death of a teacher greatly beloved to me (and to many others), A. Kanan; by the knowledge that I was neglectful of him in the last months of his life, hardly making time to see him; and that at least now I should find time to pay him homage. Into this, however, I will weave the story that's already been on my mind, of artistic regeneration, because I feel it forms an important part of the m'tier of A. Kanan. More of that later.
That voice was A. Kanan's. Although I saw Meghe Dhaka Tara again, it took me an incredibly long time to make the connection. In Poona, my wife (whom I didn't know then), a student at the university, saw the film herself at the FTII; struck by the same song and singer with the force of a revelation, she asked a friend at the Institute to identify both the singer and the raga. Hansdhwani and A. Kanan became, in effect, her entr'e into Hindustani classical music, of which she'd never been a serious listener before. It awoke a sort of quest; she wondered if recorded versions of these compositions were available. A student friend brought her a record of Ustad Amir Khan's Hansdhwani. Still in her first days of listening properly to Indian classical music, she was puzzled when she heard it; she couldn't understand why the record failed to move her. When we met in Oxford, and she learnt that I sang, A. Kanan and the Hansdhwani of Meghe Dhaka Tara became one of the first things we discussed; I heard this little story of discovery and disappointment then. A. Kanan was still to be my teacher; my first teacher, Govind Prasad Jaipurwale, had died in 1988; my visits to A. Kanan's house in the SRA compound began in 1991.
Ritwik Ghatak himself heard A. Kanan sing Hansdhwani in the great sarodiya Bahadur Khan's house (as the singer himself once told me, and as was reconfirmed to me recently by Ghatak's son). And, at the time, as A. Kanan had said to me, he also communicated to the singer a vision that must have crystallized in the course of the performance ' his intention to use his Hansdhwani in his next film. I don't think it would be too reckless of me to say that Ghatak had responded to A. Kanan's music not only as a lover of shastriya sangeet who'd been overwhelmed by that performance, but as an artist who was preoccupied with his own project, and perhaps at a crucial juncture in its conception; and that an artist's antennae, at such moments, are preternaturally sensitive to experiences and material ' including the work of another artist ' that might facilitate that conception.
Meghe Dhaka Tara would be a very different film, I think, if Ritwik Ghatak hadn't attended the concert that evening at Bahadur Khan's house. A. Kanan's voice, his music, even his biography and personality permeate and shape the film, and give it its poetic, dichotomous structure. On the one hand, we have the narrative of a particular kind of migration, of displacement, in the story of the family uprooted by Partition, resettled into a teetering existence in Calcutta; its waning star (like the star in the film's title) finding its emblem in the unravelling of the life of the older daughter Nita (played by Supriya Choudhuri), from schoolteacher and breadwinner, ripe for marriage, to consumptive invalid.
Then there's the other narrative of migration, counterpoint to the first, as told in Nita's elder brother Shankar's story; Shankar, the aspiring singer, who moves to Bombay, finds success, returns to visit his family, singing Hansdhwani; migration and travel not as loss or upheaval, but an affirmation of life, an extension of its limits. I don't think Shankar's character would resonate as it does if Ghatak hadn't had access to A. Kanan's personality and mythology; everything about the latter's appearance in Calcutta in 1940, as an emigrant from the South with a job in the railways, going against the grain of his own (Carnatic) music heritage in his enthusiasm for Hindustani classical music, desirous to learn the khayal from Girija Shankar Chakravarty, and, then, his transformation of the musical scene here ' everything in that story suggests that, for A. Kanan, both emigration and existence were forms of discovery. In the unforgiving landscape of the film, it's this possibility of movement and discovery that we see transmuted and reaffirmed in Shankar.
The auditory dimension of the film ' its soundtrack ' gives us its own version of this counterpoint. There is the noise and creak of mortality: the sound of the whiplash, the train's whistle, full of foreboding and trepidation, the croaking of frogs, Nita's consumptive cough, her panicky and desperate appeal to Shankar: 'Dada, ami bachte chai' ' 'I want to live.' On the other hand, both completing the film's dichotomy and defeating it, is A. Kanan's Hansdhwani, not 'wanting to live', but alive.
The revolutionary and radical import of A. Kanan's music in the film and outside it is something he possessed as a teacher and individual. It came from his commitment to two fundamentals: to the pre-eminence, in music, of sur (which is difficult to translate except as a complete adherence to, and immersion in, melody and perfect pitch), giving to everything else the secondary position it deserves; and his upholding and cherishing of the artist above the hierarchies that vitiate the musical profession in this country. These are this teacher's most difficult lessons.
The last time I went to see him was several months ago, on guru purnima, I think: I took with me a box of sandesh. He was asleep on the divan in the hall. Woken up by a servant, he said, 'Why did you bring these' Everyone is bringing sweets, I have too many ' you take some.' Accepting my packet, he gave me two in return. Then, beckoning to the servant to bring him the electronic tanpura, he began to sing, full-throated, as if the sleep had only been an interruption. 'I am singing very well,' he said. 'Come and listen to me in Sunny Towers next week.' He confessed to me: 'I want to sing.' The words had none of the plangency of Nita's appeal to her brother, but they had its urgency; and a quality of innocence, of simplicity, that artists and human beings achieve very rarely in their work or in their lives. Maybe it was to capture that innocence that I saw some of his students, recently at a sort of memorial service, imitate, lovingly, his way of speaking, the south Indian lilt of his Bengali; as if, by doing so, they could momentarily inhabit his voice, as Shankar inhabits Hansdhwani.