The Telegraph
Wednesday , August 14 , 2013
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Ailing English sitarist finds solace in sunset raag

London, Aug. 13: Mick Taylor, who is probably the most dedicated and best known English sitar player in the country, has always liked Raag Marwa but of late it has assumed special significance in his life.

Mick, who is scheduled to undergo a third regime of chemotherapy, reveals: “In November 2011, I was diagnosed with cancer — it is a particularly nasty type of blood cancer known as multiple myeloma for which, at present, there is no cure, and is, therefore, life-limiting.”

Playing the Marwa has become almost a metaphor for Mick’s life.

Never one to shy away from complicated raags as opposed to crowd-pleasing ones, Mick says: “The one — my signature tune if you like — becoming more and more relevant to me is Raag Marwa, which is a sunset raag. The mood is so beautiful because the sun is setting and this period of darkness is coming. Darkness represents all sorts of things — the unknown, all those doubts about things you don’t know. Now I can identify with it that much more.”

Just over a week ago, Mick and his Odiya-origin Kathak dancer wife, Alpana Sengupta, had a barbecue for family and close friends in the garden of their home near Wisbech in the Fenland countryside in Cambridgeshire, 193km from London. Alpana’s pupils, Indian and European, gave a dance performance to the music of Amitava Majumdar on the sarod and Shiv Shankar Ray on the tabla.

Mick did not perform since playing the sitar is now often physically too demanding.

Inside his house, Mick has his own jalshaghar — music room — and before sitting down to talk to The Telegraph, he pointed out one of his proudest possessions: a framed poster of his performance at the Satyajit Ray auditorium in Calcutta on September 23, 2009, during a tour organised by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations when he was billed as an “eminent sitar player of UK”.

“That’s quite something,” he says.

On a previous trip to Calcutta, which in his opinion has the most discriminating Indian music audience in the world, his journey to Kala Mandir was interrupted by flooding caused by a monsoon downpour.

“We were 45 minutes in Park Street,” recalls Mick, almost with nostalgia.

He remembers, too, that it was a Bengali who had once told him: “A non-Indian could never really learn to play the instrument.”

But with Mick, Indian music has not been a passing fad since he has been playing the sitar since 1969 when his life was changed by an encounter with Jack Carter, an English lecturer at the Hastings College of Art who had a sitar.

He “inspired me to take an interest in non-western music, principally Asian music”, explains Mick.

What irritated Mick was to be compared with George Harrison, who had taken up the sitar after meeting Ravi Shankar. “I have avoided The Beatles George Harrison kind of trip. I didn’t do a hippy trip to India and meet all sorts of gurus — (for me) it was like a personal journey, really.”

Though initially self-taught, he felt he needed a tutor who would give him “the key to the path I wanted to follow”.

First, it was Ustad Imdad Hussain Khan Hashmi in London, followed in 1980 by Ustad Imrat Khan, younger brother of the great Vilayat Khan. Mick, who had been following Imrat’s music, decided that was the style he wanted to adopt.

“I approached him and he asked me to bring my sitar and play for him, and it ended up as me being his personal manager for two-and-a- half years, arranging concerts,” says Mick.

“He was my way into this world of Indian music. I found out later that Imrat Khan was a little bit astonished to hear me play. Someone very close to him told me that he thought it was like listening to someone he had been teaching for 10 years. He was curious as to how I could grasp their gharana technique.”

Being diagnosed with cancer came as a shock. “You don’t know how to tell friends. Nobody knows why I got it; there isn’t a cure.”

Mick, now 64, and Alpana, who have been married for nearly 40 years, have a son, Arun, 38, a freelance television cameraman, and three grandchildren.

He is determined to remain positive — and think of others. “What I would like to do is maybe get some Indian musicians together, maybe hold a charity concert in aid of myeloma research.”