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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Through Jungles and No-Man's Land: On An Evening With Suranjana Bose

It was quite a few weeks now that I was planning my sister's trip to Mumbai. You see, I'm talking here of the famous Indian classical singer Suranjana Bose, the lady who has been recently awarded the Girija Devi Puraskar for Sarvottam Kalakar in Thumri. Please forgive me, but as for classical music, that's all the information and knowledge I have.

She was coming to Mumbai from her home in Kolkata, as there was a performance in Kalyan, Maharashtra, where she would be the honorary performer. For whatever reasons, in the end, it was me, Suranjana Bose, and my driver Santosh, who decided to embark on this journey, oops, actually adventure...and WHAT AN ADVENTURE it turned out to be!!!!

The organiser, I forget his name, but he was some Doctor, had informed us that he had arranged for our evening snacks and dinner, and confirmed if we were non-vegetarians, there would be a special dish of chicken on the menu. The performance was at 8 in the evening, and given that Kalyan is quite far from our place in Navi Mumbai, we decided it would be a safe bet to leave around 3 and reach there around 5, so that there was ample time for her to get acquainted with the assisting artists and practice. We headed out.

All was well. It was a nice sunny afternoon, and the two of us chatted up in the comfortable cooling of the car (there was no way we could keep the windows down at that hour and let the sun and the dust come in...naahhhh). We hadn't got together for years, just the two of us, and this drive seemed perfect to talk about everything and anything under the sun. It was going great. And we were looking forward to the evening, especially me, as I have never ever been to a pure classical concert (the only other one I had been to was Suranjana Bose's performance at The India Habitat Center, New Delhi, and that wasn't all classical either) and don't understand much of it (I can safely say that I'm illiterate in that department).

We were told the performance was somewhere in Kalyan, so when we were around that area, we called up the organiser, at whose place we were invited and who would be looking after us that evening, and lo and behold - here drops the first bomb - the performance isn't in Kalyan really, but just a little ahead, at a place called Ambarnath...For those of you who don't know how far that really is, just like we didn't know, its almost 10 kilometers ahead...(I checked it up on Google later).

Okay, we can handle that...Our driver was familiar with the area in Kalyan, but he had never been to Ambernath, so we all decided it would be a safe bet to keep asking for directions on the way. And so we started towards Ambernath....

The car hurtled towards the destination, evading potholes, then trying to evade bigger potholes, then going inside the potholes and desperately trying to come out, only to be gulped up by another, and inside the car, the strong insides of our bodies were now beginning to protest. Hanging on for dear life, both of us held on to the handles on the door, buckling ourselves up to try and get some safety out of the safety seat belts, but it seemed like the roads had different plans for us. For, not even for a minute, were we spared the third degree torture of roads that had barely seen anything except those small-town kind of trucks, vans and community rickshaws. It seemed the potholes had been lusting to have a taste of a proper car and there we were, three unsuspecting passengers in the middle of a hot dusty afternoon, a delicious bite of a car for each of the wide-mouthed potholes that lay in wait!!!!

We begged our driver to go slow, but the poor guy could literally not go any slower, we were, in any case, traveling at a speed that was merely a fraction above the normal speed of walking. So it was either this, or pushing the car and walking along. We preferred to be gobbled up sitting inside the car than getting devoured outside of it.

A long time passed. There was no trace of a human anywhere on the road whom we could ask for directions, there were no houses, no markets, no nothing, only barren brown hills on one side and a deep thick ominous looking jungle on the other. Not a single vehicle, human or signs of life.....Believe me, at one point, my sister was actually thinking of going back right then.

Finally, after a long long time, we found a police check post at a place that looked like the beginning of civilisation. By now it was already 5 in the evening, and we were starting to feel hungry and thirsting for tea (I can have tea at any time of the day or night, so that wasn't really an excuse for me). My sister said that the first thing we would have to do was reach there, if we ever managed to, and have a cup of tea, otherwise her voice would just not come out of that parched throat. Right! Same here.

We followed the directions that my driver had got from the policemen at the chowki, and headed out again towards the jungles. The roads finally showed signs of homes and living, but as we kept going further in, it all started becoming more and more confusing, as we could see we were headed towards a place of nothingness. My sister, who performs in places like The India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, at prestigious places in Kolkata, and frequently is called to the US to perform and conduct workshops, felt this was an adventure of a lifetime, one she had never expected, and one she would not be taking in the future. But she agreed it was some experience!

Finally, the directions seemed too confusing, and we decided to check with locals. So my driver promptly rushed out and asked a few guys. And he came back with this - sabney alag alag bola (everyone gave a different direction!) Wow.....So not only were we not understanding the area, the directions and the entire scenario, even the performance time was almost reaching closer. And there was no sign of anything. Each time we tried calling the doctor, he would convince us that the place was 'just ahead', with special emphasis on the word 'just'. It had been quite not just for the last 40 minutes to an hour that we had been wandering like crazies in the middle of jungles and no-man's land. We were pissed, super pissed.

Finally, we decided to go with the direction of one of the persons that seemed remotely sane. We headed out again, clutching on to the handles, our seat belts trying to stop us from rattling in our seats. Finally, the organiser asked us to wait at a point, and said he would come and escort us himself. So began the wait......

We were in the middle of what can safely be called a Maharashtrian village. There was something like the village chowk in the middle of the road, and all vehicles had to go around it. There was a local sweet shop with stacks of sweets on display, the flies tasting them first before letting the buyers decide if they were good enough or not. No one seemed to mind. There were old women in the traditional lavani sarees, walking, haggling, arguing, talking, selling, buying, just going about their business. There were the usual village-style road romeos, we spotted a few Hrithiks, Johns, Salmans and Shahrukhs in the tiny dusty lanes of Ambernath.

And then cometh the real one - he steppeth out of his white car (I didn't get the make), and he walketh towards us, a smile on his face, a dance to his steps, a sideways tilt to the head - and he extends that hand. Duh!!!! And there says my sister 'Well, finally we see the real hero of the village. Looks like this will be the most entertaining part of the day.' A brief nod.

And hello, if you thought we'd reached, correction - we were still about 15 minutes from his house. So we followed his car (I still didn't get the make) and suddenly, both my sister and I and the driver too, realised that we HAD been traveling on this route for quite some time, in fact, this was one of the places we had been going around in circles, but someone had very confidently sent us somewhere else. Amazing, isn't it, how much potential a single afternoon has to give you some experiences?!

At his house, we realised none of the practising artists had yet arrived. So it was Suranjana Bose, me, the organiser, his wife and his old mother (who wore the traditional lavani saree and who didn't speak anything except Marathi). So followed almost half an hour of sitting, with them staring at us, us looking at the tiles on the floor, the walls, the fan, the ceiling fan, the floor fan, the table, the newspaper on the table, and basically anything that did  not have those three faces on them, coz we knew those faces were on our faces all the time! Then followed a monologue from the organiser of why Ambernath was the best place in the world for him, why he chose to live there, what all he was doing for the community, what all he had done to preserve the spirit of music (both of us thought that was really a commendable effort on his part) and then gave us marathi magazines to read, all the while saying that he knew we didn't know the language and that he was sorry the magazine didn't have anything in english....aaahhh, the bulb lights up!

And then my sister did ask for tea, and as it arrived, I gulped it down, though I didn't like it, but still, it was some tea, and I was glad I was given the same. What was confirmed as snacks was actually a plate of poha cooked up in the kitchen, that too only to be given later when the others arrived....there goes my sad hungry tummy!

Then arrived the musicians, and every single soul in the house was marathi, except us, which was okay, but what was not okay was the fact that they were all speaking in their native tongues, looking at us, talking about us, and talking amongst themselves, while we sat there like two room decorations. Then my lovely sister had a thought....why not speak in bangla at the top of our voices too! So we started speaking - dekh koto kotha bolchhey (see how much they are talking), aabar chaa khaabi? (will you have tea again?), dekhi ke beshi jorey boley (lets see who speaks the loudest)...ya ya ya ... i know it looks like we had already lost it by then, which we kind of had!

Once the initial hullabaloo was over, it was a fun session of practice.The voice, the tabla and the harmonium came together to create a magic in that unknown house in the middle of nowhere, and suddenly, even though I didn't understand any of it, I quite liked it.

The event actually turned out to be much better than we had expected. Of course there were the usual few limitations, but the audience truly understood and appreciated the music, not like me, and my sister loved interacting with some of them.

And guess who became her biggest fan that evening? None other than my driver, Santosh, watching the performance with rapt attention. Throughout our drive, his biggest concern was how will Suranjana Bose sing in hindi when she can't speak hindi? But once the event was over, he said he felt like he had been transported to the India that was 200 years ago, that this was the first performance of his life that he sat without getting up even once, and enjoyed to the core!
By the way, he told me that in future, whenever Suranjana Bose is performing in Maharashtra, he will be going, and if I'm not going, then he'll take a leave and go! Huh!

Post performance, our grand dinner (the one that had been planned over the phone even) turned out to be a plate of Maharashtrian khichdi and two small gulab jamuns. I can not tolerate spice, and through that plate of food, I was jumping, my face all red, and I was writhing in pain, but I could not give it up, I was quite hungry.....another page to our adventurous experience together.

By the time we were done, it was already past 11pm, and we knew what awaited us once the car headed towards home. The long stretch of land that had seemed so desolate and barren in the light of the day, would now be a scene straight out of a typical masala movie......

The single beam of headlights shone on the road as the car ran ahead at high-speed, jumping over the potholes, rattling, shaking, begging to come down to stable earth, but that was not to be. As this, our driver told us, was an area that was home to all the local goons and gangs, and under no circumstances was he going to slow down the car, no matter how uncomfortable we got. So followed about 30 minutes of hell, with dark ominous hills overlooking us at one side, and the dark never-ending stretch of jungles on the other. And the 02 of us huddled at the back seat, quiet, our bodies lowered so that we were not quite visible at the window.....I dont recall that I've ever had such a sample of 30 minutes in my life ever.

Finally, some time after 1 in the night, we reached home. What initially started out as a regular evening of music and performance turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life, not necessarily in the bestest of ways. And I can say the same for my sister too!

- Debolina Raja

And like I always believe in and say:
"Heal the world we live in
Save it for our children" - MJ

- Debolina Raja Gupta