THE SILENCE SINGS - Ashgari Bai
Every movement, every recollection, every gesture of
Ashgari Bai's is tinted by the sepia tones of yore - a past that was grand, a patronage
that was magnanimous, and a life that was led in the upper circuit of quasi-lunatic
The 86-year-old dhrupad singer is a curiously lonely figure today in the small town of Tikamgarh in Madhya Pradesh. Yet when she starts talking, nostalgia starts prancing around like a five-year-old. "I must have been five or six years old when Siddheshwari Devi was singing in the durbar here," she says, standing in the mehfil hall of the now near-abandoned Tikamgarh fort, where she grew up and spent her glorious years.
"Dressed in dirty clothes," she continues, "I kept craning my neck in order to catch a glimpse of the great singer from outside the hall." Noticing the little girl, Raja Veer Singh Judev called her in and made
her sit on his lap. When someone asked him who the girl was, he declared that she was his lost sister.
That declaration was the beginning of a relationship that was immeasurably precious to her. So precious that, she says, "On his death, I stopped singing completely. I felt abandoned the way I had never felt before, not even after my brother's death."
Shattered, she gave up singing altogether for the next 16 years.
However, this silence was the only parenthesis in Ashgari Bai's music; there have been no commas, no semicolons, and never a full stop. Not even till this day, when the old powerful voice has given way to
a rich but feeble invocation of the ragas she learnt from her guru, Ustad Zahur Khan.
"He was a perfectionist beyond compare. He would not tolerate a false note, a wrong tempo, or a semi-perfect rendition," she remembers. The smallest mistake received dire punishment - she has had her fingers and even toes broken by severe canings. "When he used to get into a rage and cane me,
the ustadini (the guru's wife) used to rush to protect me, but even she couldn't prevent the canings!", Ashgari remembers.
>From the age of five-and-a-half, she was thus baptised into a tradition that stood for rigorous training and blemishless sadhana. "For the first 15 years, my ustad taught me the nuances of ragas and raginis. Then, realising that I had a great control over the mathematics of taal, maatra and rhythm, he started teaching me dhrupad.
"And with what love, affection, discipline and dedication he taught me! In my time, I knew my taal-maatras better than anybody. I could juggle them around up to 84 different permutations and the most difficult of combinations." The voice that has lost most of its flexibility and elasticity today still tries to demonstrate tihaais (a tihaai is one-third of a rhythmic cycle), of 4, 8, 10, 2 l/2 and 8 1/2 maatras, each more difficult than the other.
On the terrace of the durbar hall of Tikamgarh Fort, Ashgari Bai chews on her finely cut suparis as she surveys the all-too familiar scene and the slanting rays of the winter sun cast a glow on her woollen shawl and her face, bathing her in a golden hue. As she casts her mind to days gone by, her eyes slowly shut in recollection and she lapses into an almost involuntary "Wah!" as the echoes sweep over her with the tingle of a thousand lost sensations.
"This terrace is where I have attended countless mehfils. Basant (Spring), Phaag (Holi) and Dussehra were the occasions when this terrace durbar would come alive. There would be dozens of top-class classical musicians and the concerts could go on endlessly. In each and every concert here, I performed
amidst a string of "wah-wahs". I always did my guru and patron-brother proud,' she says, the recollection of the pleasure filling her face.
THE PAIN BEFORE PERFECTION
Exciting and regarding though it was, that phase of her life was not without its torturous pangs. As a student of a ruthless and disciplinarian guru, Bai would always find herself at the receiving end of his
"Once, when I was 13," she remembers, "I was fascinated by the kajal my ustad's sister put in her eyes. On my request, she put it in my eyes, too. But once the ustad caught sight of it, he got my head shaven on the roadside as a punishment. And I acquired nicknames like mudu mudu gadhaiya (shaven donkey), udari galgal (plucked chicken) and so on. As a result of the cumulative humiliation, I never came out of my house and that made me concentrate more on my music. That's the way the gurus used to inculcate
discipline and training in those days."
The incident, however humiliating it was then, acquires a degree of raconteur value today, when she compares the seriousness with which she learnt her music and the frivolity of the wannabe, or even the practising musicians of today, especially those who have no control over their music or music instruments. For Bai, control and mastery, not just over music, but over whatever you learn, is of monumental importance.
It is this devotion that has brought her awards like the Shikhar Samman, the Tansen Puraskar and the Padmashree.
But awards and accolades are mere frills in comparison with what her dhrupad sadhana has given her. Music has taken her to various corners of the country and many places abroad. Yet, Ashgari Bai has never bothered to promote herself.
Bai is a lonely woman today. Gone is Raja Veer Singh Judev, who would patronise musicians like her at the Tikamgarh and Orcha durbars. Gone is Brahmachariji, an offbeat nude sadhu in Tikamgarh, with whom she had years of musical togetherness.
Gone, with these, are the dozens of musicians and connoisseurs who could offer an appreciative "wah" at the right point of excellence. And finally, gone, almost, is the voice which, with its invocations, would cast a unique spiritual spell over her audience.
What is left today are mere memories.
And troubles. Financial problems tie her down endlessly, but Bai is too proud and self-respecting to search for help. What sustains her is her invaluable treasure - her music and her memories. And of course, the silence that contains all of these.
ASHGARI BAI, the incomparable dhrupad singer, alone with her memories, talks to BRAHMANAND SINGH of the glory and passion of days gone by.
[A 45-minute documentary, Echoes Of Silence on Ashgari Bai has been produced by Pace Productions and directed by
Priti Chandriani and Brahmanand Singh.]Newsgroups: rec.music.indian.classical
Subject: The Silences Sings - Ashgari Bai
Date: 31 Mar 1999 16:48:31 -0500
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