The cover is stark, predominantly black with just a view of the back of a woman with a long braid, her right hand holding a tanpura. The long dark braid almost touches the floor where she sits, wearing a classic white sari. The blurb says "Fantastic! A must for every musician and music lover! Pandit Ravi Shankar". Priyanka (of Evening Hour bookstore) recommended the book to me and I will be forever grateful to her for bringing this into my life.
The simplicity of the cover carries into each page of this memoir, written by Namita Devidayal, a journalist based in Mumbai. The book takes us through her story, a young child encouraged by her mother to learn Hindustani classical music from an exponent of the famous Jaipur gharana. Namita takes us through the intricacies of Indian classical music in a simple story-teller fashion, weaving stories of prominent singers of the last 100 years into the origins of this stream of music, including the legendary Tansen.
Namita's teacher is Dhondutai Kulkarni, a woman whose life has been dedicated to her true calling, a classical singer, who sings not just for fame and glory but for that spiritual connection with the almighty, the shortcut that gifted musicians have to God with their "bhakti". The book is not just Namita's or Dhondutai's story but also of the various gurus who generously gave of their knowledge to their students, in an era where records and royalties did not exist. The power of music to transcend ordinary barriers of religion, class and other social mores are beautifully depicted through the interactions between the Khansahibs, Kesarbai and Dhondutai's own decision (encouraged by her father) to stay single and single-mindedly pursue her music instead of serving "Two masters - man and music."
For Mumbaikars, this book is a special treat as it describes Mumbai through the eyes of two generations; a big city, but one which was an incubator for talented musicians, where benefactors who were true art connoisseurs, provided a platform for genuinely talented artistes. The author brings to life this maximum city in a loving narrative with beautiful descriptions of Shivaji Park,Birla Matoshree Hall and the seedy neighborhood of Kennedy Bridge where the books begins.
As with great writing, all the stories are told in an open observational style, there is no preaching, no judging. It is almost a non-memoir because the author is not the star but just a narrator, of the present which is a logical continuation of the past. Namita discontinues her musical education as she moves to Princeton for college. But her connection with her guru resumes at a later time and evolves as Namita herself matures. The last few pages of the journey to the musical origins of Dhondutai's life in Kolhapur where teacher and student sing together in the Mahalakshmi temple are specially poignant.
My favorite parts of the book were the details of the origins of Hindustani music, the vignettes about famous artistes and of course, the nuances of the ragas. Many anecdotes of the power of music to directly take mere human beings out of the mundane world into the spiritual realm are intricately woven into the pages. At the same time, the petty competition among musicians and the stigma associated with women who performed on stage just a few decades ago are faithfully rendered.
I wondered about the title of the book, the significance of which does not come until much later into the narrative. It is a room where Dhondutai keeps her modest cassette player and a selection of recordings of her concerts. Dhondutai's life symbolizes what faith, commitment, and genuine talent that finds nurturing support can achieve even from a modest family origin. She may not have found the fame that Kesarbai did but she has superbly advanced the reputation of the Jaipur gharana by imparting her knowledge to her student Namita who has helped the flame burn brighter by bringing it to not just music-lovers but to book-lovers as well.