Speaking about Chinmay Lahiri inevitably means speaking about his teaching abilities. We used to say that he is a philosopher’s stone. Everything he touched would turn to gold. I have analysed his style. What he would do is, if he saw someone who was talented, dedicated, and disciplined, he would most certainly train this person and make them great at what they do. Now if someone has no potential, then no matter how much they are trained, and how much they practice, they can only go so far. Yes, you might say that such a person will become a good listener. Good listeners are also very important. We need people who can understand good music. Anyway, his training was very scientific. When we were young, he used to always say to us, “Practice Bistaar when you ate over forty years old.” At that time, we would only work on Sargam and Taan.
I had later spoken with a couple of doctors to corroborate his idea. He had told me that at that age the tissues in our throat are very flexible. He used to say, “Now you are young and you can run fast. But as you grow older, you’ll grow more rigid.” That is, the flexibility will decrease. So, if we practice Sargam and Taan at great speed now, even at the age of seventy, we could perform it if we practice properly. He used to say, “Bistaar requires maturity and intelligence. When you are more mature, you’ll see that you are performing a Bistaar on your own. The tune is important. If I perform a Bistaar for half an hour, then I’d perform the taan and sargam for one and a half hours. That was the ratio.
You know, there’s one thing I remember. He used to say, “How many can you do in one breath?”
No, it was a breathing exercise – kind of like what they call Pranayam these days.
No, no. Not like that. How many Sargams can you do in one breath? (SINGS). And increase the count.
But this is a breathing exercise.
For example, I started with seven and ended with sixteen. But that isn’t there anymore.
No, but this is our breathing exercise – drawing one long breath to see how much we can do.
Breathing exercises test how far we can sing in one breath. If we suddenly stop at a word in the middle, the entire meaning will change. But such things are not a problem for us because we have practiced like this. Breathing is a very important thing, but we got used to it because we practiced so much.
Then there was the question of modulating the voice onto a higher pitch. We were always told not to shout when singing, never to use our full sound. The voice had to be smooth. The voice would be kept intact and the volume would increase. He would always keep a mirror in front of my face. Sometimes, I wonder how far ahead of his time he was! When practicing a Taal, he would keep a bowl of water in front so that the jaw doesn’t move. He kept the mirror to see how the face looks. Does it look nice? Now it’s twisted. When we go to a higher pitch, we have to decrease the volume.
He was very young at that time- maybe 25 or 26 years old. He used to live at Dhumdhumar at Dhaka, where he used to work at the Radio also. At that time, the Chief Producer was Suresh Chandra Chakraborty, whose son later became the editor for Ananda Bazar Patrika. Suresh Babu had become a very important figure in the career of my father. He had helped my father with a lot of things including taking him to venues, organizing events for him, etc. It happened once that a person belittled my father’s Laykari and said that it was not a big deal to perform.
So he asked the audience to pick up their hands one by one in any random matra and he would take tehai, instantly from that specific matra. I still am getting Goosebumps thinking about that.
Everyone was ready to entrap him, and was raising their hands now and then and father kept on doing the Tehai accordingly. So this raged on like a storm for a long time. At that time, in our Khayal and also Bangladeshi Khayal, there was a mid part, right after the Bistar, it was rarely to be found on that time, there was bolbani in Dhrupadi style. I remember him doing it with Bol Bani (words), which together comprised of the Laykari. This too comprised of a number of Tehai and a number of improvisation Laykari in derhigun,dwigun, and chow gun. He attempted several of these Laykari and used to reach at the ‘Shom’ in an incredible way. This whole procedure was a unique one. You can’t imagine, I can still see it in front of my eyes while talking about it. He would do it with such ease. Players who were not accustomed with playing with him never got a chance in these times. So this was his style of singing. And later in life, he himself started to change and alter his style. During this time, people used to say that he acquired this style from Dilip Chandra Bedi. I have never met Dilip Chandra Bedi, though I have listened to his records and seen him at places. I remembered that he too did a variety of Palta. My father also worked with Palta and he also did a lot of Taana too. For example, he did the Gadda Ghashit Taana, Tehara Sapat,ChoukhaSapat, etc. All these experiments and innovations that father used to do were his brain child.
Among the elders, I have heard about Pt Ravishankarji, I have not seen his Riyaz (practise) personally. I heard that at the age of ninety-three, he still bathed in the morning and started his practise from 9a.m. to 11 a.m. He had that discipline throughout his life. I have seen Nikhil Banerjee also, every day he had to practise. I remembered one incident. His domestic help had committed suicide inside his residence. He, as usual, had completed his morning walk and while entering his house saw the body hanging under the stairs. He was a little bit short sighted and he touched the body to ascertain. Then the police came and all the hustle bustle started. Meanwhile Nikhil Banerjee had started his Riyaz at eight a.m. To him, ‘the police are doing their job, I am doing mine’. From eight a.m. to twelve -thirty he used to practise. It was a lesson in itself to hear him practise- as my Guruji advised us about tabla practise (bolparanta) to carry on in one tempo (laya) for minimum half an hour.
Other elders like Shamta Prasadji used to practise hard, I have heard the tales. Nikhil Banerjee as I knew him and played with him, practised vigorously. Just before the day of his death, in fact, even the day he died he practised. That very day, he returned from Dover Lane, he was feeling ill, but he kept practising. Then he said he was not feeling well and needed some rest. We had a feast, we had to go there. Then I returned home. In the evening a phone call came that he was no more. I have rarely seen such a riyaji person in my life.
Another person, I can recall, is Pt. Ajay Chakraborty. When he was practicing sapa?t ta?na, he was doing three thousand sapa?t ta?na and told us to keep count. He would do this and started sweating by the sheer effort. He is the first Bengali classical singer, I can say this with much pride, whom the rest of India accepted wholly. Yes, there were others earlier, the very best of singers, but they did not get accepted in classical brotherhood. Before Ajayda, there were Prasun Banerjee, a great singer, Tarapada babu was excellent, Pt.Vismadeb Chattopadhyay was unbelievably good. I will tell you anecdote about Pt.Vismadeb Chattopadhyay later.
Another Riyazi person was Arup Chatterjee, the tabla player who is also my friend. Another senior tabla player is Anindya da, who is very sincere about Riyaz. Kumar Bose is among other Riyazi players. Another tabla player, a little senior to me, is Kushalda, we toured together a lot and I know that Riyaz is his life. I have seen Nikhil Banerjee as well as Kushalda practising simple sargam. So, one day I asked him about it, I was very young then, and I used to ask such foolish things and he didn’t mind. So, I asked away, ‘why do you have to practice sargam very day?’ He answered that your Guruji Jnanbabu did not ask you to practice such simple things in the morning? ‘Yes’ I answered truthfully, ‘but why should you do it regularly? You are a master, I am a learner.’ So, he smilingly answered ‘Why? Am I out of this world?’
He had some grievances against Pt. Ravishankar but whenever I recalled his name, Nikhil babu was agitated and started grumbling. He used to tell me, “Don’t you talk about Robuda in front of me, I know you amused yourself by hearing such anecdotes. But you should know one thing for sure that if you want to listen to shudhhara?ga, if there would be a bakra?chalan even (in a ra?ga) he would maintain that. Neither me nor Pt. Ali Akbar (whom he used to call Dada) did maintain this. There is no doubt, no second thoughts about it that if you want to listen to pure Ra?ga, pure tempo (ta?la), he is the master (Pundit). I may have my personal grievances against him but do not mix these up.”So he taught me these things, but still we used to amuse ourselves sometimes.
I have always had the blessings of Khan sahib, I still do. Vilayat Khan is the main person. We used to live next to his house. One night, it was around midnight, my elder brother and I were practicing. My brother was playing the harmonium and I was playing the tabla. Suddenly we heard someone knocking on the gate. So we called out and asked who it was and what they wanted.
A voice answered, “People call me Vilayat Khan. May I come in?”
“Oh, Khan sahib, come in, come in.”
“Who is playing? They are playing well. I want to hear. May I come in?”
I had stopped playing.
“Oh, play dear man, play. I am like your elder brother. Play. Let me hear it. You play well. Who taught you?”
I answered him.
“Hm. He is a great master. Why don’t you come over to my place? Visit me sometime. I have a younger brother. Make friends with him and practice with him as well.”
That is how he invited me to his home. I began to frequent his place. I used to meet Imrat Khan. One day he said, “Come, play with me. This is the beginning for you.”
-Was this in late ‘50s? ’57-58?
-It would be…the first time I went with him was in ’68…so this should be around ’64-65.
– This was happening at Park Circus? The entire thing? Both of you lived their!
-We used to do riyaaz. Then once or twice he took me here and there – to Patna and Allahabad. One day he suddenly called for me (AUDIO UNCLEAR) “Shankha, Guruji is calling, what’s the matter? He asked, “What are your plans for next week?”
I said, “I have no plans. I don’t even have a job.”
“Take this money, go to Bombay. You’ll accompany me to London.”
“Oh, you just go. You won’t have to do a thing. You’ll buy the tickets with me and go to Bombay.”
So I went to Bombay. Then one day he said, “Shankha, you really are something. You’ve at least studied in a school or college. How will you get your passport made from here? You’ll have to go to Kolkata for that.” I didn’t want it, but he said, “Oh, Khan sahib does this all the time. Now see what I do.”
da in Kolkata He filled up the form in Bombay and sent it to Sona. he was a gazetted officer. He got my passport made, and sent it back. I went off to London. That was the first time. Thus it began. There are so many stories!
Translated by: Sarbajaya Bhattacharya
Picture Courtesy: Pt, Sankha Chattopadhyay, Google