The Intensive Care Unit of C. S. Hospital is a very quiet place, if you are willing to ignore the rat-a-tat of life support equipment and the occasional buzz of an alarm sounding off. Tangled in a cobweb of wires and tubes lay Panditji – the great classical singer, Padma Bhushan Dr. Ram Lal Dhanvantari or Dhana-sahib, as he is popularly known. He was alternating between consciousness and oblivion – almost exactly like how he would glide between high notes and low notes in his concerts. The stroke he suffered two days ago has really reduced him to little more than a vegetable.
Even last week he gave a soulful concert in Agra, against the backdrop of the Taj. It was well attended, with rows and rows of VIPs straining to listen to him. There was no hint that he would soon be cut in half and thrown to the dogs like this. He could even recall every word of the Chief Guest, in spite of the powerful sedatives fogging up his memory.
“The ancient Dhanvantari healed people with his medicine.” The Chief Guest spoke “And our modern Dhanvantari-ji heals people with his music….”
“India has not seen a musician like Pandit Dhana-sahib in the last hundred years.” He continued “And we will not see another one like him even if we waited another hundred years. He is god’s gift to our country. He is Krishna’s flute…...”
Krishna’s flute? What an imaginative figure of speech!!
Panditji was immensely pleased. Although he has heard every single word of praise that there is in the dictionary, they still surprised him by coming up with something new like this. But then, he was no ordinary musician. He was a master performer and a legend. The magic man who held the entire concert hall in a hypnotic trance.
In fact, so powerful is the Dhana-sahib mystique it always produced maximum effect every time he unleashed it.
His image started with his get-up. His exotic, crisply ironed silk kurta became his trademark. The prominent dot on his forehead, his neatly dyed and well-groomed jet-black hair and the numerous rings on his fingers symbolized him. The seductive smell of attar added to the effect. He was a celebrity, an icon and a brand name. all rolled into one. Isn’t music all about showmanship?
He would even time his entry on the stage. It has to be dramatic. As he glided to the center of the stage with folded hands, the crowd would break into loud claps and cheers and he always took this to be an endorsement of his tremendous popularity. He would then carefully squat on the plush carpet and reach for the microphone. That would always silence the audience.
“Check, check” he would almost croon into the mike, his falsetto voice barely above a whisper. The audience would hush even more. He would continue in the same thin, faint voice – welcoming the crowd and thanking his sponsors and getting into details like the house lights being too bright. If he was in a mood for it, he would throw in a weak joke or an inane anecdote – or even some quasi-philosophical pronouncement.
“A musician cannot not be a musician” he told his Agra audience “Even the croaking of a frog is tuned to Komal Re (rishab). You climb a staircase to the beats of Teen tal and when you sing, you feel that even the chairs and sofas are actually listening to you. The musician always finds music in everything …..”
Another big round of applause.
And at one point in his speech he would always point his finger toward the sky.
“It is all His doing.” he would go on “I am doing nothing. He is manipulating me. He is controlling my pitch, my surs and my gamaks. I am just a lowly servant of His, on a mission to spread joy to humanity”.
More claps. More cheers.
His manipulation? Spreading joy? Hogwash!!! The Panditji felt a quiver deep down his guts.
Who are you kidding, Ramu? Isn’t it all about money, fame and ego? How many times have you given shoddy performances and half-baked concerts just because some little thing put you off? In the final analysis, aren’t you just a fake? A ruthless businessman who would even sell the raag Ahir Bhairav for an ounce of gold?
Whose is this little voice that is mocking him and make him doubt himself? Could it be the damned medications?
Panditji’s befuddled thought processes tried to fight back. Why should I not be a shrewd businessman? There is no way to survive in this world otherwise. I am doing what a computer engineer would do. There is nothing wrong in making sure that I don’t get short-changed. I can do that while having a divine experience….
Stop, Ramu. We are going to look at everything. Absolutely everything - on this day of your judgment.
When the Panditji woke up next, he was transported back to his Gurukul days in Acharya Gaumukhi’s little farmhouse by the river Jamuna. It seemed like it was only yesterday. The Acharya was a very serious man – and an extremely learned one - who lived and breathed music. Besides Ramu, there was only one other student, Chandra Mohan, a few years older to him. The two of them shared all the household duties – right from fetching water from the river, to washing clothes, to helping the Acharya’s wife in kitchen chores. With Acharya’s strict upbringing – on top of a grueling apprentice-ship - those years were definitely very intense – and somewhat traumatic for Ramu.
Chandra Mohan’s father came by the Gurukul several times a year, carrying all kinds of gifts and fruits for the Acharya, whereas his own father would come just once a year. Panditji’s memory wandered over to the few times his father came to the Gurukul. Those were truly horrible days!! Each time it was the same thing. The Acharya would complain at length about him to his father. And his father would walk up to him and slap him a few times, to appease the Acharya. And then disappear until the next year, paying only a measly amount of money for his schooling. Once or twice, Ramu tried to hide when his father came. But they always hunted him down and caught him. Why was his father so poor? And why wasn’t he born into a rich family? One day – just one day - I too will make money - a lot of money. I will have so much money I will never, never, never run out of it, Ramu would resolve.
Chandra Mohan and Ram Lal were as different as can be. Ramu caught butterflies and sometimes even dismembered them, whereas Chandra Mohan admired them from a distance. After long and strenuous hours of practice, he and Chandra Mohan would sit by the river and chit-chat till it was time for the next round of singing. Sometimes half burnt dead bodies would float by and Chandra Mohan would look away. He would rather enjoy the serenity of the flowing river. He was the mature and gentle youth and Ramu was the other boy who made trouble and was difficult to handle. How many times has he used sly tricks to make Chandra Mohan do more than his share of work around the Gurukul?
Music training would go on almost around the clock. Right from the wee hours of the morning – one exhausting lesson after another. Some drills took forever and Ramu would be bored. By any account, Chandra Mohan was the better student and Ramu got most of Acharya’s cruel punishments.
“You think this is severe punishment? I can tell you what my Acharya used to do. He would starve us till we got to sustain the tivra ma note for five full minutes” the Acharya would lecture Ram Lal “Chandra Mohan is going to carry forward the torch of Amirpur Gharaana. You are at best going to be singing in some Maharaja’s vanity court or become a low grade artiste in All India Radio. You sing poorly, but somehow expect everyone to appreciate it and shower high praise on you.”
No wonder Chandra Mohan got Acharya’s special attention. Ramu remembered the time when the Acharya took Chandra Mohan aside and taught him the song ‘Hari darshan ki’. Ramu begged and pleaded with the Acharya to be included, but the Acharya felt the song was too difficult for a simple-minded student like Ramu .
Such humiliation would instantly trigger a rush of hatred for Chandra Mohan. The Panditji remembered some of the terrible things he had done to him – like the times he soiled his Acharya’s clothes and Chandra Mohan got blamed for not washing them well. Or that time when he poked a hole in the harmonium and framed Chandra Mohan for it. The Acharya was so furious he beat up Chandra Mohan senseless.
But Chandra Mohan never retaliated. Or held any grudge. He even taught Ramu ‘Hari darshan ki’. And today, this song is a highlight of Dhana-sahib’s repertoire. People would swoon when he performed it on stage.
Isn’t it that Chandra Mohan would sing that song much more beautifully? Some of his glides and vibratos were so amazing even then. I can never equal him even now, the Panditji reflected. How many things has he taught me! And how many times has he stood by me.
Maybe when I get out of the hospital – and not float by the Jamuna as a half-burnt body - I should get back in touch with Chandra Mohan and have a long chat with him, Dhana-sahib promised himself.
The Acharya was proven grossly wrong. In two ways. First, Ram Lal moved to Delhi and his rise was nothing less than meteoric. That was the time when a classical music renaissance was taking shape in Delhi and the obscure, but rich musical style of Amirpur Gharaana caught the fancy of many classical music lovers. Indeed the Acharya had taught them so much that Ram Lal not only achieved stage success, but went far beyond that.
He was as much a social climber as he was a deft musician. He made sure he hung around the glitterati – the bigwigs who ran the Delhi Music Conclave, the movie stars, the persons who mattered. The haute society embraced Dhana-sahib with open arms. He pandered and pleased the most powerful of his patrons, while carefully cultivating an image as a lively and charismatic musician who performed, instead of merely singing. He was a consummate politician who cut down his rivals and marginalized his potential competitors.
He was bestowed a string of honors – awards, cash prizes, honorary doctorates, tours to foreign countries whose names he can’t even remember, Rajya Sabha membership and a Padma Bhushan. When it rains, it pours!! Every year he got a new title and a higher fee. His shrewd investments in property and gold made him quite wealthy.
And simultaneously, Chandra Mohan just dropped out. Panditji heard vague rumors that Chandra was somewhere in district Gorakhpur, eking out a living as a music teacher. He saw him last at Acharya’s funeral – more than twenty years ago!! He wanted to gush out to Chandra Mohan and make peace with him, but something made him hold back and look over Chandra’s shoulders. This time he was not going to hold back.
Feel guilty, Ramu! That a second rate musician like you has become so successful while a true talent like Chandra Mohan is having a pitiful existence today. Can it be that all the nasty things you did to him drove him up the wall and resulted in his downfall? Did you steal his success?
Oh, little voice, be quiet!!!
And Dhana-sahib’s audience lapped up his mannerisms. His temper tantrums and sanctimonious lectures are equally legendary. It is all a part of the Dhana-sahib cult – his trademark, if you will. In fact, they even come to the concert halls half expecting the Panditji to display his fireworks. The more he yelled and screamed at the audience, the more quiet they became – and more they believed that they were getting a better performance out of the Panditji. He expected a military-like discipline from his audience. Anyone caught chatting in the back rows would get a firing – and sometimes, even got thrown out.
“I am not harassing anyone. Classical music is not something that you put in a juke box and dish out. The musician will always have to be personally in command.”
If anyone’s cell phone dared to ring, that person would get the death sentence.
“Sir, this is concert hall. Not your office.” He would chew up the offender “But, go ahead. Talk. I will stop till you are done talking.”
He has been called a megalomaniac and a difficult person to deal with. In fact, once he even walked out because the organizers didn’t put enough saffron in his milk. He was also labeled the ‘perfect singer’ – one of the vanishing breed - who demanded and got the classical ‘respect’ out of patrons of music.
“He is the reason why classical music is even surviving in India. He is the guardian of arts.”
Adulation came from all quarters.
That may be so, Ramu. But why are you particularly nasty to people who dare criticize your singing? Remember the time when a critic described your concert as ‘a flat and unexciting recital ..….. and that your musical phrases are not thrilling any more’?
Yes, Panditji remembered everything. He phoned the newspaper immediately and lambasted the reviewer.
“Do you know the difference between ati vilambit and madh-vilambit? Do you know the difference between a cow and an elephant?”
Not only did the reviewer apologize, but even the newspaper editor apologized and sent you a personal note the next day. The same critic will probably write your obituary - that Dhana-sahib’s amazing voice is silenced forever on this earth….it is a tragic loss for music lovers everywhere.
The next round of consciousness and the Panditji found himself in a dusty, nameless village with his father and a dozen of his relatives. They were pointing to a demure girl at a distance and told him that she was Bimla Devi and she was going to be his wife.
The wedding went on for several days and the entire village turned up to celebrate it. Right after that, Panditji remembered he and his bride getting into a horse carriage and riding home on a dirt track. There was romance in the air and he was pretty sure that raag Zila Kafi was playing somewhere in the background.
But five years later, when she still did not bear him any child, every moment with her seemed like a waste and a punishment. She was an embarrassment and became the wife he cannot be seen with in public.
Ramu, so many times in your concerts you have sung ‘Beloved, when will you come?’ with love and longing ness in your voice. Why haven’t you said that to your own wife? Why?
Sometimes media persons asked him about his wife.
“Is your wife also a gifted musician like you?” a reporter once asked him.
“You see, this is a musical household. Even my gardener knows music.”
What a liar you are, Dhana-sahib !!. Bimla Devi knows nothing about music. How many times have you belittled her and harassed her about it?
“But she has no time for music. She is always busy in the kitchen. The sweet that you are eating is her handiwork. She makes the best mithais this side of Allahabad”
Your back-handed compliments are not going to hide your true feelings about her, Ustad.
But, at least I didn’t fool around with other women, even though many women threw themselves at me, the Panditji tried to protest.
You didn’t philander because of your own inadequacies, Ramu, not because of your high moral standards. Face it. You are just a terrible husband!! And Bimla is such a devoted wife. She hasn’t even eaten the last two days. She has been keeping a vigil in the lobby outside ever since they hauled you into the ICU. Repent, Ramu!!
Then there was that listless summer day, when a man walked into Dhana-ji’s house with a boy.
“My boy, Jugal Kishore, can sing well, Acharya-ji.” The man told Panditji. “Please take him as your student. With your tutelage he can become a great singer. Of course, if he is no good, throw him out on the streets and let him become a cobbler.”
“Sing a song, son.” – Panditji.
The boy’s singing pleased Dhana-ji. He immediately agreed to take the lad as his disciple. At that time it seemed like a perfect solution – perhaps Jugal Kishore was the son he always wanted to have. Even Bimla Devi liked him. Panditji promptly renamed him Malhaar. Jugal Kishore was too unmusical. The boy’s father left and never came back after that.
But it was downhill from then on. Malhaar wasn’t cut out to be a singer. Any amount of coaching or punishment just did not improve his abilities any. In fact, right after his voice broke, Malhaar absolutely refused to sing and Panditji had to accept with great disappointment that he was not going to leave behind a musical legacy named Malhaar. From being a favorite son, Malhaar fell into the abyss and became just an errand boy who opened car doors for the Panditji or carried his flask and his tanpura.
Ramu, weren’t you so frustrated you hated Malhaar with all your heart? And how abusive you got with him sometimes.
Then one day, unable to take the indignities any more, Malhaar just disappeared – with about seven thousand rupees in cash. Dhana-ji was so beside himself that he didn’t even complain to the police.
“He is not my son, anyway.” he told his friends “I tried to give him life. He doesn’t want it. I never asked him to come. And I never asked him to go. He is legally an adult now. I am not bothered about him.”
Malhaar did come back after a year or so, with the seven thousand rupees. But the Panditji wasn’t interested in taking back the money – or Malhaar. Eventually, after much imploring, he did forgive Malhaar somewhat. But the damage was already done and Panditji could only keep him at a distance. Malhaar found a menial job at the other end of town and moved out of Panditji’s house. Even then, he came by often and still did many chores for the Panditji. Didn’t he see Malhaar in the lobby outside with his many fans and well-wishers? Or someone just like him?
It was almost midnight and a new set of nurses and doctors were taking over ICU duties. Nurse Renu has just finished giving instructions to nurse Poonam about the patient in bed number eleven – Pandit Dhana sahib. Renu was telling her that he was still not out of the woods. In the display behind, they could see the rhythmic dance of his ECG trace. His pulsoximeter was fluctuating like the nuances of a musical phrase.
“Ladies and gentlemen, heeeere’s Pandit Ram Lal Dhanvantari-ji once more!!”
Could she have imagined it, nurse Renu tried to reason with herself. It sounded like an announcement of sorts, like a radio or a TV was on. She looked around. No, nothing was on. But where did it come from? Did the duty doctor say something? No, Dr. Gupta just stepped out and there was no male at all in the ICU at the moment. Why is the hum of the ICU machines sounding almost like the tanpura and other musical instruments warming up for a musical concert, she wondered.
“This may sound bizarre, Sister Poonam” Renu told her “But I can hear voices….actually, more like a crowd inside a theatre or something. Maybe I am just imagining…”
Poonam cocked her ears to listen. “Oh, wait, even I can hear it. Look Renu. The Panditji has grabbed his IV line and talking into it, like it is a microphone or something. This is out of the world.”
“Oh, yes. How strange!!”
“Where? What are you ladies talking about?” the ICU technician came over and tried to see “I can see nothing. He looks like he is in deep sleep. He is not even stirring.”
The commotion attracted even the cardiologist, Dr. Sinha to the Panditji’s bedside. “This is so surreal. Even I can hear everything - loud and clear. Shh. Quiet. The musician is going to say something.”
Panditji is speaking !!!
“I am going to dedicate my final song to several people.” He began his little speech “First, to my Guru, Acharya Gaumukhi. I owe it all to him. And I am going to ask my dear friend and older brother Pandit Chandra Mohan to sing with me – wherever he is. I am sure he can hear me. Even though he is not very well known, he is ten times more talented than I am. I want to pass the torch on to him……… all recording companies, please rush out and sign him. He is the future of our music. Brother, as a mark of my love and respect for you, I am going to sign away all my royalties to you and your family.”
A big round of applause.
“You guys over there. Keep it quiet. You are going to disturb the other patients.” – Dr. Gupta. He is back in the ICU.
The Panditji continued. “And next, I am going to dedicate this song to my foster son Malhaar – the son I am so proud of…..I know you are not very interested in music Malhaar, but all the same……And son, I am also going to give you my Lucknow home as a mark of my love for you. You are so close to my heart….”
Again a loud applause. Dr. Sinha and the nurses were clapping too.
“You guys are crazy. There is absolutely nothing going on in bed number eleven. I see nothing at all. You are just imagining things. Get back to work – NOW!!” – Dr. Gupta.
The Panditji cleared his throat for effect and kept going.
“In America, they always say ‘my beautiful wife’ . I have a beautiful wife too – Bimla Devi. Please stand up dear. This song is dedicated to you too.”
Thunderous ovation. Renu and Poonam clapped the loudest.
“I have a surprise for you dear. We are going to go on our much-delayed honeymoon to Switzerland. And this is one trip where no tablaichi or Tanpura strummer is going to come along” .
“Ladies and gentlemen, my final song is a folk song. A kajri in Raag – Mishra Mand
The raag Mand goes ‘Sa Ga ma pa dha ni sa Sa ni dha pa dha pa ni dha pa ga ma ga re sa.
In Mand, the phrase Ga Ma Ga Re Sa comes often. This is a light classical piece”
jhir jhir barase saavan ras buu.Ndiyaa.N
ki aa_ii gaile na ab barakhaa bahaar
Cluck cluck fall the raindrops
For, the rainy season has arrived!
(ab barakhaa bahaar ki aa ii gaile na)
”My god, Sister Poonam! How well is the man singing!”
”Yes Renu. Can’t believe it. He must be confusing the sounds of the ventilator machine with the drum beat. He thinks he is in a concert.”
“Who is singing? The musician? You must be dreaming. To me he looks still … and fighting for his life. You must be hallucinating … just like him.”
“Can’t you hear it? Look at his lips move. His voice is rising.”
“Ab barakhaa bahaar ki aayi gaii na. Come on everyone. Clap and dance.
Feel the rains!! Soak ii in!!! Don’t just sit in your chairs. Sing along. This raag is anyway a mishra, so any extraneous note is okay……Sir, you ….in grey kurta, it is okay if you talk on the cell phone. It could be an important call. I won’t think anything of it. Come on guys, clap!!!”
“Doctor, I too can see that he is really singing.” – the ward boy.
“Hey, come down to the ICU. Remember that famous musician who had a stroke ? He is actually singing in his bed. Unbelievable!!!”
(Dhan dhan baman…
Ki kab aiii hai ab piyaa hamaar
O brother, ask the astrologer to read the portents:
When will my lover come to me?
Ki kab aiii hai, ab maut hamaar)
When will my death come to me?
Death?!?! This line is not in the lyrics!
“He is getting loud. He is going to disturb the other patients. Increase his sedation.”
“No no. He is alright. Music can be therapeutic to other patients too. So, let him sing. He should tire himself out soon.”
“Can we have some sanity here please? Nobody is singing. You are all experiencing mass hysteria.”
By now, a sizable crowd has gathered around the Panditji’s bed. Bimla Devi was straining against the glass window to peer inside, desperately praying that nothing terrible was going on.
“This is even more bizarre. He is kind of becoming younger!” – nurse Renu, again “His wrinkles and grey hair are gone. He looks only forty-ish”
“Wow!! Look how rapidly he is getting even younger. He is almost a young man now. He looks very cute.”
“You guys must be crazy. He looks the same. He is not becoming young or anything. You are not in a seedy bar. This is the ICU, for heaven’s sake and patients need your attention. If you fool around any more, I am going to report you to the authorities”
“Look he has already become a baby!!”
“He is starting to throw his clothes away. Watch it, he is chucking the hospital gown.”
“For the last time - he is remaining still – like he always was. You guys must be smoking dope. Get out of here. Poonam, you need to replace his bag in a few minutes.”
“He is throwing his little kurta, he is taking off his diapers. He is throwing off his name tag.”
“Where? He is not!!”
“Oh, watch it!!. This devil of a child is throwing all the CDs around. That is Panditji’s favorite one – the Kirwani he sang in London.” Bimla Devi was wailing from the lobby.
In a few minutes, the child was done tossing his clothes – and all the CDs. He was buck naked, except for the beautiful smile on his face. Then he slowly toddled his way toward the bright lights and beautiful angels on the other side of a magical portal. At the exact moment little Ramu crossed the mystical threshold, the ECG machine went flat and the oxygen saturation level dropped to zero. In a few hours, the hospital sent the mortal remains of Pandit Dhanvantari in an ice box to be cremated in his native village.
The world woke up to the news that Pandit Dhana-sahib was no more. “It is a great loss for music lovers everywhere. ….” They wrote in the newspapers “Dhana-sahib’s amazing voice is silenced forever on this earth …...but it is now playing in heaven for all the gods.”
They are very wrong. The heavens only hear the childish babble of baby Ramu.
Author’s note: My thanks to internet sources for the lyrics and translation of the kajri.