Even before I had turned a full-time journalist, while I was studying at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and lived in a hostel on the campus, I used to write on literature, theatre, film and music to earn some money that would take care of my sundry expenses. In 1978, I went to Calcutta (now Kolkata) with a friend, DP Tripathi, who knew film director Mrinal Sen rather well. Tripathi had spent more than 18 months in jail during the Emergency and had acquired an aura as a student leader. He spoke Bengali fluently. Two days before we were supposed to return, I asked him to take me to Mrinal Sen and persuade him to give me an interview. Mrinal Sen was gracious enough to agree to be interviewed by an unknown student. That interview was published in June, 1978 in Dinman, the most prestigious Hindi weekly in those days. Unfortunately, I never had a chance to meet Mrinal Sen again.
BV Karanth had emerged as a formidable theatre director with a great sense of music by the early 1970s. A friend of mine, Vijay Mohan Singh, one of the finest literary critics in Hindi and a well known writer of short stories, was his classmate at Banaras Hindu University. He used to tell me how Karanth learnt Hindustani classical music from Omkarnath Thakur and loved Hindi literature.
I can’t remember if it was 1977 or 1978 when outside Vitthalbhai Patel House on Rafi Marg in New Delhi, I had a chance meeting with Karanth along with Singh, who requested him to give me an interview. Karanth promptly agreed and as there was no place to sit and talk, we sat on the dusty steps that led to the basement of the AIFACS building and chatted. I was surprised to see that Karanth was an unusually unassuming person with a great passion for life and theatre. The conversation revolved around the National School of Drama whose directorship had been offered to him. It was a daunting task as his predecessor was none other than his guru Ebrahim Al-Kazi. After this pleasant chat, we met dozens of times but the first meeting left an indelible impression on my mind.
My meeting with Krishnarao Shankar Pandit, a doyen of the Gwalior gharana and one of the most important vocalists of the 20th century, was also interesting. Born in 1893, he was a contemporary and rival of stalwarts like Faiyaz Khan, Omkarnath Thakur, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Mushtaq Husain Khan and others.
In early 1981, I came in contact with his son and disciple, Lakshman Krishnarao Pandit, a gifted vocalist who used to teach at the Delhi University’s Music Faculty. By this time, I had become a full-time journalist and worked as a sub-editor for United News of India (UNI). As hardly any contemporary of Krishnarao Shankar Pandit was alive, I assumed that he too must have passed away. So, very innocently, I asked LK Pandit as to when and how his father died. Caught unawares, he looked absolutely stunned. After a few uncomfortable moments, he smiled and said, “My father is very much alive. Who told you he had died?” I felt so embarrassed that I did not know where to look.
Anyhow, I tried to retrieve myself from this unenviable situation by offering profuse apologies.
As my familiarity with LK Pandit grew, so did my desire to meet and interview his legendary father. When I told him about this, he said his father had become hard of hearing but if I informed him of my travel plans in advance, he could alert his younger brother Chandrakant Pandit about my visit so that he could be present to act as an interpreter.
However, one morning I felt such a strong urge to go to Gwalior that without informing anybody, I rushed to the New Delhi railway station to catch the Taj Express. By the time I reached the platform, the train had already started moving and I had barely any time to get on. After getting on to the train, I realised that I was in a first class compartment. When the ticket checker came, I showed him my UNI identity card saying that I had to reach Gwalior on a sudden assignment. Accepting my explanation, he did not impose any fine, but I felt the pinch when I paid for the ticket. The amount was nearly one-quarter of my monthly salary. Those days, journalists, especially those working in wire services, were paid very badly.
Because of my innocence and inexperience, I thought that everybody in Gwalior would know Krishnarao Shankar Pandit. After all, the city had been one of the most important centres for music for centuries and the Pandit family had been residing there for five generations. Moreover, Krishnarao was a Padma Bhushan awardee. But, to my utter surprise, it took me nearly half-an-hour to locate his house in Lashkar.
Steeped in old world culture and traditional values, the Pandit family welcomed a total stranger with open arms. But my face fell when I was told that Chandrakant Pandit was away and would be back after two days. Undeterred, I struck up a conversation with the 90-year-old Krishnarao who walked with a bent back and could hear me with great difficulty. But when he spoke, he used colourful language and came through as a great yet simple man. When I asked him about the difference between his music and the present-day music, he asked me if I had seen the Gwalior fort on my way to his house. When I replied in the affirmative, he said, “The fort was built seven hundred years ago but is still intact. Nowadays, you build a house and it does not last even fifty years.” I was amazed at his ability to make such a profound observation in so earthy a language. After two hours, I took my leave and returned to Delhi. This time though, I travelled my customary second class.