Thursday, 30 June 2011

Dust That Sang


“Do I pine for the lost days of glory?” replied Indrajeet Sarkar, with a sweep of his hand, seeming to encompass the pall of gloom that enshrouded the derelict mansion behind him.
“No, I really have no regrets” he continued, reconciled at long last with the curse which he had the misfortune to call his only home in this world.
The frail silver-headed old man was sitting on a rotting bench in the garden, sipping Darjeeling first flush from an exquisitely crafted bone china cup.
The man whose questions he was replying to was Ash McCann, a young scholar from Scotland who wanted to write a book on the illustrious Sarkar family..

“During the Durga Pujas, the palace resembled a vision out of the Arabian Nights, there were displays of firework, the gardens were illuminated with a thousand lamps and the sound of feasting and merrymaking would echo through the night air”
Indrajeet’s failing eyesight seemed to look beyond the crumbling ruins into the past that was. “Those were the days when dancers from Lucknow danced through the night, stealing the hearts of my inebriated ancestors… The party is over now. Nothing remains of the nautch ghar, the ceiling has caved in…everything is in shambles.”

Ash remained silent, his mind numb with an indefinable heaviness as he thought of the grimy statuettes of the nymphs, the brocaded period furniture falling to bits, the once glittering chandeliers of Belgian glass now buried beneath decades of dust.
As Ash had wandered through the shuttered halls with their Italian marble floors, he had come upon stuffed bison heads, ferocious looking tigers, dozens of ancient guns and a faded, nearly colourless portrait of a young man in flowing robes.
“The portrait of the young man with the sitar in the Grand Hall, who is he?”
“So, you’ve already seen him have you?” Indrajeet raised his eyebrows in feigned surprise. “Have you seen the sword that lies near it?”
Not really waiting for Ash’s answer, he continued, “That’s the family sword. Pity no one can wield it now though! The succession itself is in doubt. Dispute within the family about the true heir has led to such a sorry state of affairs that brothers have become enemies, and if ever they talk to each other it is in the courts where they hurl obscenities at each other.”
Then, almost inaudibly he muttered, “ Everyone is my enemy…I have no one to talk to, except Bahadur, my jack of all trades, and my physician…and now you” he added the last part as an afterthought.
“But why have you come here? Nothing resides here but disenchantment!”
Was Indrajeet ever to know that for Ash McCann it was almost a pilgrimage? Was Indrajeet ever to know that Ash wanted to know about the young man in the portrait because that very portrait had always mesmerized his mother? Was Indrajeet ever to know that the handsome scholar sitting opposite him shared the curse of the same bloodline?

Ash was born in the Kyle of Lochalsh in the northwestern coast of Scotland, a small village overlooking the lovely island of Skye across the narrow Loch Alsh. Of his mother he remembered little; but often looked at her photographs in an old family album, a pretty lady sometimes draped in strange and exotic gowns. His earliest memories were that of accompanying his father to the savagely beautiful Cape Wrath where he used to play golf while Ash explored miles upon miles of empty beach. On their way back, they would spend the night at the tiny town of Durness, listening to the haunting music of distant bagpipes.
There were times, when in a good mood, his father called him Alsh…and as a child Ash thought he was named after his village. One night at Durness, when the child was already a teenager, his father, in one of his drunken fits revealed that Ash’s name was not a derivative of Alsh, but something quite outlandish… Ashish.
“And you have to thank your mother for it. She insisted on the name,”he mumbled, before dozing off to sleep.
To the young boy Ashish was as weird as Rumpulstiltskin; he hardly knew what to make out of it. The desire to know why his mother chose such a name persisted till the day he finally laid his hands on her diary.
Angie McCann, his mother, was a Bengali girl…answering to Agnimitra  before she married Charlie McCann…and then Agnimitra became shortened and rearranged into Angie. Turning the pages of her journal, he learnt that her family could actually trace its roots back to Raja Rajaram Sarkar, a Hindu singer during the times of Aurangzeb, who ruled over the Palashpur district of Bengal. His knowledge in nearly all the fields of Hindustani classical music was comparable only to Amir Khusrau and he was one of the finest musicians who found favour in the court of Aurangzeb till 1668. Rajaram’s golden voice earned its due recognition in fulsome praise from another noted musician of Aurangzeb’s court…Faqirullah, in his book Ragdarpan. Faqirullah recounts how in one of the musical soirees the Maharaja of Sangramnagar had awarded Rajaram one lakh silver coins, andhad ordered an elephant to carry it all back to Rajaram’s house.
 Faqirullah completed Ragdarpan in 1666, two years beforeAurangzeb made his distaste for music public. That same year the musicians were officially forbidden from singing in the court. Disillusioned by the puritanical dictates of the emperor, musicians and courtesans alike flocked to the court of Faizabad, and then to Lucknow. Rajaram joined in the exodus. Before he left Delhi, Faqirullah presented him with an exquisite handwritten copy of the Ragdarpan.
The khayal and the thumri flourished in Lucknow and Rajaram died a contented man at the age of ninety-three. With his grandsons, who were also musically inclined, as well as many notable singers and tawayefs, thumri traveled to Calcutta via Benaras, following in the wake of the exiled Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. Alas, the babu culture in Bengal could not sustain or develop this genre. Rajaram’s descendants fell upon hard times and as they sank into genteel poverty, they lost their interest in music and the ancient copy of Ragdarpan was locked away in a chest-of-drawers until no one even remembered its existence.
As a little girl Angie had often listened with rapt attention to her grandmother, who told her the story of Rajaram and the lost copy of Ragdarpan. Many a summer afternoon was spent in looking at the portrait of Rajaram and trying to make crayon copies of the young man with his sitar. As Angie grew up she realised that her father’s distaste for music sprang from the fact that he considered Rajaram’s choice of becoming a singer to be the root of all evils.
“The man should have expanded his territory instead of gallivanting across half of India singing songs”, he raved, conveniently ignoring the fact that more than half of the fabulous wealth accumulated by Rajaram were to be attributed to his earnings as a singer. Perhaps it is human nature to pass the blame to others in times of misery, and thus Rajaram became Inrdajeet’s favourite punching bag.
As rats and white ants began playing havoc on the family seat, even as more discord broke out among a horde of aspirants claiming the property, or what was left of it, Indrajeet became increasingly bitter, fighting to keep the bricks and stones together.
When his daughter announced her intention of following a career in thumri, it was the proverbial last straw.
In her journal Angie wrote about the days when she almost became a stranger in her own house. Indrajeet maintained a stony silence fraught with grim disapproval, while her mother wept bitter tears. But by then Angie had already tasted the heady success of fame. While attending a music conference in Edinburgh she met and married a fellow music enthusiast, Charlie McCann.
The rift between father and daughter was so great that all the letters she wrote to him were returned unopened, until finally one day she gave up trying. But however much she wanted to forget, Rajaram and the lost Ragdarpan kept haunting her dreams.  When her son was born she named him Ashish, signifying blessings; hoping that perhaps one day her son would be able to bridge the gap she never could. She died when Ash was barely two.


The next morning Ash found Indrajeet sitting on a threadbare carpet in a small room often used as a library.
“Some of my subjects still call me Rajababu”, he smiled sadly, “I ask them not to, it is too much of a trouble being a Raja.”
Sanskrit manuscripts lay around him in dusty disorder, bits of paper yellow and brown with age floated about in the musty air.
A strange lump seemed to choke Ash’s vocal chords as he struggled to speak, “And the Ragdarpan? Do you know what happened to it?”
With a mad cackle of laughter Indrajeet threw out his arms, “Its all here…its in each particle of dust floating about this room, it is there in the air I breathe, it is there in this decrepit body I call my own…I am Ragdarpan
The madness in the laughter intensified, “You have to live the life of a Raja in ruins to find your way to Ragdarpan!”

Three years later a rather heavy box was delivered to Ash in Scotland. Two letters accompanied it. The first was from Inrdajeet’s lawyers, informing Ash of the old man’s death. The second letter was from Inrdajeet, written a few weeks before he passed away.
“You wanted to know who the man with the sitar in the portrait was”, he wrote, “That was Rajaram…But I think you already know the answer. I think you knew even before you asked me. My daughter asked me much the same questions…and now with you they come rolling back to me yet again…echoes of questions unanswered. Passion for music survives the onslaught of time and Ragdarpan runs in our veins like a symphony divine…The quest is yet unfulfilled: this quest I bequeath to you. I have lived my life…now it’s your turn to gather the dust of centuries and make music out of it”.
Eyes pricking with unexpected moisture Ash tore open the package…Indrajeet had sent him an antique silver sword, the same sword that Ash had seen lying beside Rajaram’s portrait. With shaking hands Ash pulled the sword out of its sheath…the rasping noise reverberated through the chill afternoon air, bridging the gap between lifetimes and two continents. The Raja in ruins had found his true heir.

Suchandra is an author based in Kolkata, India

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