Maya wakes up by 7 am usually, sometimes by 7:30. She has a bottle of milk before I bring her down from our bedroom where Shanthala is still asleep. I put Maya in a little chair that we have for her and make myself some coffee. Two cups of coffee later, I’m a little more awake and Maya is a little closer to sleep. Having waited patiently for me to finish my coffee, she starts fussing now, flailing her arms and legs, throwing off whatever it was that she had in her hand, making small noises like a whimpering puppy. I pick her up and turn on the music system. She watches eagerly as I proceed to pick a CD, signaling her happiness by beating her little legs against my body when it’s a CD that she recognizes.
For the past month or so, that CD has been the Indian classical music CD, “Call of the Valley”, an instrumental CD featuring the famous flutist, Hariprasad Chaurasia, the santoor player, Shiv Kumar Sharma and a guitarist, Brij Bhushan Kabra. As the music starts up, I gently sway my body to it, trying to follow the unfamiliar rhythms with my body. Maya nestles her head on my shoulder, starts to coo and in a little while, falls asleep. I find that swaying to music that wasn’t really meant for dancing is easier when I close my eyes and focus more intensely on the rhythm. As a result, I’ve been able to listen to this CD more closely than I have in my entire life. In the morning, this music is the equivalent of a soothing massage over my aching body, freeing the tension, my body relaxing, and I’m aware of little else but the sensation between my ears and my feet trying to move in tandem to the music.
Today morning, I suddenly remembered, in a Proust-like fashion, that this was the music my father played in the mornings when we were in Gulbarga, where he worked as a production manager in a textile mill. They were his most creative days. During the day, he worked in the mills, having been elevated to his position in a very short time, over the heads of many seniors. In the nights, he’d put me to bed, regaling me with fantastical stories that he made up. I think we have a few tape recordings of these narrations; I must remember to preserve them the next time I’m in Bangalore. It was at this time that he also painted a lot. He’d paint originals and duplicates of paintings from some painting books that he had acquired. Completely self-taught, he played with both watercolors and oil paintings, with traditional paintings and with paintings that included other objects such as a coin, pieces of cloth and stones. Two of these paintings now hang in our house.
He also took up learning Hindustani vocal. A balding old man would come home every day, wearing a silken white shirt and a lungi, his lips and tongue red from chewing tobacco, with a harmonium. In the summer, when I had the luxury of sleeping as late as I wanted to, my father would wake me up some mornings with a song that he had learned in his music class, “Tum Jago, Mohana Pyaare” (Wake up, Lovely Krishna), a song that appealed to me because Krishna was my favorite god.
My father loved music. His stories and his love of music are what spring to mind when I think of him fondly. We had a turntable and a bunch of LPs, all Western music, ABBA, James Last’s Non-Stop Dancing, the soundtrack of Shaft, Engelbert Humperdinck and Jim Reeves. The only Indian music LP we had was Call of the Valley. The cover had two shepherds, a man and a woman, tending their sheep in front of a lake, surrounded by lush green meadows, coniferous trees were visible a little ways away, and towering over all this were the white mountains, the Himalayas. My mother was enamored by Kashmir. If there was anything I remember her fervently wishing, it was to see Kashmir. Over and over again, every time the idea of a holiday came up, my mother would pitch Kashmir. How are we going to go there, my father would ask, it’s too expensive to go there and it takes so much time, I can’t take that much time off. We weren’t rich enough to afford flying and getting to Kashmir by train from that little town we lived in would take two or three days, one way. But my mother never gave up. I was five and she wanted to go to Kashmir, I was ten and she wanted to go to Kashmir, I was twenty and she still yearned to see the Himalayas. She’d sit enthralled in the movies when the hero and heroine cavorted in the lush landscape of the Himalayas.
Call of the Valley symbolised the yearning of my mother, set to the music of my father.
Call of the Valley is an unusual CD for the Hindustani classic music genre. Most instrumental music in that genre consists of a single instrument with the accompaniment of a tabla and maybe a tanpura. But this CD, released in 1967, featured three musical instruments playing together. It was also what is today called a concept album. The entire CD was devoted to the narration of a day in the life of a Himalayan shepherd, set to traditional, Hindustani music ragas. Santoor and guitar were relatively new and still not completely accepted as a Indian classical instrument. Indian music is mostly composed for the human voice, considered the most exceptional of all musical instruments. The only instruments accepted as lead instruments were those that could mimic the human voice, that could change pitch, tone and frequency smoothly, without breaks. So instruments like santoor and guitar had trouble being accepted as a classical music instrument. All three artists were relatively young and had not achieved the fame associated with them today. It was a revolutionary work in a mostly conservative and tradition bound world. It has since gone on to become the single largest selling CD of Indian classical music.
Attuned to listening to Western dance music, the gentle, nuanced melodies and unfamiliar rhythms of Call of the Valley were too slow for my impatient mind then, good only for the morning time when I was waking up. But something about them lingered. Maybe it was because it was the one standout LP in my father’s collection of mostly dance music, the one Indian LP in a collection of thirty or so Western music LPs.
Over the years, the turntable was replaced by a tape recorder and the LPs all eventually ended up, packed and crated, never to be removed. A few years ago, when I was shopping for some music, I caught sight of the cover of Call of the Valley and wanted to own it immediately. I didn’t fully understand my connection to this CD then. I mostly play Hindustani classical music for the mood it evokes rather than paying close attention to it, like I do with most other music. Except now, more than three decades later, my daughter is teaching me to listen deeply to the music of my childhood.