Ode to a Father

(A daughter remembers her father on what would have been his 90th birthday)

By: Shikha Vohra

When I think of my father, it is always with the sweet lyrics of childhood. The past mingles into the present, as memories deposit themselves on the shores of time like seashells. Yesterday is today.

The house we live in is a spacious mansion in the prestigious Hindu Colony. A wide balcony holds it in an embrace, and this becomes the common space for all of us to hang out in and play our childhood games. Baba, mostly working at home, makes time to play with us and this is also where he gives us the Sunday vigorous anointing of mustard oil. For Baba has carried with him all intrinsic smells of his own childhood in faraway Barisal, and there is a peculiar ethnic aroma around him that is pre-eminently Bengali. It is an aroma I smell even at the entrance of my uncle Sunil’s house.

His roots have never been severed, and in spite of being in a glamour profession, his favourite dress remains the lungi and vest. He is not bothered about the social niceties of whether it should be worn or not in front of visitors. This dress is also comfortable for cooking, Baba’s other passion besides music, food and what the Bengalis call adda-baazi, and the mounds of his shoulders ripple as he stirs a pumpkin and prawn delicacy on the stove. Generally I sit on the kitchen floor with him, making with a toy rolling pin miniscule rotis he makes it a point to eat daily even if he has come home late after a party. After all I am his only, pampered daughter.

My earliest memory of my father is sitting in his lap whilst rehearsing Talat Chacha. Trapped within the cage of his solid arms (Baba used to indulge in pahelwan-baazi, too, with his brother-in-law, Pannababu), I screw up my eyes with restlessness. But in the air is a placid feeling of tranquility that even a child can feel. Perhaps it is because of the harmony that exists between composer and singer; a tacit, blissful love. A comfortable understanding. Baba is just Baba, a father who does not reprimand me for scribbling with chalk on the front of his cupboard door, and I am not aware that I am participating in a moment of history. In fact, we children innocently refer to his rehearsal room as “The Golden Room’ because of its yellow curtains that give it a sunny glow. I think now, that indeed from that golden room came forth ‘golden’ melodies, timeless and wondrous.

When we espy the pair of Kolhapuri chappals in the entrance lobby, we know that Lata-tai is here. She will spend the day practicing songs that he has taught her, whilst he cooks fish for her because ‘she has walked a long way’ and she will press his legs in guru-seva in the afternoon and rub the eczema on his leg with a copper coin. In return for his tuition, Lata has refused to accept money for the songs she has sung in LAADLI, and Mother, righteous and just as she is, has recompensed her with a pair of diamond solitaires. Perhaps this has sparked off her romance with the stone.

The first time I realize my father is a ‘somebody’ is when the family goes to Broadway Cinema to see the film RAAHI. When I see his name on a hoarding I jump in delightful surprise and have to be shushed by my elder brother Pradeep, because people stop and stare at us. From that day onwards there is always a special aura around his figure.

Baba is not a dictatorial father. His authority is intensely between the lines, and does not erupt in passionate outbursts or righteous remonstrance. He has always emphasized that ‘you cannot teach your children anything; you can only set them a good example.’ His will has never been imposed on the children; we have the freedom of our own options. He is quite happy to leave our upbringing to my mother so it gives him more time with his muse. It is Mama who pays the income tax and supervises electrical repairs. But he is very family-minded. The love that all three senior Biswas siblings share is private and subtle, not given to fuss and unnecessary demonstration. So every evening we are trundled along four houses away to my uncle Sunil’s, where my paternal grandmother resides. My recollection of my grandmother, who taught my father all there was to learn about music, is of a devout lady dressing up her brass icons in brocade garments and silks. She is a woman of great depth and even deeper silences. She appears like someone who has suffered much and held it all inside her.

Sundays are spent in faraway Malad, where Parul Pishi and Panna Phupa live. In the tremulous afternoons Pishima’s strong voice fills the crevices of the room and Phupa’s flute sounds like the call of a human. In fact, it is difficult to distinguish where her voice ends and his flute begins. In the evening we have to rush back for the regular meeting at our house of the famous Sunday conglomeration of film-line intellectuals that has a formidable attendance of literary stalwarts like Narendra Sharma, C.L.Kavish, Safdar ‘Aah’, Phani Majumdar, K.A.Abbas, Mahesh Kaul and Ramanand Sagar. At these meets, each member has to recite something they have written or composed in the week and topics are strictly non-filmy. Then Pandit Chandrashekhar recites chaupals from the Ramayana and there is a healthy discussion on the same. It is here that Ramanand Sagar’s tele-series Ramayan has its genesis. Afterwards, Baba’s favourite rasgoolas are served around. He has been known to consume 17 of them in one go.

Baba loves parties and having people around him all the time. He is always roaming around in his brand new Desoto with his friend Mehboob Khan, discovering uncharted places to eat. He told me once that at a celebratory party he had on his return from the States as part of the film delegation, he had had the guests wash their hands in champagne. There is a spirited effervescence in him as he dances the rhumba, a verve to enjoy life to the full, to savour every moment and not waste it. He teaches us cute English songs about the singer loving bananas’ because they have no bones.’ Musically, with many successes and the discovery of bright new talent, he is on a creative high.

Sadly, Baba leaves home in 1954.

The harmonium no longer resounds in the twilight, with us kids hanging like bats on the doors, watching through the hinges and listening to the mellifluous tones of his voice fall around the room in a shower. He has taken with him all the echoes of his sweet music, carting it to a chik-covered cottage in Juhu. Now a closeness grows with his friends Roshan and Prem Dhawan and together they form one harmonious trio that shares music and talk and meets practically everyday. But what we enjoy most are the times at the beach, where father and children splash in the waves tirelessly and come home to a gentle chiding for muddying the patio.

He sells the grand Desoto and settles for a smaller Humber Hawk with a top hatch. On long drives, we stick our heads out of the top of the car and sing songs that he has taught us about communal harmony and youth movements in choral splendour.

What we look forward to most is the annual celebration of Saraswati Pooja that the music fraternity of the industry performs like a ritual at his place. It is not uncommon to see Geeta Dutt grind sandal paste and Sudha Malhotra cut fruit for the prasad, for the industry is like one big family. Manna Dey teaches us kids naughty songs in English. I will never forget once when Mukesh is asked to do something for the rituals he has never done before, I say, “Mukesh Uncle, nahin kiya toh karke dekh,’ which is a line from his song in Char Dil Char Raahen, and everyone laughs at a precocious nine-year-old! At this function Mannada always sings ‘Naach re mayura’ which, as I recall, is his first private song for Aakashwani. This function also includes chorus singers and musicians alike; Sapan, Jagmohan, Manohari-da, Rajendra and Neena Mehta. I have seen Baba give as much respect to the lowest-rung musician as to his lead singer, which is why they accept his anger without protest. For though Baba is patient, he is also a perfectionist, and does not mind persevering till he gets the right note. On more than one occasion, he has completely scrapped recordings and re-recorded songs because the end-result was not according to his expectation. He approaches his compositions not only with creativity, but also with intelligence. Considering the situation and time, he will choose the appropriate raag, or a mélange of them as in Intezaar aur abhi. Then he will weigh the metre of the verse, affix the suitable rhythm, and make full use of the lyrics by phonetic emphasis. I have hardly seen this characteristic in any other composer, enhancing the meaning of the word by musical notation. In later days he teaches me the importance of musical punctuation, whereby pausing at a wrong place can change the meaning of the lyric completely. At a radio sangeet sammelan in 1964 he does not hesitate to remark about this fault in a vocalist of the caliber of Begum Akhtar. Perhaps it is this meticulousness that makes even the young singers of today aver that you cannot call yourself a singer till you have sung Anil Biswas.

Baba’s vocabulary and writing abilities are admirable. He sets about improving my language by playing Scrabble, and indulging in word-games that are fascinating. He turns into teacher and guide.

A new storm lurks on Baba’s seascape. His name is Basu Bhattacharya, and he is newly arrived from Calcutta. Unbothered by hot sands or beach brambles, Basuda loves strolling on the secluded shore, pedal-pushing big words into the humble atmosphere, expostulating Marxist theories. Baba’s early socialist inclinations resurrect and find an ardent appeal in their meanings, and now he talks of retiring to the Himalayas ‘with two sets of clothes.’ Following this collective wisdom in a state of total rapture, trying to net the weighty words as they fall from the pontificating lips of this bold and bespectacled theoretician, I shuffle behind on the sands.

Time moves on. I marry and go away, far from his territory into a space as different from the film industry as one can imagine. He moves on too, away from the film industry as well, away from the realm where he has reigned for many years as a luminary. He enters a world as different, a world of political arenas and high society where many game are played. But though he flows in their stream, it is always on the banks.

The years of separation whirl by.

When our worlds become one again, I am shocked to find him seasoned with age, fragile with disillusion and quietude. He says he is like’ a poor man’s flickering lamp in a storm.’ I understand why they say child is father of the man, because though he has always called me Ma, I now start calling him ‘my bacchha’. Especially when he weeps, child-like, at a Sai bhajan on the Aastha channel. His belief in Sai Baba has never wavered despite the vicissitudes of life. We plan a grand retrospective of his songs for 7th July, when he will step into his milestone 90th year. He recollects long-forgotten songs and sings “Allah bhi hai mallah bhi hai” with indescribable sweetness. Even now his eyes sparkle when he sings a snatch of song. I tell him that there are thousands of mentions of him on the Internet, and he is surprised that people still remember him, because he ‘has done nothing great, just my job’. This is his quintessential humility that never makes him speak of his compositions as ‘super-hits’. I know there are people who hold his songs close to their heart, and though he echoed his own Talat composition, ‘Ai dil mujhe aisi jagah le chal jahan koi na ho’ there will not be a ‘mera nishan koi na ho.’ The perfume of his essence will always bloom in his soulful compositions, that half a century later, continue to fill our senses with so much beauty.

Baba, you have taught me so much without rhetoric and didacticism. The only lectures I got were on Rabindranath Tagore and the values of life. You have taught me honesty and realism, to look at life without pretence and to accept the ebbs and tides, to move on without looking back with regret. The same way that you moved on when trends changed in the industry from the pure and the principled and some paanwallah distributor or some hero with a puff dictated to you how you should do your job. You turned your back upon the world that did not appreciate you and went on to more meaningful things and made me aware of the pointlessness of looking back at footprints on the sand. After promising me on the 29th that we would meet on 31st May and record traditional folk songs from Barisal that you wished to pass on to people, you turned on your side and went into eternal sleep. Just like that.

May is a cruel relentless month that has snatched away many Biswases. Pradeep. Ashalata. Anil.

Rooth ke tum jo chal diye, ab main dua ko kya karun
‘Jisne hamen juda kiya, aise khuda ko kya karoon’

The retrospective turned into a tribute.

I speak in the present tense because for me Baba is always there, fragrant in his every song, his presence as potent as before. I am fortunate that I have his songs to remember him by. Today I recollect one from AAKASH:

So gayi chandni, jaag uthi bekali, gam sataane lage, tum mujhe aur bhi yaad aane lage!

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