The most thought-provoking photographs do not over illustrate. They are candid, yet compassionate. At times, such images benumb, and, then, spell out the reality of a different world, one that is far removed from those that are ingrained in popular consciousness.
In the image of a 71-year-old Zakir Hussain accompanying Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma, for the one last time – as his pallbearer — the unmistakable grief, even on his masked face, is one such poignant moment. The kind that will stay in public memory for long.
As Sharma’s son Rahul walked in front of the bier with the traditional pail and his other son, Rohit, waited while the pyre was being readied, Hussain held on to his friend, wrapped in a tricolour, sticking to the vocabulary of hundreds of their classical concerts together, where he would support the delicate baaj of Sharma’s santoor by lowering his tabla’s volume, gently supporting it, never overpowering it. He was also comforting the district Hari Prasad Chaurasia.
No one teaches you how to grieve. Holding Sharma till the end was perhaps Hussain’s way of being there; like he was while performing the sweet and pensive raag Kirwani in 1979 that was eventually turned into an HMV record. This was the 25th year of the santoor’s presence on the classical stage, and Sharma had invited Hussain to be a part of a concert held at the now-defunct Rang Bhawan in Mumbai. It remains one of the most wonderful renditions of the raga – and there are some excellent ones in competition. The rapport between the two and the warmth that marked their collaboration is palpable in the rendition.
Hussain’s affection and immense respect for Sharma, about a decade his senior, also came from the association that his father, Ustad Allah Rakha Khan, had with the santoor maestro. For many years, before Hussain began accompanying Sharma more regularly, Khan, 20 years Sharma’s senior, was often on the table. This was also the time when Khan was in the process of lifting the tabla from the margins of Hindustani classical music and placing it under the spotlight. Back then, accompanying artists did not enjoy much stature. The names of musicians did not appear on records or posters and they were paid much less than the main artist. Tabla players were even made to sit behind the main performer. The word tabalchi was used in a rather derogatory manner. Khan’s travels with Pandit Ravi Shankar helped highlight his brilliance to the western audience.
The affinity that Sharma and Khan had towards each other went beyond the appreciation of each others art. It was deeper and went all the way to Jammu, where these two Dogra men came from. Once, at a concert in Chicago, Sharma spoke in Dogri about how the two had a great program “Bada achha program hoyiya,” Sharma said. Khan responded, almost immediately, that this happened because two Dogra musicians were performing together.
Communalism was yet to make its presence felt in ways known to us today. It still stays slightly away from the hallowed halls of Hindustani classical music. Though this tradition does have issues of its own, assimilation remains its leitmotif. It is a world where the best-known exponents of the dhrupad style, the Dagars, sing a tradition that traces itself to Sama Veda. It’s a world where perhaps every musician, whatever their religion, worships Saraswati – the goddess of music — and where a Zakir Hussain does not let the tiranga slide from Sharma’s grieving wife Manorama’s hands and holds it to his heart just before standing quietly in a corner , next to his friend’s burning pyre, suffering, and not ready to let him go just yet.