Eloquence Of Example
Indian celebrities pay tribute to their fathers.
“I grew up in a house where my mother went to work and my father stayed at home,” recalls actress Nandita Das of her father, famed artist Jatin Das.
“Of course my father’s creativity permeated into the kitchen too. It meant my lunch box had sprouts, brown bread, slices of apple, or a vegetable that was cooked in a way nobody had really seen before. Thankfully, my friends loved my lunch box. They happily ate my food and thought it to be rather exotic, while I devoured their roti-subzi-achar (bread, vegetable and pickle), which for me was the real ghar ka khana (home made food)!”
Nandita’s father is a man who walks to the beat of his own drummer. He ran away from home with Rs 500 in his pocket to try his luck at the prestigious JJ School of Arts, where he struggled his way through.
Her father always forced his children to question every action, even his own. “Now he wonders why I argue with him so much!”
Nandita says when she decided to join films, her father warned her: “Films are like dragons; they suck you in and lure you into the world of money and fame. The best of people compromise, lose their path and forget why they got into films in the first place.”
Initially she laughed off his concerns, dismissing them as typical parental anxiety, but acknowledges today that his words and their underlying message have kept her grounded. “Success at home was not defined by money and fame. Work was always meant to be something that would give you joy, make life more meaningful and above all, help you grow as a person.”
Nandita says her father inspired her steer off the beaten path, to dabble in different things and not balk at paying the price that might require. “The confidence to take this path, I am sure stems, from my father. For Baba, the journey is important, not the destination.”
When told that his father, the late tabla maestro Ustad Alla Rakha Khan, was considered one of the purest souls to grace the world of Hindustani classical music, tabla maestro Zakir Hussain is deeply touched. “It is true. My father was a man who traveled all over the world with Raviji (sitar maestro Ravi Shankar) and did not know how use a credit card, write a check or call to make a reservation.”
Alla Rakha had an abiding faith in the almighty and believed that somehow any problem would be solved by God’s grace. “There were times when there was little money and my mother would worry. He would say, don’t worry, God will provide and suddenly from nowhere there would be a call to play a concert. At times someone would come looking for financial help and my father would look in his own pocket and give whatever little he had. If there was nothing in the house, he would go to the money lender and borrow some money to help out whoever it was who needed money.”
Zakir says few people realize that Alla Rakha started as an A grade singer in All India Radio. He also performed in 40 odd films in the 1940s and 1950s, long before other classical musicians.
Learning from your own father can be a mixed bag. On the one hand there are legendary stories of disciplinarian musician fathers who punished their kids relentlessly and often weren’t even good teachers. On the other hand, there were others who were gentler on their children and taught only them the intricate elements of the craft.
Says Zakir: “I don’t know about the other stories, but my personal experience was that my father was more concerned about his other students than he was about me. It was very important for him that the knowledge was passed on to everyone, impartially and with the same commitment. My father was one of those rare people who appreciated the talent of other tabla players with great pleasure and never stopped me from adding to my repertoire when I took something from another gharana. He was a big admirer of Pandit Kishan Maharaj, for instance, and would show it openly.
“He was also gone for long stretches and so when he came back we would concentrate on tabla and not other stuff that fathers and sons do. But I had a very multilayered relationship with him. It went from teacher and disciple, to father and son and later to becoming very good friends.
“I feel very fortunate that I got to experience all those layers. Apart from his great legacy as a musician, my father also took in many poor students and taught them free, because they were talented but could not pay for their lessons. To this day, we are supporting several families of musicians in his honor, because he was the one who started that tradition.”
While Zakir travels even more frequently than his father, older daughter Anisa, who is a film producer and hopes to direct her own film some day, says her earliest memories of her father are of him rocking her to sleep or rubbing her back and playing tabla notes on it.
Anisa says her relationship with her father has strengthened over the years and that he has been a good mentor. “He is one of the most honest and honorable men I know. I look up to him not because he is someone famous, or has skills beyond others, but because of the kind of person he is – selfless, with an amazing capacity to share with others.”
Anisa says the last five years Zakir is home more often, and his greatest inspiration comes when he is there. “He travels so much that he loves to come back and just be… The yoga of living the everyday life is what helps him unwind – things like taking the trash out, walking the dog, washing dishes. It’s funny how he will fight over washing dishes. As soon as dinner is over and if I’m home I’ll get up to go to the sink and he will say adamantly, ‘No, no, I’m going to do the dishes.’ It’s that which grounds him. Teaching his students is another thing that just transforms him, he loves that so much.”
So what are quirks of the musical magician on drums?
“Hmm, whenever he is around, things start breaking up mysteriously,” says Anisa with a laugh. “A chip on this cup, a crack somewhere else and we will say, ‘How did this happen? Where did the chip come from?’ The answer? Nobody knows. We look at him and he will not know either! Or so he says! Of course we attribute it to the fact that he is so consumed with creating the next award winning composition, he doesn’t realize the chip or the crack. At any time you can see him drumming on the table, composing in his mind and you try talking to him and he is not answering, so you have to cut him some slack! Mercifully the breaking of things is not too frequent!
Tennis ace Vijay Amritraj attributes his success to his parents. A severely asthmatic child, his parents had to pour a lot of time, money and effort in ensuring that he was not left behind. While his mother chauffeured the kids to the tennis courts, it was obvious that his father Robert’s strengths lay in the tremendous role he played as the patriarch of the house.
“My father is extremely well read and has a great flair for literature. He worked in the Indian Railways, but I know he turned down many offers to move, which may have brought greater benefits professionally, but would have affected our tennis adversely.”
Vijay says his father’s influence was significant in all the three brothers doing well academically. He wanted Anand to sit for the Indian Administrative Services since he was the smart one with a phenomenal memory. While Anand excelled in academics, he chose tennis and a masters in economics, but the thought of what their father would think of their actions was the driving force behind who they became as people.
Says Vijay, “For anything we did, we eventually wanted to be like him, or do it as he would have done it. We also always asked ourselves, ‘Would dad be proud of this?’ Or mom would say, ‘You better not do this. Dad would be upset,’ and that would be enough for us.”
Vijay says his happiest times were traveling in the train with his parents. “Since Dad was in the railways, we would get an entire bogie to ourselves with a bedroom, living room and staff and we would have such a great time traveling together as a family.”
Today when he thinks of his father, he says the one thing that he learnt was humility and to stay grounded. “I always say if you don’t know where you’ve come from you’ll never know where you are going. I also think the way I was loved and brought up has made me pull myself up even more as a father and strive to be a better parent, because the bar was set so high.”
Shujaat Khan, who is perhaps the greatest sitar player amongst the younger sitarists, is the son of another legendary sitar maestro, the late Ustad Vilayat Khan. Shujaat’s earliest memories of his father are of sitting with him on stage at the age of 3 or 4.
“Abba had oiled curly hair and there he would be in his cream kurta and we could actually feel the mesmerizing power of his music as he held the thousands that had come to hear him spellbound.
Shujaat’s parents divorced when he was 11 and his two sisters and he stayed with his father. At 18 Shujaat walked out as his relationship with his father hit a turbulent patch. Over the years, the relationship experienced its ups and downs, but the two made their peace before Vilayat Khan passed away in 2004.
So today how much of his father does he see in himself?
“A lot. The older I get the more my wife, kids and friends seem to be saying constantly, ‘Oh, my god, you are becoming like your father.’ I share my obsession for neatness and small gadgets, among many things, with him. My father enjoyed the finer things of life and it’s the same with me. It’s not that I must have everything I like, but I know how to appreciate them. Musically too, there are so many similarities in the way I play.”
Says Shujaat, “On one hand, my father was a very generous and compassionate man, and yet I haven’t met very many human beings who are like the pendulum that he was. He had tremendous strength of character and compassion to feel the pain of others, especially the poor and the needy since he had seen tough times himself. He would see a student toiling away for hours and would go into the kitchen himself, make pistachio milk and serve the student. One day I had been practcing for hours and my fingers had been cut. He was a hard taskmaster, so he kept pushing me till I was in tears with the pain. Once I finished, he got up and left the room. A little later, I went to his room to ask him a question related to music and found him sobbing. As a father it had been hard for him to see my pain, but as a teacher he had to push me.
“He had very strong likes and dislikes and he would let go of very lucrative deals if he didn’t like someone. He loved with a passion and would not tolerate someone he didn’t like with equal intensity. He was very blunt and outspoken. What you saw is what you got.
Shujaat recalls one strange episode. “One day he insisted I take him for a drive. So we get into this $75,000 BMW. He goes past four gas stations and then makes me go into this lane and asks me to fill the gas to the brim and then says, ‘Okay, let’s go home now.’ Later as I’m wondering what was the point behind this so-called drive, he says smugly, ‘I remembered on Tuesday this particular gas station has a discounted rate. See we saved $7!’ And I’m thinking, ‘You have all the money and cars in the world. What difference will $5-7 make?” But that was him. The king of idiosyncrasies!”
Shujaat does not regret parting ways with his father.
“Would I have lived differently? I don’t think so. Being the son of a legend like him was a blessing, but also an incredibly huge burden. While I was with my father I was driving him around, sitting behind him at every concert and that was that.
“When I walked away, I became my own person and came into my own as a musician. As father and son, we had our clashes and both of us were to blame, but I cherish the legacy of music that he left me. I can also never take away from the fact that both as a person and as a musician he was perhaps the greatest influence in my life.”