Archive for October 2013

Rabri Devi is on a swing, waiting for a former Bihar minister to call on her. Lalu Prasad is in jail, but all is seemingly well at home.

Inside their sprawling bungalow in Patna, their younger son — Tejaswi, 24 — looks confident. “The party is running just like before,” he says.

Lalu Prasad is in the Birsa Munda jail, Ranchi, serving a five-year term in a case involving embezzlement from a Bihar government fund for animal fodder. When he had quit as chief minister in 1997 after the scam broke, he had installed his wife as the chief minister. But this time, speculation that Rabri Devi would head his Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) was soon overtaken by whispers that Tejaswi could be the new leader.

The son, however, insists that he has no plans to take over. “My father is the party leader. It is just that he is not physically present. But he will be back soon.”

The coming months are not going to be easy for Tejaswi. Party members, who were unhappy but silent when Rabri Devi was asked to head the RJD, are not welcoming him with open arms yet. “He barely knows anything about politics,” a senior leader says.

But the RJD president’s younger son — Tejaswi has eight siblings, including brother Tej Pratap, older by a year and a half — has started talking like a politician. About 5’8” tall and pink cheeked, Tejaswi looks like a suave version of his father. But unlike the rustic Lalu, who likes to revel in his rural antecedents, Tejaswi is urbane. And again, unlike his outspoken father, he weighs his words with care. “It’s time to hold the party together,” he says.

That, of course, may turn into an uphill task in Lalu’s absence. The RJD, which ruled Bihar for 15 years, has been out of power since 2005. In the 2010 state elections, it won only 22 seats in the 243-member Assembly.

But political observers are not ready to write him off yet. In fact, his associates say that Lalu is charting out his party’s strategy. Senior party leaders have been asked to organise meetings across the districts. Lalu has drafted duties for Tejaswi too.

“My job is to mobilise the youth,” he stresses. “He has told me that I can yearn for a post or a seat only when I am accepted by the party. Till then, I have to keep working like any party worker.”

Tejaswi had his first brush with politics during the 2010 state elections, when he campaigned for over 90 seats. Some in the party blame him for the drubbing the RJD got. Tejaswi differs. “We lost connectivity with the people when my father was busy at the Centre (as a minister). We lost because of this,” he holds.

Lalu’s jail term has led to political whispers about a power struggle in the Yadav family. Some say that while Tejaswi has his father’s backing, Tej Pratap, who is into religion as well as flashy cars, is his mother’s favourite. “We both are equal for our parents,” Tejaswi insists.

The family has been meeting the paterfamilias in jail. When he was convicted, Lalu had urged his son “not to worry”. Tejaswi is now planning to move the Jharkhand High Court, challenging the order of the CBI court. The family also plans to move a bail application.

When Lalu was jailed in 1997 (in a case related to the fodder scam), Tejaswi was eight and could have barely understood what had happened. “I was sad and confused. My sisters used to tell me that it was a political conspiracy,” says Tejaswi, who was packed off to Delhi Public School (DPS), New Delhi, along with his younger sister, Raj Lakshmi.

He started playing cricket in DPS. In some years, he was the captain of the school cricket team. He played for Jharkhand and was later included in the Indian team. “I travelled with the Indian team for the 2011 World Cup but never got a chance to play,” he rues. “I miss cricket. But I want to pursue politics seriously as I did cricket earlier,” he adds.

He was also with the Delhi Daredevils team in the IPL games for four seasons, but did not play a match. Lalu had then joked: “He will at least get the opportunity to serve water to the players even if he does not play.”

Lalu’s characteristic brand of humour has often evoked laughter, and sometimes derisive snorts. Gags about his father’s comments and hairstyle troubled Tejaswi when he was small, he says. “The jokes bothered me a lot. But I tried not to listen to them.”

He regrets that he didn’t see much of his father while he was growing up, but fondly remembers a family holiday in 2007 from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. “For the first time I got to see my father for such a long period.”

But all that is behind him now. For the present, Tejaswi has to focus on political equations. What does he think about rumours that the Congress is thinking of dumping the RJD in favour of Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United)?

The question has to be repeated twice. “Not at all,” he finally answers. “Soniaji ke saath Papa ka dil ka rishta hai; inme len den ki baat nahin hoti” (Sonia Gandhi and father have a relationship of the heart; they don’t talk of give and take).

Tejaswi’s focus now is on archrivals JD(U). “Development in Bihar under Nitish Kumar is a myth. He makes tall promises but does nothing,” he says.

Bihar is like Gujarat, he adds, like a seasoned politician. “Development in Gujarat is also mere hype. Large parts of the state have remained underdeveloped,” he says. “There is a lot of similarity between (Gujarat chief minister) Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar. There is no real development in either state. Both are surviving because of their PR (public relations) skills.”

Tejaswi says he wants to join hands with all secular parties, including the Congress, before the 2014 elections: “Fighting communal forces is the motto of our party.”

Just like his father, Tejaswi claims he can connect with the masses. “I am a dehaati at heart. I speak in Bhojpuri with people in rural areas,” the commerce graduate from Delhi’s Shri Ram College of Commerce says.

Also, hair has been an issue with him too. Lalu — known for his silver-grey fringe — used to complain that Tejaswi kept his hair too long. “I always wanted it long. Finally, I chopped it off in 2009,” he says, ruffling his own unruly fringe.

Politics is another world, but Tejaswi hasn’t quite given up his youthful ways. He likes driving his Ford Endeavour, and loves to play video games. And he enjoys films such as Inception and Avatar.

But with a political career looming large, he is now busy reading a book on Manmohan Singh. It’s called Ek Alpsankhyak Pradhan Mantri ki Peeda (the agony of a minority Prime Minister). Look out now for a new volume — the agony of a cricketer who would be a politician.

(This was published in The Telegraph, October 20, 2013)

This has to be the right house. I can hear the sounds of a tanpura playing, and right in front of me is a black and white portrait of Begum Akhtar. And sitting across a low table is ghazal singer Rita Ganguly.

She is on the phone right now, discussing an event that marks the beginning of Begum Akhtar’s centenary year. On Monday — on her 99th anniversary — a documentary film on Akhtar, or Ammi as Ganguly and her other disciples called her, will be screened in Delhi. Ganguly, who runs the Begum Akhtar Academy of Ghazal in the capital, will give a talk on her old association with the late singer.

“One evening is not enough to talk about the marvellous artiste and her music. But this centenary celebration is an effort to pay homage to my exemplary ustad, who not only taught me music but also humility and patience,” Ganguly says.

The singer, who trained under Begum Akhtar for nine years, has seen her from close quarters. Lucknow — where both lived for several years (Ganguly as a child and Akhtar later in life) — strengthened the bond between the two. But unlike Akhtar who had a troubled childhood, Ganguly grew up in comfort.

Ganguly’s father, freedom fighter K.L. Ganguly, was among those who started the newspaper National Herald. Mother Meena was a homemaker. Rita grew up in Lucknow in an atmosphere of music and dance. When she was four, she danced — impromptu — at a cultural event organised by her parents. Freedom fighter and poet Sarojini Naidu, who was the chief guest, was so impressed by her performance that she insisted “Baby Rita” accompany her to every cultural event she attended.

Baby Rita, clearly, was as charismatic as Bibbi Sayyed — which was how Begum Akhtar was known. She was born in 1914 in Faizabad, but her lawyer father abandoned the family soon thereafter. Bibbi was gifted with a magical voice, and though her mother did not want her to sing, her uncle insisted that she be sent to train under sarangi exponent Ustad Imdad Khan and then under Ata Mohammed Khan of Patiala. Later, she lived in Calcutta with her mother and started learning music from singers Ghulam Mohammad Khan and Jhande Khan Saheb.

Her first concert, contrary to popular belief, was not at 15, Ganguly maintains. “She was 11 when she had her first performance in Calcutta. She stole the hearts of the audience by singing Deewana banana hai to deewana bana de. Shehnai maestro Bismillah Khan too made his debut at the same event, says Ganguly, who is the author of Bismillah Khan and Benaras — the Seat of Shehnai.

Akhtar was christened Akhtari Bai Faizabadi by another of her gurus, thumri and khayal singer Ustad Zamiruddin. As a young artiste, she sang for the Megaphone Record Company, which turned her fortune around. Having grown up in poverty, the monthly salary of Rs 500 which the record company paid her was significantly large. And she even had a house in central Calcutta’s Ripon Street and a car.

Like her mentor, Ganguly has also had close ties with Bengal. At the age of 12, she went to Visva-Bharati, Tagore’s University, to study history, but learnt music and dance as well.

Her elder sister was the Rabindrasangeet exponent Gita Ghatak. But for Ganguly, even though she learnt Rabindrasangeet along with classical music at Visva-Bharati, Bengali music was never an option. “As I grew up in Lucknow, I didn’t consider myself a Bengali. Also, Rabindrasangeet would have restricted my reach only to Bengal and I always wanted recognition at the national level,” she stresses.

What caught her interest as a student was dance. At Santiniketan, she learnt Kathakali and Manipuri, and later trained under Kathakali legends Kunju Kurup and Chandu Pannikar. She learnt modern dance from America’s Martha Graham, and performed Kathakali at the Bolshoi theatre in the former Soviet Union. She also taught at the National School of Drama in Delhi where she introduced a course called Movement and Mime.

An established dancer in the Fifties, Ganguly strayed into music. She was performing Kathakali at a show in Delhi when the vocalist accompanying her forgot some lines from the song being sung. So the dancer started singing. After the performance, Kathak dancer Shambhu Maharaj greeted her backstage and complimented her on her voice. He also persuaded her to learn music from him. And that was the start of her musical life.

Sometime in the early Sixties, classical singer Siddheshwari Devi visited Shambhu Maharaj when Ganguly was singing. “She loved my voice and offered me a national scholarship for classical music,” Ganguly says, and adds that she travelled around the country with her, learning more and more about the art.

And, then, at a performance with Siddheshwari Devi in Lucknow, Akhtar heard Ganguly and wanted her as a student. But for that Akhtar needed Siddheshwari Devi’s permission — and the two legendary singers were not on the best of terms.

So Akhtar went to Siddheshwari’s house in Delhi one night. “It was around 11pm when she came to Amma’s house. ‘Look, who’s come to your door after 30 years,’ Ammi said to Amma in Hindi. The same night, the ganda bandh (symbolic acceptance of a disciple by a teacher) ritual happened,” Ganguly says.

The singer is interrupted by a phone call. As she talks animatedly on the phone, I notice that she looks considerably younger than her 73 years. She is wearing an orange cotton sari, and the silver bangles on her wrists and the pearls in her neckpiece add more grace to her beauty. The diamond nosepin she is wearing is the one Akhtar used to wear.

“It was gifted to me by Abba, her husband, after her death,” Ganguly says.

Akhtar married lawyer Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi in 1945. Ganguly rejects stories that Abbasi did not allow her to sing. “She wanted to have a home. So she didn’t sing for eight years. But after she had six miscarriages, she got back to singing. The doctors advised her to do so to help her fight depression.”

Ganguly can’t stand rumours about Akhtar that continue to float nearly 40 years after her death. She rejects theories that Akhtar was a tawaif, or a courtesan. “Her mother once requested the tawaif community in Mumbai to take her under their fold and even offered to give them Rs 1 lakh in exchange. But they refused,” she adds.

She adds that she knows Ammi’s story because she spent numerous evenings with her. Akhtar loved dressing up her gudiya (as she referred to Ganguly). “She had gifted me several colourful ghararas. She used to make braids and put jhumars (hair ornament) on my hair,” Ganguly recalls.

Akhtar smoked numerous Capstan cigarettes through the day and also loved her whisky. “She gave up drinking for two years after coming back from Haj but started again,” she says.

But the ghazal queen (she was called Mallika-e-ghazal) had also faced traumatic times. Her twin sister Zohra was poisoned as a child and later died. Their house in Lucknow caught fire. She was pregnant when she was 13, and had to later introduce her daughter Shamima to the world as her sister.

“She could never forget these incidents. She hated going back to her hotel room after a performance because the loneliness reminded her of her pain,” Ganguly recalls. “Loneliness was her constant companion.”

The author of the book Ae Mohabbat… Reminiscing Begum Akhtar had an enduring bond with her teacher, where religions and rituals mingled. Akhtar was a devotee of Lord Krishna and Ganguly fasted for roza for five years while accompanying her.

“I used to cook kebabs and korma for iftar,” Ganguly remembers. But Akhtar, she adds, was not a foodie. “She loved simple food, mostly arhar dal.”

When Ganguly’s son Arijit was born, Akhtar barged into the nursing home late at night and started singing a traditional song heralding the arrival of a child. “She distributed sweets to everyone saying, ‘Have something sweet, Begum Akhtar has had a child’. She always considered my child her own,” says Ganguly, who was married to former Sangeet Natak Akademy secretary Keshav Kothari.

Once Arijit, then 10 months old, was missing from home. A day later, the distraught mother got a call from Akhtar, who demanded that some woollens be sent over to her house for the child. “It was only then I discovered that the child was with her,” Ganguly adds.

Akhtar and Ganguly had another bond — and that was cinema. But Akhtar, who acted in films such as Mumtaz Begum, Jawaani Ka Nasha, Roti and Jalshaghar, did not want her student to act. Ganguly took a role in Kalpana Lajmi’s Darmiyaan only after her death. Her daughter Meghna Kothari also acts in Hindi films.

Ganguly now plans to make a feature film on her Ammi. But funding is a problem, she complains. “Also, I am looking for someone to play the phases of her life between Bibbi Sayyed and Akhtari Bai Faizabadi,” she says.

Since Akhtar’s death — she died after a heart attack suffered during a concert in Ahmedabad in 1974 — Ganguly has been seeking to carry forward her Ammi’s legacy through her songs. She believes that Ammi could be best understood by her melodious ghazal — Khushi ne mujhko thukraya hai, dard–gham ne pala hai (Happiness eluded me, and pain nurtured me).

“The ghazal tells her story,” Ganguly says.