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12 a.m. LIFE and DEATH!

It was a concert I was playing at the age of 14. My Guruji, Pt. Kishan Maharaj, and another famous Indian artist, Pt. Mani Lal Nag, were scheduled to perform after us.

The singing started and I joined in. As I was about to take my first opening solo, I was shocked to see Guruji in the audience. With him it was always “do or die”. Meaning either you play well now, or you were dead anyway when he gets to see you afterwards!

Without caring for anything else, I gave it the best shot of my life. At the back of my mind was an image of all the other senior disciples that I had seen getting a piece of his mind after concerts that they had played, which he didn’t appreciate at all. The one thing he hated was “timidity” on stage. And that is all that I remembered as I went for it.

So there I was, playing one piece after the other. The harder, more mathematical the better! I didn’t give a damn to what the singer was doing on stage— all that mattered was my skin! Anyway, the concert ended and I felt I had done my Guruji proud by playing all that I had learnt. Following the concert, Guruji and the sitar artist mesmerized the audience!

12 am Midnight… in his hotel room, I got one of the most important lessons of my music life.

As I entered his room (which is the tradition after a concert), one look at his face and I knew what I was in for. He actually refused to look at me and kept watching the news on the T.V. for some time. Standing there, I felt it was easier to die than to keep standing dreading what was coming next.

Finally he looked at me asking me to sit down. Pause…silence, that was deafening!

First sentence out of his mouth: “Who do you think you were playing with tonight?”

Second: “You ruined my entire reputation.”

Third: “If this is how you are going to play, please stop playing Tabla now.”

Fourth: “The moment you played your first piece you knew that this singer was weak in rhythm and you kept playing more and more difficult things?”

Fifth: “If you continue playing like this I can assure you, you won’t get a single concert in the future.”

Pause…another deafening period of silence!

By now I was wondering, well this is not what I have heard you tell other students? I have always heard you scold them for not playing enough, being scared on stage, being scared of the other artist. And here I am now, now that I have played all that I could, scaring the s..t out of the other artist, how could you be upset with me? Of course, I kept all these thoughts to myself. Not that I would ever have the courage to say all this to him.

Then after one of the longest pauses of my life, Guruji spoke again.

“Son, the duty of a good artist is to hide the weaknesses of the fellow artist on stage. Not to expose it further."

"The moment you realized that this singer was weak. You should have chosen simpler stuff and played according to her strength. You have to control your playing according to who you are playing with. No matter who is in the audience… your first priority is to produce good music not worry about trying to make someone happy in the audience. Today you were more concerned about me and the Sitarist, but not about the music. Never do this again in your life!”

“Even if you are playing with someone musically weaker than you, never use your strength to demolish them, rather use it to enhance whatever good they have in their music and you will be respected as a true musician!”

Need I say more? Today, as I write this, I wish Guruji was alive once more to scold me again and teach me more about life and music!


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