5 p.m. My Guruji, Pt. Kishan Maharaj, sends me a message…” Ask Sandeep to wear a nice Kurta for the concert tonight!” This is very surprising, I tell myself… I would anyway wear a nice Kurta to tonight’s concert… it is a concert of Guruji with Pt. Ravi Shankar, come on!
The entire city of Varanasi was waiting for this concert of theirs. They were getting together on stage after a long gap.
So why this special instruction? Anyway, not giving much thought to it, I brought out the best I had and wore it. As I came out of my room to pick up Guruji’s Tabla case and put it in his car… another statement came that had my heart thumping….
“Bring your Tabla, too!”
“What??????” “Did I hear that correct?” “No…It can’t be!” Myriad thoughts crossed my head, like lightning! No… I cannot be playing in this concert. My heart thumping wildly by now, I asked mildly, “Guruji , my Tabla?”
“Yes, you are playing tonight!” was his simple answer!
The whole world seemed to open up under my feet at that very moment…
Oh, God…I must be dreaming…this cannot be true… If I had known earlier, at least I could have practiced more. And Guruji…he could have at least told me a day earlier? Not that even a week would have been much. I would have rather preferred an entire month to prepare for just this one concert!
I was all of 15 years and was going to debut with Pt. Ravi Shankar and Pt. Kishan Maharaj ji on stage!!! Can you beat that?!
And preparation? Nil!
"O.K." I tell myself. "I am sure Guruji is going to give me some tips before such a crucial concert."
We sit in the car and I keep waiting for him to say something… and nothing comes out of his mouth. He is behaving as if this is just like any other concert?
Nothing still and we are about to reach the venue….
As we alight from the car…he looks at me and says, “ I don’t want you to be scared of anyone on stage… If I see that you get scared during the concert I will kick you off the stage then and there!”
Well there it was, the invaluable tip!
Enter Pt. Ravi Shankar. Greetings done, my Guruji tells him “This is one of my favorite students, another Bengali like you. He is going to play tonight with us.” Ravi Ji looks and smiles at me.
I am hoping against hope that they would probably practise a little so that I may know what they are going to play in another 30 minutes time… but practise? They do not even discuss anything about the concert!!!!
There I am, suddenly in front of thousands of people, and you can almost hear the eagerness with which the audience is waiting for the concert to begin.
Enter the Maestros…thunderous clapping!
Pt. Ravi Shankar announces the Raag and then, to sound the death knell, he mentions the Taal (Rhythm cycle) “Dhamaar”! This is the Taal that they both were famous for playing together. It was like the “piece de resistance”!
And can you believe it when I say that I had not even been taught this Taal till then?
End of a long Aalap. Time for the composition to start…I tell myself, "Guruji knows that I have not been taught this Taal, he will definitely ask me not to play till some other easier Taal is played."
But little did I know, as Pandit Ravi Shankar starts his composition, our eyes, mine and Guruji’s, meet. Mine, praying that he asks me not to play… his, shooting a bullet into mine…and the only answer they had was, “You better play or I kick your behind off the stage!”
Guruji used to have “Paan” (chew betel leaf) in those days…so he just makes this sound that means… “Play or Die”.
Then he took the mic and said something to the world that still resonates in my head and heart!
“Ladies and Gentlemen, imagine someone who has just bought an air gun stepping out in to the woods. He thinks he will shoot some odd bird or rabbit, but what would happen if what he sees in front of him are Two Lions instead (Pt. Ravi Shankar and himself)? Well, that is the condition of this student of mine. Please forgive him for any mistakes that he makes, but do bless him. One day he will make you all proud!”
So there I am, starting my opening piece in a Taal which I don’t know. But Thank God, Guruji had never spoon fed us…!
I quickly react and start improvising on another Taal, which is “Rupak”, a seven beat cycle.
One composition I knew in Rupak was “ Dha thit Dha thit dha dha tinna kita tak…”. I just start playing that… I am not even breathing or alive… it is a long and nice piece, and somehow, almost in slow motion, it ends right at the downbeat.
As I hear clapping, I wake up and catch Pt. Ravi Shankar nod in acceptance towards my Guruji with a smile. I warily look towards my Guruji and see him beaming and smiling at me with pride!
Wow, what a relief…and I am still on the stage!!!!
L to R: Pt. Kishan Maharaj, Pt. Ravi Shankar, his student and Sandeep Das
This is one of the many such situations that he would just throw me into in the future. I would wonder then…why he doesn’t he tell me in advance?
Now, I thank him more and more with every passing second. Beause no matter how far I have flown, how little I have slept, what I have eaten or not… once my hands are on my Tabla and I am on stage… I am always ready for the show!!!!
I wish I could thank him in person once more!!!!