Archive for December, 2007

The King Is Not Dead

Thursday, December 27th, 2007

The other day, surfing channels, I came across a programme called K For Kishore. It was another of those music talent contests that are the rage nowadays, except that here, the contestants were singing only songs originally sung by the late Kishore Kumar. And it was fascinating to see the reverence and love with which people still remembered this man, who has been dead for 20 years and two months now.

Each contestant was a Kishore fanatic, even though some of them would have been infants or children when he called it a day. There was one young man who actually prays to Kishore Kumar’s spirit every day; there was another who starts his day by standing at his bungalow’s gates with folded hands. These are people who have built their lives around this man they had never seen or met, but whose songs appear to have tided them through their lives. And this is not Elvis madness: the King is not dead, he was just abducted by aliens and will return one day to reclaim his dominion and kiss the world tender, sweet. This is not about mad junkies hanging around at Jim Morrison’s Paris grave and hoping for the resurrection of the Lizard King. These are men who know Kishore Kumar is dead and gone, and who have dedicated every idle hour they have to listening to his songs and trying to sound like him. The monetary returns for this lonely pursuit must be meagre (till K For Kishore came along). But it would be an obsession that would also be fun. A joyful junoon.

Who was this man who made generations of Indians so happy? No formal training in music (he never learnt to read musical notes), yet a voice and a talent the likes of which have never been seen before or since. And not just a singer, though that is what he will be remembered most for. (When Satyajit Ray wanted someone to sing a song in Charulata with no musical accompaniment other than a piano, he turned to Kishore Kumar; Kishore’s voice, he declared, was the only one which could carry it off). The man was also an actor of enormous charm, a film director who could make people sniffle when he wanted to, a composer who pushed the limits, a film producer, writer and the maddest man in the history of the Hindi film industry. Is it an overstatement to say that he was one of the most talented men of 20th century India?

Of course, the man was, well, very dramatically eccentric. His 1985 interview in The Illustrated Weekly of India remains a classic. It was the portrait of a man, in his own words, who was not restrained by any set of norms or rules that make up that Freudian construct called superego. He talked about the trees in his garden that were his friends: “I took (a reporter) to the garden and introduced her to some of the friendlier trees. Janardhan; Raghunandan; Gangadhar; Jagannath; Buddhuram; Jhatpatajhatpatpat. I said they were my closest friends in this cruel world. She went and wrote this bizarre piece… What’s wrong with that, you tell me? What’s wrong making friends with trees?”

He then goes on to describe his encounter with an interior decorator. “I told him that I wanted something very simple for my living room. Just water — several feet deep — and little boats floating around, instead of large sofas. I told him that the centre-piece should be anchored down so that the tea service could be placed on it and all of us could row up to it in our boats and take sips from our cups. But the boats should be properly balanced, I said, otherwise we might whizz past each other and conversation would be difficult… I told him that I wanted live crows hanging from the walls instead of paintings — since I liked nature so much. And, instead of fans, we could have monkeys farting from the ceiling. That’s when he slowly backed out from the room with a strange look in his eyes. The last I saw of him was him running out of the front gate, at a pace that would have put an electric train to shame. What’s crazy about having a living room like that, you tell me? If he can wear a woollen, three-piece suit in the height of summer, why can’t I hang live crows on my walls?” What a man! Salvador Dali meets Frank Sinatra.

I think, more than anything else, we love him because he was a true hallmarked original. There never will be another like him. His voice could transport you, and he had many voices, depending on which actor he was singing for, but all of them maintained a virility and a realness that I have always found missing in singers like Mohammad Rafi: even Rafi’s happy songs have always sounded a tad mournful to me and — sorry — a bit effeminate, and there’s too much training, too much technique behind those high pitched notes. In contrast, Kishore Kumar’s voice and his singing are guileless and straight from the heart. But he was much more than the voice. If ever there was a man who was living life to the full without making any concessions to any perceived wisdom, it was him. And it showed in his best songs, whether joyous or melancholy.

In the early 1990s, I watched a TV interview of his last wife, Leena Chandavarkar. Kishore Kumar’s philosophy, Chandavarkar said, was that he was a tourist, on this earth on a holiday, so he had to have all the fun that he could pack in, do all the sights, and more, and give two hoots for what the locals thought of you. Clearly, then, the tourist engraved his initials on all the monuments so deeply that even 20 years later, they remain indelible and cheerfully in-your-face.

The Cheerful Warriors

Saturday, December 22nd, 2007

On Boxing Day, December 26, India starts its last and tenth test match of the year. Against Australia; so we should not hope for much, but no one would deny that this has been an extraordinary year for Indian cricket. It was all there: invaluable cask-aged experience and the daredevilry copyrighted by youth, the flamboyance of small-towners who never saw enough of the world to be inhibited, and lantern-jawed grit. It was a good year. But more importantly, it has led up inexorably to a cusp and transition of great significance, a year that alerted us plainly and clearly and unambiguously to an uncertain — but not necessarily bleak — future.

The year 2007 started with the horror of the World Cup, and let’s not talk about that. Or about a certain Australian skulking around in Rajasthan with what looks suspiciously like a sinecure job bequeathed him so that he makes no more trouble than he already has. In all, this year, the Indian team has played nine test matches, of which it won three, lost one and drew the rest. It won three test series — against Bangladesh, England and Pakistan. As for one-dayers, it played 37 matches, won 20 and lost 15. And of course, India became the first world champion in the Twenty20 version of the game. But if you had to give a Man of the Year award for Indian cricket, it has to be shared by two men: Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Sourav Ganguly. And this is fitting and just: the last proud hurrah of the past shares the present with the bold promise of the years to come.

Dhoni. The feature that strikes you the most about this man is that he just seems to have so much fun. However grim the situation on the field, Dhoni looks relaxed and in good cheer. His eyes may be flashing, and his bat in full bludgeoning flow, but his face always appears an instant short of a grin. The man is fiercely competitive on the field, but his demeanour suggests that he knows that it’s a game. To blood the untested Yousuf Pathan in the final of the Twenty20 tournament was not strategy but a simple statement by a man not at all awed by the occasion: this is the last game, so chal yaar, you also have a go. To hand over the ball to an unknown quantity called Joginder Sharma for the last over of the match was deliriously risky, but was also an act of leadership that came straight from the heart. Sharma was the most eager among the bowlers to bowl the last over, so the captain gave him the ball. There is something of the best of West Indian cricket about this Uttarakhandi expatriate to Jharkhand: talent, power, the will to gamble, and sheer cool.

Ganguly’s comeback, of course, has been spectacular. He has scored more than 1000 test runs in the year, including a double century and his first century at his beloved Eden Gardens. In the first few matches after his return to the team, he seemed bent on doggedly accumulating runs for runs’ sake, rather than in the best interests of the team; but as he gained in confidence, one saw all the flourishes coming back: the cover drives postmarked in Paradise, those lofted golf shots on a one-way ticket to the stands. He even seemed to have, to a large extent, got over his notorious overnight record: staying unbeaten at the end of the day and invariably giving his wicket up in the first few overs the next morning. (Oops, maybe not. When I started writing this piece, Ganguly was not out on 51 against Victoria at stumps, leading a recovery after the Indian XI collapsed to 38 for 3. But next morning, when I resumed writing, Ganguly was already gone, having faced just nine more deliveries, and adding eight runs to his score). Dravid, who opened the innings, remains not out, having grafted 38 runs off 147 deliveries (yes, 147, and remember, this is a game against a state side) with two (yes, two) boundaries.

He has had a rough year, Dravid, resigning from captaincy and then getting dropped from the one-day team, but he is too gifted a player and too strong a man to be written off, ever. However, the truth remains that his captaincy was a dour reign: his refusal to enforce the follow-on on England at the Oval, with India one game up and 319 runs ahead in the first innings, was astonishing and dispiriting. And now, for the Australian tour, he has been handed a job he may not relish: opening the batting. But Dravid is no stranger to tough — even thankless — tasks. His career is a catalogue of them: keeping wickets, seeing off the new ball because the openers fell cheaply, countless doomed rearguard actions. He should gain some solace from the knowledge that every Indian cricket lover will want him to succeed in his new role. But he needs to tell himself that it’s a game.

As Dhoni knows. As Yuvraj Singh seems to know, a man who has been on fire through this year. Around these two cheerful warriors will be built the Indian cricket team of the future. And when we look back years later, we will know that the first draft of that team was written in 2007.