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Requiem for a Lost Generation

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Requiem for a  Lost Generation

When Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar opened the bowling attack and other tales of folk multiculturalism in action

Feedback from the three men and a dog who, in my optimistic assessment, are the folks who read this column every alternate Sunday, is that there is a reason those of us who were born in the Capital in the 1970s and grew up in the 1980s/90s are somewhat of a Lost Generation of urban India. For, our stories, even if only in the form of vignettes, get squeezed between the reminisces of those who came of age in times of certitude and rebellion in the decades that preceded us and are now the Establishment, and the careerist work-hard-party-harder millennials now in their mid to late 30s who followed us and aspire to become the Establishment. We, largely unnoticed, seem to have slipped niftily into our 40s, still trying to make sense of the chaotic ecology that is India without succumbing to galloping schizophrenia.

The first marker of fully paid-up members of the LG is the palpable sense of semi-detachment that surrounds them, apart from a shameless insistence on using the Wodehousian literary device of abbreviating without following the rule of first-mention in parenthesis. Secondly, they rarely if ever keep up with the friends of their early youth in the main because the world they grew up in has turned on its axis and, as the German Romantics (or was it Faust?) put it, without context we do not exist. Thirdly, though there are always exceptions, they possess negligible networking skills; not because they don’t want to get ahead as much as the next guy or mind terribly being socially desirable but because they were brought up to believe that you just did your thing and if you did it well and with integrity, rewards professional, creative and financial would follow. You find me a person with these three attributes from the so called Learned Professions (broadly, academia/bureaucracy/law/media/the arts) and English-speaking classes of Delhi and I will find you a 70s born child.

So, when those of us from the LG whose work includes engaging with ideas of nationhood, of an Indian exceptionalism and of a natural, almost organic Indic folk multiculturalism look back at our lived experiences, we come up with Bachchu, or as he is better known these days: Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar, Padma Shri, the foremost proponent of Dhrupad — the oldest existing form of Hindustani classical music — in the land.

Bachchu and I grew up a few houses apart in Nizamuddin East — both families on rent, of course, because at the time everybody’s parents and grandparents unless they happened to be grubby businessmen, eye-on-the-main-chance bureaucrats or grasping, as opposed to genteel, post-Partition refugees figured (foolishly as it turned out) there was enough time to buy at some later unspecified date. Our families knew of each other in the way that families did during late 1970s Delhi; he, a few years older than me, came from an illustrious clan of classical musicians with an Urdu poet in the mix, self from a not unknown political-academic-journalistic multi-ethnic family.

I was regularly winched from the pretty loose grasp of my maternal grandmother who was only too glad to have me out of the house by various Aapas (Bachchu’s bevvy of elder sisters including one who was a superb wicketkeeper in the cricket matches the extended family and neighbours got up on a Sunday) and fed the most wonderful mutton meals, eating as part of the family, sitting wherever I found space in the Dagars’ warm, shambolic first floor flat — on the floor, at the dining table, in a bedroom or wedged into a windowsill. (Many years later, I learnt from my strict vegetarian, devout Hindu, twice-a-day praying grandmother with a partiality for a solitary smoke or two in the evening that she was always assured, though she never asked, that I would not be given beef even if it was being prepared.)

But there was one ante-room that was out of bounds even for moi, spoilt as I was by Bachchu’s sisters, aunts, cousins and mother, and that was the ‘practice room’. That’s where uncle (friends’ parents were all called ‘uncle’ and ‘aunty’) Ustad N Faiyazuddin Dagar and uncle’s elder brother Ustad N Zahiruddin Dagar sat all day, a low hum interspersed with the occasional plucking of veena strings the only sounds emerging from it. I was either very foolish or very brave but I would sometimes peek in to be mesmerised by the array of musical instruments surrounding them, their shishyas in attendance, all footwear kept outside the door. It was, truly, a room of saadhna and for riyaaz, Indic terms with such deep cultural roots in this land that the secularized Western term ‘practice’ when used in relation to an Indic musical tradition which traces its origin to the chanting of Vedic hymns and mantras just does not capture its zeitgeist.

Bachchu too did his riyaaz regularly and I knew that he had to, complicit in his secret vocation even as he went to school and hung around with the rest of us flying kites, playing football and doing the stuff adolescents did in the early 1980s. By the middle year of that decade, I was a freshly minted teen while Bachchu was already a teenager with street cred and we were playing sports pretty seriously, which is to say all the time and not as the millennials mean it with an eye to make a career of it.

Typically, I would come from school and be out of the house by 4 pm to play football, followed by badminton under lights on a daily basis, with weekends reserved for cricket; Bachchu had a slightly different routine because by then riyaaz came first and everything else second. But he was also a Delhi kid. So, he snuck out when he could and joined us to play football (which was forbidden for him given the injuries it could cause) but his abiding passion was cricket. Bachchu and I opened the bowling for A Block in our keenly contested intra-locality matches played on the grounds of a neighbouring public school complete with matting wicket, and in retrospect I have to say that while Bachchu’s run-up and action was all arms and legs, he could swing a mean ball. I was also usually the patsy picked to go up to the flat and run the gauntlet of the older males of the family and appeal to aunty to let Bachchu come and play cricket on weekends, and I succeeded more often than not. But as we got older and riyaaz took up more of his time, I remember Bachchu telling me that his parents and uncle had spoken to him and explained the importance of the pursuit he was engaged in. (Today, as Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar, he represents the 20th unbroken generation of Dhrupad singers in the family).

The last time I went to plead for Bachchu — I think it was an important local revenge match against C Block — was sometime in 86-87, possibly. I was a strapping 14/15-year-old by then so I couldn’t cute my way with aunty who pointed me to the ante room for permission — Bachchu’s inside, it’s not in my hands anymore, you have to ask his gurus; or words to that effect. I could feel the coolness around my feet as they shuffled up to the ante room. I knocked lightly and opened the door. Immediately, uncle looked up, eyebrows raised. I mumbled something about a cricket match and could Bachchu please be excused for a while to come and play. He held my gaze for about 10 seconds. Then an imperceptible nod. I had sprung Bachchu, I suspect by then against even his own wishes, one last time.

When political illiterates today dismiss the notion of an Indian exceptionalism as so much revisionism and stigmatize those arguing for a Uniform Civil Code within which folk multiculturalism should flourish, they do so from a position of utter ignorance of the lived Indic experience not just in countless ‘polarised’ villages and small towns but also in the very heart of urban India.

(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer.)




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