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Ageing Like Wine

Girija Devi accompanied by Kishan Maharaj on the tabla. It was cold and the old lady had a slight sore throat. The old gent, 82 years old to be precise had apparently been told firmly by his doctors to stop playing in concerts. Result: sheer magic.

There’s something quite incomparable about an Indian Classical concert when it goes right. There are so many of them now, and there are so many things that can and do go wrong that this writer, at least, almost shed tears of joy listening to Girija Devi accompanied by Kishan Maharaj on the tabla. 

Not being a learned critic of Hindustani Classical I will keep my comments to the nature of the performance. Here was an old lady, looking for all the world like anybody’s mausi or nani, and here, next to her was an old gent with beautiful long hair wisping out from behind a bald pate. Around them were much younger accompanists—sarangi, harmonium, two young women on the tanpura echelon who took up the singing when the Guru signalled to them. It was cold and the old lady had a slight sore throat. The old gent, 82 years old to be precise had apparently been told firmly by his doctors to stop playing in concerts. Result: sheer magic. 

During the whole gig, Girija Devi opened up the flower of her being, but she did it in the most down-to-earth, no-nonsense, humourous way. Great intensity was laced with deep mischief and simmering merriment; desire, and flirtation, longing and loss each came alive separately and yet completely interwoven with each other, the acts and emotions raised to some freaky level by incredible, easy mastery. What was frightening was the fact that there was no let up in either rigour and seriousness but neither was there any obfuscation of the chief reason we listen to live music; the exchange of joy between performer and listener. 

Towards the end of the evening, Girija-ji referred to herself as yeh buddhi and to Kishan Maharaj as her even older guru-bhai. Though she was grinning when she said it, she made the point very gently: that there were still a few things in which being young wasn’t of such importance. I don’t think she intended for her words to make anyone sad, but they almost did. 

"Make sure you catch her," someone had said, " you never know how long she’s going to be around, she’s quite old now." During the concert one image constructed itself before me: a girl, maybe fourteen or fifteen, wearing a sweatshirt and calf-length pants, going down on one knee right in front of the stage; she raised her mobile phone as if in prayer or salute and grabbed a few stills of the great woman. Walking out, I thought "Old? If this is old, I want it!" So, I’m guessing, did the teenager. 


This article originally appeared in Delhi City Limits, December 15, 2005

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