Tag Archives: biography

Wrestling to Become a Flautist

Every life is a story waiting to be told, if somebody is ready to listen. 

The life stories of men and women we admire and seek inspiration from, help us find life’s lessons and solutions to our own problems. 

The little I had read about Hariprasad Chaurasia told me that his was a story that, if unravelled, could help show the way for many who wished to chase a dream, regardless of age or calling. Chaurasia is considered one of the world’s most loved flautists. In India, he has been given the title of Padma Vibhushan, the country’s second highest civilian honour. I had yet to know that his journey had not been an easy one.

All I knew about Hariji was that he had played the flute in countless Hindi film songs spanning the 1960s and ’70s. And that today, he is well known for his classical performances, which enthrall audiences from India to Japan, California and Brazil; once a year he vanishes to Europe and holds classes at a music school, where he teaches Indian classical music on the flute to groups of Western students. 

I decided to write his biography but to my dismay I discovered, there were already two books on the flautist. One of them by a student who had moved closely with Hariji and recorded facts and milestones in great detail. 

So, what could I write that was new? 

Turning a perceived disadvantage to my advantage I realised I could use the published biography as a background. It was like having a thorough research assistant’s notes presented to me. Realising that biographies of classical artistes have limited appeal among younger people, I staked my hope on a new format for the story. A format that, in keeping with the shorter attention spans, the power of the visual over the written word, and the newly rediscovered love for listening to stories, would entertain and beguile with pictures to tell the tale. It was a risk, a format that may come apart if not held together well, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

The story itself was fascinating, I realised. Unlike many of his contemporary musicians, who were born into traditional gharanas where the musical heritage was passed down through generations, Hariji’s legacy was wrestling. A skill that his wrestler father, renowned for the power his limbs could wield, wished his son to follow. Destiny led him to music – from learning vocals to taking up the flute. The radio became his teacher. And so, step by secret step he moved up the scales of musical learning, secretly playing, listening, even as he exchanged the thrashings he suffered in the wrestling pit to the tedium of a clerical job.

How he joined All India Radio and went on to becoming the Hindi film industry’s highest earning flautist and why he decided to give it all up to learn classical music from the reclusive wife of Ravi Shankar, Annapurna Devi, forms the rest of the story. But the taste of every pudding is in the eating. Here is an excerpt from my book, Breath of Gold: Hariprasad Chaurasia.

*****

An Interlude

London. 1966. It is a strange world he finds himself in. For one, he is cold. His hands are cold, his fingers too, as is the tip of his nose. Worst of all, his flute is not warm and responsive to his touch, but feels cold. He lifts it to his lips, blows tentatively; the sound comforts him, it is almost clear as always, except for the slightest hint of a hiss. Perhaps if he wraps the flute up in a woollen scarf, it will feel better . . .

He looks around at the hall he is to perform in. It is huge, and impressive. He has already been awed by the building’s façade, but the semicircular seating inside, with tiers that rise one over the other in a widening arc, is like nothing he has seen before. He does not know if all the plush seats will be filled—there seem to be so many! He supposes it must be some thousands. (The actual number is 5267.)

His recital is part of an evening of dance and music. He has been asked to play for twelve minutes.

When his turn comes, the audience welcomes him with applause, as is the custom in the West. It warms his heart. He has decided to play a simple raga, knowing that the time allotted is not enough for anything complex. He looks into the dim interiors of the space before him, settles down, signals to the tabla player accompanying him, and closing his eyes, blows into his flute.

‘When I play, I close my eyes, because then I am playing only for God.’

For the stretch of time that follows, he is aware of nothing except his music. He could well be sitting by Draupadi Ghat in Allahabad. Tabla and flute play in tandem, then together, in perfect sync, and listening to the music, the audience is in thrall. It knows it is in the presence of a true master.

When the recital ends, the clock shows that it has lasted twenty minutes. But the audience does not mind. It calls for an encore.

Flushed and happy, Hariprasad stands in the wings, waiting for the applause to stop. Someone pushes him on to the stage, telling him to take a bow. He stumbles out; then, walking up to centrestage, bends low in a namaste.

It is much later that he realizes the magnitude of his achievement. Not only has he performed at the Royal Albert Hall, London, coveted venue of every performing artiste across the world, but the audience of British and Indian listeners boasted celebrity performers, including Yehudi Menuhin, the world- famous violinist.

He celebrates by buying gifts for Anuradha. Perfumes, which, in those days, were not available as easily as they are now, in India. 

*****

I rest my case. In these times that test us sorely, it is possibly a good idea to immerse oneself in another time and space. Music and books offer that. This book combines the joys of both. 

Sathya Saran edited Femina for 12 years. She is now Consulting Editor with Penguin Random House and a full time author. Her books include fiction, essays, and biographies of cinema greats linked to music. Her most recent publication is ‘Breath of Gold: Hariprasad Chaurasia’.

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Who Was Enid Blyton?

Raised in and out of India, I don’t remember reading too many Enid Blyton novels—barring those from the Noddy series. I knew, though, they were all the rage among girls—mostly girls. They’d spend hours reading them and like fish in a school, prattle over what they’d read over their lunchboxes.

Enid Blyton (1897-1968)
Enid Blyton (1897-1968)

So, I came to Barbara Stoney’s biography of this best-selling 20th century storyteller, Enid Blyton, originally published in 1974—not knowing what to expect. But in the back of my mind, I had an impression of her as a matronly figure in the mold of Agatha Christie’s female detective Jane Marple—single, serene, even stout. The book’s vanilla cover only reinforced that notion. I didn’t think that I’d take to it, but I fell into the narrative quite effortlessly and enjoyed the portrait enough to pick up one of her books today.
Diehard fans would remember how long they sat curled up in their beds or by an open window, devouring one slim volume after another. And when they reached the end, they looked forward to the next—and they kept coming serially, too.

Over her lifetime, Blyton penned 750 books, at the astonishing rate of 23 a year. Six hundred million copies of her books have been sold worldwide. Incredulous detractors refused to believe that a single individual could have this phenomenal output, fueling rumors that she’d employed a stable of ghost writers. Sure enough, achieving this feat of creative derring-do called for boundless literary stamina, one that was her own, though developed during some of the saddest days of her childhood. For her, pen and paper was an escape from an unhappy home environment. A silent spectator to stormy exchanges between her parents, she took comfort in the sweet tales she came up with.
In Stoney’s rich narrative, there’s a turning point in Blyton’s life, without which the world would likely never have heard of her—Blyton, the writer, that is. Had she not spent a short holiday with her bestie’s family on a farm in Suffolk to take a break from the tedium of the enforced piano lessons her dad wanted her to take, she’d never have become who she became. While there, she’d join one of the older girls, a teacher, to Sunday school. Much to her delight, she discovered that her pupils were always eager to listen to her.

It was during that holiday that she found both her calling as well as her market. In September 1916, she began as a kindergarten teacher at the Ipswich High School. Soon afterwards, she took up a writing gig with Teachers’ World, an educational magazine—where she wrote a wildly popular column, “From My Window.” At 25, she published her maiden book, Child Whispers, a skinny, 24-page picture book of verses that came out in the summer of 1922.

She could turn, what would seem to most, a humdrum incident, into, well, an event and channel it into her writings, such as the comings and goings of the animal life into her garden and the blooming of the flowers. Her life was a fountain of material for her work. In fact, the lead character of the winning, 21-volume adventure series, The Famous Five, Georgina—a tomboy who liked to be called George—was based on herself. An editor once told her that his four kids had just formed a secret society, with a password aimed to keep out intruders from their ramshackle headquarters, a shed at the bottom of the garden. Out of this was born the 15 Secret Seven books.

There’s little doubt that Blyton had a fecund mind, who wrote at the speed of a reckless Manhattan cab, never seeming to have suffered from writer’s block. A veritable lexical factory, in a day, she tapped out about 10,000 words. That prodigious gift combined with opportunity. She was fortunate to have been born in an age when domestic help liberated her from household chores. She’d tell her cook what meals to prepare for the family—for the simplest of cookery challenged her—and delegate housework to the maids and sit down to work at 8 a.m., after breakfast, if she was home. She’d sit in the balcony, overlooking her lush garden in the summer or indoors, by the fire in the winter, but always with her typewriter on a board, perched on her knees; not on a table. Close at hand was her red silk shawl, a color that provided her intellectual stimulus.
Her skill for producing a brand of fiction that had widespread appeal to tots, teens and young adults, everywhere, stems chiefly, from her ability to gauge what they’d like. Example: At “Elfin Cottage,” her starter home, she put a Peter Pan door knocker and expected it to be rapped a certain way: kids, four times; grown-ups, twice; and “the little folk from the woods,” seven.

Barbara Stoney Enid Blyton
Barbara Stoney Enid Blyton

Yes, Blyton connected with kids wonderfully—but only when that contact was filtered through the medium of words. When it came to her own two daughters, she was cold to them. A woman of mercurial temper, she’d fly into a rage should there be the smallest of intrusions into her routine that she couldn’t tolerate.

Nearly all of her stories are set in the charming landscape of her own life in the English country. But they didn’t always reflect the reality of her environment. She had the habit of editing out episodes that were unpleasant and ugly. In her Country Letter in The Nature Lover magazine, she wrote:

“My adult cats earn their keep well, for no rat is ever allowed to creep in under the thatched roof, as often happens in old cottages.” In reality, though, her home had been invaded by an army of menacing rats who were carrying off bushels of apples or a sack of vegetables overnight and the noise of their traffic kept the whole household awake. Yet another example of how her words broke from the reality around her.

In 1932, she embarked on something she’d always wanted to do: a full-length novel for adults. When her agent returned it, she was crushed.

No one in Edwardian England would’ve deemed Blyton a savvy salesperson, but as I see it, judged by the lens of 21st century capitalism, she appears to have possessed a sharp knack for tapping into her readers’ sentiments. Through her columns, she was able to establish a two-way communication with them: she, keeping them updated on what she was up to and they, telling her what they thought of it by sending her postbags full of letters (which, she, herself replied to.) She was so in touch with her base that she even polled her readers about what she should name her residence. When she bought a red brick house in a pleasant, tree-lined road in Beaconsfield, a London suburb, she asked her young devotees for suggestions. They were thrilled with her request. Recommendations streamed in by the truckload. “Green Hedges” got the top vote.

During World War II paper was in short supply. In an effort to stay afloat, publishing houses were cutting back on the volume of their publications. Still, Blyton had no trouble obtaining commissions, for booksellers had long realized that a title by her was sure to fly off the shelves. But the most inventive plan for engaging her talent and what little newsprint was available goes to Brockhampton Press and its managing editor, E.A. Roker, who came up with a clever format: strip book, six inches long; three, wide, made from cuts-off reclaimed from a discontinued magazine. Blyton was to be the writer. By late 1942, Mary Mouse and the Dolls’ House, printed in two colors, selling at a shilling a pop, rolled out. Its Lilliputian size endeared them at once to the little ones.

Even today, it’s hard to escape the cuteness of a small wood boy with a nodding head, but a boy with a house of his own and a sleek red and yellow car. So beloved was he that by the mid-1950s, Noddy merchandise was everywhere in department stores: Noddy toothbrushes, Noddy soap, Noddy pencils, Noddy, chocolate, Noddy clothing, Noddy furniture, Noddy cookie jars. The ways in which words envelop young minds fueling the imagination of generations of young children are truly mind boggling.

That being said, Blyton presents us with another mind bogglingly strange contradiction: how could someone who could bring so much joy to so many young ‘uns have been an uncaring mother?

Alakananda Mookerjee is a New York-based writer who loves science fiction.

First published in October 2017.