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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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