In the age of information, it is important to be considered newsworthy by those who bring you your daily news. Or you get blacked out. And they—the breaking news brigades—are very sure of what is newsworthy and what isn’t. Perhaps that is why most newspapers and TV channels did not think that the death of Mehmood Dholpuri, one of India’s leading harmonium players, deserved even a few lines in the passing. Friends and music lovers who passed on the news of Dholpuri’s demise on 25 May to the media through press releases received no acknowledgement. Some newsroom editors even snapped back when pushed to report with an irritated “Who was he?” We should have known better than to think that anyone would know, or care. I mean, Dholpuri just lived, loved music and the harmonium, accompanied the greats of Hindustani classical music, got a Padma Shri some years back, fell ill and died. What’s so newsworthy about that? Where’s the story? Well then, as the newsrooms cast away Dholpuri, I guess the only option is to remember him from one’s own association with him and hope that he will be remembered duly by those whom he accompanied so often.
I first met Dholpuri at my very first concert in Delhi, sometime in the early 1980s. I was then an Allahabad girl in my early 20s, travelling to the Capital for my very first public concert, and Mehmood bhai, as I began addressing him, accompanied me on the harmonium. By then he was a fairly well-established name in Delhi music circles despite being young in years. A photograph from that concert at the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, New Delhi, shot by well-known photographer Avinash Pasricha, shows me beaming away excitedly from behind a tanpura with a reed-thin, bespectacled Mehmood bhai on the harmonium, and my sister Ragini playing a second tanpura. All three of us are quite unrecognizable because of the many kilos we have happily permitted ourselves to put on in the interim. But since that concert, many light years and light kilos ago, Mehmood bhai accompanied me on many occasions, always addressing me as “Sobha behen”. He never really got my name right, but that wasn’t the reason for the gap years in between when I got hopping mad at him and vowed never again to invite him to accompany me.
Low notes: Dholpuri (right) with Mudgal. Courtesy Avinash Pasricha
Once, years ago, probably in the 1980s, he was accompanying me at a Spic Macay concert at a Delhi college. As I finished the first raga I had opted to sing, and started tuning for the concluding piece, I was startled and quite bewildered to see Mehmood bhai hastily packing his harmonium as if the recital were over. Noting my expression, he leaned forward and explained in a conspiratorial whisper, “Sobha behen, aise maqaam par khatam karna chahiye ke log aur sunne ko taraste reh jaayen”, meaning you should end a recital at a point when people are still thirsting for more. New to both Delhi and the concert circuit, I thought I should pay heed to the advice of a more experienced artiste and rose from the stage preparing to make a confused exit when the audience demanded more loudly and vociferously. That’s all it took for me to return to the stage and for Mehmood bhai to disclose the actual reason for his haste. In another conspiratorial whisper he revealed that he had accepted another assignment to accompany a very well-known maestro in a house concert at the home of a then powerful politician with a taste for classical music. As far as I remember, I sang the second piece with just the tabla, promising to never again let Mehmood bhai accompany me.
But promises, quite like pie crusts, are made to be broken and in a year or so, we were back on stage once again. After all, life is too short to be nursing grievances forever more.
Write to Shubha at email@example.com