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The Human Face of Great Masters

Partho Datta

By Amar Mishra
Rupa and Co., New Delhi, 2004, pp. 95, Rs. 295.00

By Ashok Roy
Rupa and Co., New Delhi, 2004, pp. 335, price not stated.


Amar Mishra is the doyen of music patrons in Delhi. His love and engagement with Hindustani classical music is well known. His pursuits as a keen listener brought him in contact with many famous and upcoming musicians. All enthusiastic listeners have the urge to come close to personalities who produce musical magic. The results of such encounters, which form the lore and legend of the musical world, are often mixed. Great musicians turn out to be vulnerable people who despite the adulatory love of followers display all the usual frailties and shortcomings of ordinary mortals. As Amar Mishra writes in the chapter on Begum Akhtar, such failings only brought home to him the human side of musicians that made them even more endearing. If most musicians display a love of good food and others a fondness for drink, it only demonstrates that sociability is an important value in good music. Few musicians want to stay aloof atop the ivory tower!   The importance of this charming memoir despite its very short length is that it is a valuable record of Hindustani classical music in the post-independence era. For the present generation even the ‘greats’ such as Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar or Bhimsen Joshi are very much past their prime. It is necessary to keep on record the experience of listeners who heard these musicians at their peak. Good recordings fortunately exist for this era. But they only tell a one-sided story of musical virtuosity from the raised position of the stage. Equally relevant is the perceptive listeners’ account from the ground of ambience in the hall and pandal, the hidden politics of patronage and ego clashes and most importantly, chronicling the story of fine musicians who never made it. It is for this reason that Amar Mishra’s chapters on the late Latafat Khan or senior vocalists like the Kichlu brothers [Vijay and the late Ravi] and Lalit Rao, fine singers in their own right who despite their prodigious and entertaining talents never became stars are such a joy to read.   Readers will find a fund of anecdotes about musicians throughout this book. As an important official of the powerful Indian Tobacco Company, Amar Mishra would invite musicians to his home for concerts. Always on the look- out for good music in the smaller towns, he discovered young Parveen Sultana in Nowgong in Assam and arranged her first public concert in ...

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