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If The Beatles were denied a visa

“This is to inform you that due to the inability to acquire a visa, the qawwali programme by Fariduddin Aiyaz, Abu Muhammad and Bros. from Karachi, to be held on Monday, February 9 … has been cancelled. Shruti Sadolikar will be performing light classical music on that evening instead.”

The notice by Sanatkada, a group of men and women from Lucknow who are committed to their city’s cultural revival, broke a few hearts. If there were a choice, I and many others would go for Sadolikar any day. And I wouldn’t have said Shruti Sadolikar will be performing instead of the qawwals. She is too big an artiste to be just thrown in casually.

Imagine saying ‘We regret The Beatles could not get an Indian visa so Bob Dylan will stand in.’ The Beatles, of course, came to India albeit on a spiritual journey in a different era. Hinduism was an attractive proposition at par with spiritual quest, not an ugly campaign led by trident-bearing proselytisers.

Anyway had Bob Dylan agreed to step in for the Liverpool gang, that too while not charging a paisa or without standing on prestige, he would have been like Shruti Sadolikar. The simple, friendly, unassuming singer counts among today’s topmost vocalists in India. And she has a heart of gold. “It is my duty to help music fans if they have been disappointed like you are today,” she told the small audience before starting with a serene composition in Raag Yaman. No light music. By the way, Sadolikar is the principal of the Bhatkhande College of Music, heir to the Marris College set up in Lucknow in 1926 as the fountainhead of Indian musicology.

Had Bob Dylan agreed to step in for the Liverpool gang, that too while not charging a paisa, he would have been like Shruti Sadolikar. Of course, I had not gone to Lucknow to hear the qawwals from Pakistan. They are good, and I had already enjoyed them at a private concert in Delhi. For some kind of cussedness that goes on between the two countries the Foreign Correspondents Club and the Press Club of India had abruptly called off a programme each by the team recently. Why am I sure the Karachi Press Club would never have cancelled an Indian programme because someone in Islamabad felt time was not ripe for a cross-border cultural exchange?

I knew the qawwals would not get the visas though I had hoped for the sake of their fans in Lucknow they would. A friend of the current high commissioner in Islamabad said he had called him on the phone to plead on behalf of Sanatkada. However, as far as I know, ambassadorial prerogatives between the two countries have been abridged by their respective home ministries. And home ministries are dicey institutions. Will the new Indian foreign secretary’s coming visit to Pakistan help set things right at least with embarrassing visa issues?

My plan for the Sanatkada event was to listen to Saman Habib’s reading of old letters from Lucknow, but that was only on the next day. So I cast my vote in the Delhi election in the morning and reached the fabled city of my childhood in time to enjoy a baitbaazi competition at the Baradari.

I do not know much about the origin of baitbaazi nor how to explain it to others. But I know you can’t have it in English. It is a contest between two teams that are required to have a good memory for Urdu verses. Opponents have to recite a verse that begins with the last letter of the previous verse read by a rival. The quality of repertoire and quick recall were the mainstay of the Sanatkada evening at the Baradari. My parents had heard M.S. Subbalakshmi and Kesarbai Kerkar there.

Listening to Saman Habib was the highpoint of the short visit to Lucknow. She is a polished performer with all the right inflections. She has a lovely voice for the microphone and read letters, manuscripts, colonial administrative notes with professional ease.

Sanjay Mattoo partnered her in the letter-reading event. He has a gift for creating a visual aura with his reading voice. A teacher in Delhi, Sanjay Mattoo has links with all the Kashmiri Pandit families that have lived in Lucknow for decades. Among the ones I knew was Kailash Nath Kaul, Kamla Nehru’s brother. An Urdu-English raconteur, he became celebrated for setting up the Lucknow Botanical Garden. Justice Anand Narain Mulla was another Kashmiri Pandit from Lucknow.

Justice Mulla became famous for describing Indian police as the most organised band of criminals. My father who worked with him in the administration of evacuee properties would tell a most hilarious story about Mr Mulla. They were visiting Lahore and the waiter at the circuit house got him beef curry for dinner. Realising the mistake, the waiter pleaded that he was expecting an Indian mullah not a Kashmiri Mulla. “In that case I’ll accept the curry today, but don’t bring me beef ever again,” Mulla Sahib told the Pathan waiter.

I was surprised to know that Saman the letter-reading expert, who happens to be Marxist historian Prof Irfan Habib’s daughter, is doing research on malarial parasite at Lucknow’s Central Drug Research Institute. Her reading of a colonial missive should be of interest to everyone stuck with the polio vaccination programme in the hostile terrains of Pakistan’s tribal belt. The stand-off has been blamed on fanatical Muslim groups. However, when Lucknow was hit by a drought, a British administrator observed similar misgivings from the people towards English medicines, which they thought was poisonous.

An exchange of letters between Saman and her cousins in Karachi would bring tears to the eyes of anyone who knows a thing or two about Partition. The cousins hadn’t met ever but they shared many interests together with a sentimental fondness for an ancestral mansion in Lucknow’s posh Dalibagh district that has fallen on bad times.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Jawed Naqvi, "If The Beatles were denied a visa," Dawn. 2015-02-17.
Keywords: Social sciences , Arts , Social art , Classical music , Polio vaccination , Musicology-India , Hinduism , Singing , Singers , Musicians , music , Fariduddin Aiyaz , Kailash Nath , Kesarbai Kerkar , Shruti Sadolikar , Saman Habib , Abu Muhammad , Bob Dylan , Pakistan , Karachi , India