Sitar at 90
Keshab Narasinha Shrestha
by Eena Shrestha
“There is nothing like a heart attack to make you appreciate things,” my grandfather says. “I had to have a heart operation when I was 68. That made me review life.”
My grandmother Aasha says, “After the operation, he wanted to learn new things. He got into yoga and became very interested. He started teaching yoga at the Bihar. But the people there said it was not the right place to pursue this form of teaching as, essentially, it was the Buddhist dhyan that they were more interested in.”
So hajurba started playing the sitar at the age of 68. What inspired him? He says he went to a friend’s place and saw a beautiful instrument. He wanted to possess it. He badgered Herwanada Rajopadhyaya until he was willing to give him the sitar for 4500 NRs. Mr. Rajopadhyaya thought my hajurba would never learn to play the instrument. He was just too old. He added, “You can return it to me if you do not want it anymore.”
Mohan Prasad Joshi, a famous sitarist and music teacher got involved. Hajurba was taught sa re ga ma pa dha ni sa and byanchuli (music that is played in the morning). Grandfather thought music was easy. Mr. Joshi kept praising him and praising him with a little, “It is not completely right,” here and there.
Mr. Joshi allowed hajurba to sit in any posture he wanted, play any song he liked. Now, hajurba wishes he had been much more strict. Hajurba has found out that it takes one whole year just to get the posture right. Mohan Prasad Joshi’s praises were welcome. Grandfather felt great when he said how he played was nice but he did not listen carefully when Mr. Joshi said, “but a ‘little’ not right.”
Mohan Prasad Joshi owned a music school called Badhya Siromani Gharana near the Ashok Hall. He was used to teaching those who were pretty good at the sitar and not all that keen on teaching those who were learning the basics! Hajurba thought he had better go down to those who taught the beginning when things started getting more and more difficult.
A couple of years had gone by before he joined the classes given by Ram Saran Shrestha in Kupondol at the recommendation of Mr. Joshi. He was the only sitar student there and sometimes he would be placed in the kids’ vocal classes, sometimes in the tabala classes, sometimes in the harmonium classes. If there were visitors, especially international ones, he would be asked to sit in the front so as to impress them: “See, we are even teaching the older generation here!”
Time passed by and he would forget to attend classes sometimes. Sometimes, he would leave home for classes and never get there. He would forget his notes and my grandma had high blood pressure and was worried a lot. She would call him on the phone and he would call her on the phone constantly asking and telling each other where he was and when he would get where and how safe he was.
Ram Saran Shrestha was very nice even though he did not know my grandfather very well. Hajurba had learned many things related to the sitar the wrong way so Mr. Shrestha had to start from the basics. Mr. Shrestha and hajurba would chat and listen to others play and drink tea mostly.
After a while, hajurba got tired, he had already played songs and he felt lazy doing the basics. That changed when Dr. Iswari Acharya (his doctor) told him during one of his checkups that he could not play the sitar because he was too old! Hajurba felt that he had to learn the sitar to save face! He felt young and felt "nothing is impossible."
He had stopped attending music school in Kupondol regularly but he continued to play and learn. The came another shock. One person, while they were conversing, said, he could well play at home but surely he could NOT play in good venues like the Mangal Bazaar Mandala where many people gathered and listened to musicians!
Hajurba was annoyed. Of course he could play in front of other people, whether it was the Mangal Bazaar Mandala or wherever. He demanded and was assigned a date to play in public. But that was really because of his age and their kindness, he felt. Hajurma, my grandmother, did not attend the public event thinking that he would embarrass her and everyone else.
“Mohan Prasad and the other teachers were concerned. Their name had been pulled in as his teachers and if hajurba did not do well, they would lose face in public.” When the day came, he was surrounded by his teachers who blocked him from the crowd and sat in front of him and watched him practice worriedly. All his teachers and the organizers thought it was highly possible that the crowd would not be happy.
After a while, when they heard him several times, it was announced! He was going to play! Mr. Joshi got up and said, “80 year old Narasinha taught me yoga and I taught him the sitar. Here he is!” Everyone clapped.
Hajurba began playing and everyone listened enraptured. The word spread. There was much conversation about it and a great buzz. People called each other on the phone, recorded him playing, and talked about how an old man had learned the sitar at 70 played at the palace square when he was 80!
“People were calling me when I got home. Some were annoyed and angry that I had not invited them to my performance,” he smiles.
Now, his life in music is gentler. Sharmila Sharma comes over to teach him but normally he learns by himself and I go and see what he is doing. I very rarely listen to him play but he is dedicated and spends a lot of time practicing. My grandmother says that he forgets the notes, sometimes he finishes a song all at once correctly and sometimes he finishes it but it’s all wrong.
I hope I have the dedication and the direction in life to do what he has done. He is truly an example to me.