This is a story of how sheer passion can do something seemingly impossible. Passion backed by a lot of hard work and some luck too. This is the story of how a germ of an idea nurtured over years- dormant but never inactive- is about to bloom very shortly in a manner and style not originally conceived. This is the story of my dear friend, Anshu Tandon’s dream.
Anshu- my engineering college batchmate- and I, go back a long way, 28 years to be precise. He was always known to be a sensitive thinker. Quiet and deeply reflective in nature and given to long bouts of distant silences. And this was packaged in a startling contradictory body, the body of a tough football stopper! Which he was for his football team. Anshu and I had some common interests, including Hindi literature and dramatics. He was associated with the plays I directed in the campus, he had even acted in two of them. A man with eclectic interests (Renaissance man?), he could discuss any topic under the sun with authority and an original point of view. Talk football, US politics, Hindu caste system, quantum physics, whatever. He even wrote a commentary on one of the Upanishads which he sent to my father and had discussions with him on that. (My father, a scholar, was impressed)
A Lucknowi by birth and residence, Anshu qualified as a chemical engineer and went back to his family business of Lucknow chikan. He, over time, has dabbled in fields as diverse as software (he even bought a software company once) and Islam! His wife once complained to me that he would stay up nights reading Islamic literature and watching “Q TV”. That is Anshu, picking up esoteric ideas, toying with them and then discarding them once he was bored and something new came along. Rarely getting something to fruition. Intellectual curiosity satisfied, he would move on to his next hobby horse. This trait of Anshu’s would bug me no end, but our friendship grew over time and Anshu is one of the rare engineering classmates of mine whom I am in regular touch with.
One day, a few years ago, he called me up and mentioned his new area of interest, Tulsidas. He discussed his obsession about this saint-poet of the 16th century and discussed with me his view-point on the influence of Tulsidas on the Hindu society of North India. And how, if Tulsidas was not there, Hanuman would not have been as popular known and worshipped as He is now. “Another hobby horse”, I thought to myself, “this too shall pass”. In any case Tulsidas is not something I am awfully informed about though I do listen to CDs of Ramcharitmanas and other works of the poet. And “Hanuman Chalisa” is my regular listening choice. I heard Anshu out.
Another call, a few weeks later.
“Santosh, I want to do a play on Tulsidas”
“I am serious!”
“Sure, you must, go ahead”, I indulged him.
“But I do not have a script.”
“That is an issue”, I agreed.
“So why don’t you ask Mr So-and-so to write one for me”.
Mr so-and-so is a renowned expert on the Indian epics and a very popular Hindi novelist. His fictionalized versions of Ramayan and Mahabharat published years ago are still best-sellers. I know him because he was my father’s student in Jamshedpur in his under-graduation days. He is one person I have tremendous respect and regards for. And I stay in regular touch with him. He is the one who helped me out at various points when I was getting my father’s works published.
I sheepishly called him one evening and true to my suspicion he politely refused this request.
Anshu’s dream project did not get derailed. He got a local Lucknow dramatist onto the project. The story and idea were Anshu’s, the dramatist wrote the script. This went on for several months. Once, when I was on a business trip to Lucknow , Anshu invited the dramatist to meet me. Pandey ji, the dramatist, narrated the entire script to me which I patiently listened to. I was no expert on matters-Tulsidas. They- Anshu and Pandey ji– drifted off to some complicated discussions on the nuances of daily life of the rustic folks of the Tulsidas era. Till I donned my manager’s hat and popped the question, “When is this play being staged?”
Ah, they had never thought of that before! Actually staging the play! I gave them a “target” 8 weeks hence. And that was September 2008.
Of course, this “deadline” was not met!
Another one of Anshu’s ideas lost in the “intellectual pursuit” rigmarole, I thought to myself.
Another call one evening:
Anshu:” A play on Tulsidas has to have some songs.”
“Sure”, I agreed.
“In fact a play on Tulsidas without songs is no play at all.”
“Sure”, I could not agree more.
“And Tulsidas deserves nothing but the best.”
“Sure”, I continued like a broken record.
“I have Sanjeev Abhyankar’s voice as Tulsi’s voice in my mind.”
“Ah”, Anshu’s grandiose plans, I thought to myself.
“And some songs from Chhannulal Mishra too, for the Eastern UP touch.” Anshu continued with his wish list.
This guy is again going nuts, I was sure.
A few days later:
“I may get hold of great vocalists, but the sound engineering has to be great.”
“The album has to sound professional, world class!”
“I can’t think of any one better than the guy who does the job for A. R. Rahman.”
My jaws dropped, “Anshu, have you figured out how you will get even the contact phone numbers of Sanjeev A. and Chhannulal M.? Maybe you can locate Mishra ji as he is based in Varanasi, but Sanjeev Abhyankar in Pune?ARR’s sound engineer is a bit too far away”
“No idea, but that’s what I want.”, said Anshu, “And AR Rahman’s man is the man for me!” Anshu’s voice had a finality.
“OK, all the best. Let me know when you get hold of these luminaries.” I was getting more and more sceptical. And irritated by this grand planning. Foolish waste of time, I thought to myself.
A series of calls over the next few weeks.
“Chhannulal ji has agreed to sing for my play.”
“But how did you manage that?”
“Bas aise hi, zara saa, mulaqat ho gayi”
“Aisey hi”, “zara saa”. Anshu’s Lucknow-ese always bugs me no end.
“What “aisey hi”, what “zara saa”?”
I was chatting with Mahantji of Sankatmochan Mandir in Varanasi and Chhannulal ji dropped by. You see, he teaches Mahantji music.”
“Who Mahantji?” I was irked.
“Mishra ji is the Mahant of Sankatmochan Mandir”, Anshu was unruffled.
The penny dropped. The Pandit Veerbhadra Mishra ji. The Mahant of Sankatmochan Mandir, the founder of the world famous “Swachh Ganga Abhiyaan”. And, incidentally, the head of the Civil Engineering department IT-BHU when I was a student there.
“Ah, Mishra ji! That’s a great stroke of luck!” I conceded.
“Bilkul”, Anshu’s voice sounded excited, very unlike Anshu!
A few days later:
“Mishra ji will not sing for my play.”
He thinks it is beneath his dignity to sing for a novice’s play.”
“Never mind, we shall find someone else. And anyway, my star singer is Sanjeev Abhyankar. Sanjeev is my voice of Tulsidas. Vaani Tulsi.” Anshu sounded matter-of-fact.
“Anshu, forget about this project. Maybe you should publish the script in a book form and do away with this idea of staging the play, and the music .”
“Ab dekhengey.”, a typical Anshu response!
“ Santosh, I have just spoken with Sanjeev. He has agreed.”
“Sanjeev, who? I asked.
“Sanjeev, Sanjeev Abhyankar.” Anshu intoned.
It took a while for the penny to drop. The great Sanjeev A.! I had always been a fan of his.
Then a progression of calls over the following weeks:
“K. J. Singh is on board.”
“Who K. J. Singh?”
Arey, wohi. K.J.
Kaun saa K.J.?
“K.J., woh jo, AR Rahman ka sangeet karta hai.”
Goodness, this was becoming serious now. The KJ Singh whose name you would see on the AR Rahman’s music CDs. Think Rang de Basanti, Guru, Jaane Tu…, Ghajini, etc. He has also done Omkaara for which he got the Filmfare award.
“Naseer ko mail kiya tha, he should reply by tomorrow.”
“Wohi woh, Naseer, Naseeruddin Shah.”
The Shah himself!
“Naseer, why? What for? He does not sing!”
“I know that. He does not sing. But I do need a voice-over to introduce the play. A voice-over from a credible, serious, nationally-known personality.”
Made sense to me, to have a voice-over.
“Naseer ka jawaab nahin aaya.”
“Anshu, forget about him. Anyway, you have two big names. Sanjeev and K.J.”
“No, no! I do need someone special to introduce the play and the CD.”
“All the best.”
“Santosh, Gulzar ko mail kiya hai. His secretary called, asking me for the amount I can pay. I have quoted a price and let us wait and watch. My project is good, maybe he will say yes. But the honorarium could be an issue.”
“Let us keep our fingers crossed.” I tried to sound encouraging. The sum quoted to Gulzar by Anshu was ludicrously low. Man! No Gulzar at this price. The Gulzar sahab!! The multiple award winning poet, film editor, director. Think Koshish, Aandhi, Kinara, Kitaab and Maachis. No way!
“Santosh, price was an issue with Gulzar sahab.” Anshu’s deadpan voice on the phone as I was returning home late in the evening after a long- and difficult- day at work.
“Now Anshu, forget about celebrities like Gulzar and get on with the project.” I snapped back at him.
“What nahin?” I was big-time irritated by now.
“ Money was the issue. Gulzar sahab just spoke with me and said that for this project, he does not want any fee. He will do it gratis!” Anshu was as dead-pan as ever!
“Uh.. uh…” was my incredulous- and downright silly- response.
The next few weeks were in a blur for Anshu. Recording the “scratch” of the album in Lucknow with the locally famous music director Hem Singh. Sending the scratch to Sanjeev A. in Pune. Travelling to Pune for S. A.’s recording. Then to Mumbai for recording strains of instrumentals to go with the songs. Back to Lucknow to get some more strains done, sitar, shehnai etc. Then again to Mumbai to get this all pieced together by KJ Singh. Lucknow again for some more sounds then back again to Mumbai for recording Gulzar’s voice-over. In between Anshu traveled to Bangalore too. For more mundane stuff like getting his son admitted to a course in Christ College, Bangalore. And he then gave me the first-cut of the album. Complete with Sanjeev Abhyankar’s supple and entrancing vocals., Gulzar’s baritone, and KJ’s wizardry.
“Theek aaya hai, zara sun lo.” Typical understatement from Anshu. In his Lucknow drawl, “theek” and “hai” stretched longer than what is usual.
Suno, I did. For the next 5 hours on my Jamo home theatre system.
My teenaged kids would term this as getting “blown over”. I was blown, big-time blown!
As I confessed earlier, I am a die-hard fan of Sanjeev Abhyankar, specially his bhajans and shlokas. And I have Tulsidas poetry in multiple CDs sung by multiple singers. Right from Kumar Gandharv, to Jagjit Singh to the popular Mukesh’ version of Ramcharitmanas. I even have Tulsidas’ works in my book collection; Geeta Press, Gorakhpur’s imprints of Ramcharitmanas, Vinay Patrika, Geetavali etc.
I had tears rolling down all over my cheeks by the time I was done with the CD. The fusion of Sanjeev Abhyankar’s voice and Tulsidas poetry never sounded this sublime!
PS 1: This was my take on the preparation for this musical project of Anshu’s. And it has dwelt primarily on the musical component. My next piece will be my- a layman’s- view of the album. And the third piece will be on the preparations for the play itself.
PS 2: This Play, called “Jo Chaho Ujiyaar”, is getting premiered on 6th July 2009 at Kamani Auditorium, Delhi. Those of you who wish to attend this may mail me for invitation cards.