Jo Chaho Ujiyaar: A Triumph of Bhakti… and Reason

July 11, 2009
Tulsidas reasoning with the mahants

Tulsidas reasoning with the mahants

The lights dim, a hush falls over the audience and the distinctive voice of Gulzar comes on the auditorium loudspeakers. Starting with a quotation from anachronistically- in a play about the 16th century Tulsidas- the great Russian writer Maxim Gorky. “There are very few good things on earth. What is good is to think about doing good things.” Or something to the effect.

When the curtain opens to “Jo Chaho Ujiyaar” I am struck by the elegance of the stage design. A large and deep stage split into three parts, the area on the left a hut, mostly Tulsidas’ residence, the section on the right a raised platform under the shade of a tree which alternately serves as a public meeting place in  a village; a chaupal, a dalaan, a worship place even as we discover through the course of the play. And the central portion, steps leading on to a large platform representing alternately Varanasi town or the famed ghats of Varanasi. Clean and dramatic, that set design.

One would have expected Tulsidas to enter early in the play, but all we see in the beginning are villagers and their struggles and vicissitudes in life. This quickly establishes the status of the exploited common villager. Very critical to the development of the idea that was Tulsidas. More about that later. The entry of Tulsidas happens a little later, so well conceived. The stage dark, a glow of golden-yellow spot on Tulsidas standing on the central platform. With the song “Bar dant ki pangati” playing in the background. The young Tulsidas ready to unleash his magic on the world.

What follows are the conflicts he has to face. The mahants of Kashi thunder as to how he could do the blasphemous act of narrating the story of Shri Ram in the commoners’ language! The hidden sub-text is that Tulsidas is taking away their command over the populace by narrating the scriptures not in Sanskrit but in Avadhi, the common village householders’ language. And there is also a sub-sub text to the clash between the Kashi mahants, who are traditionally Shaivites (Shiv Bhakts) with the Vaishnavites, the Ram bhakt followers of Tulsidas.

Multiple intrigues and sub-plots later, the denoument is reached with the arrival of then Delhi emperor’s- Akbar’s- emissary who congratulates Tulsidas for spreading religiosity among the people. He also presents him a boxful of “Ram-Siya” coins which Akbar has specially minted to express his solidarity with Tulsidas’ mission.

What some may miss out on in this intricately woven story is the relationship which Tulsidas shares with the two most influential persons in his life- both women- one his mother and the other his wife. The mother appears on stage only in flashbacks. The relationship between the mother and the son is tender and loving. The background score of “Ram, haun kaun jatan ghar rahihon” when Tulsidas is conversing with his -now deceased- mother is so poignant that can not help but cry. And the beauty is that the roles of the son and the mother are reversed when the scene is being enacted. The son become the mother and vice versa.

Ratna counselling Tulsidas

Ratna counselling Tulsidas

That Ratna, Tulsidas’ wife, was a strong influence in the poet’s life is very strongly established. In a quirk of fate, the young Ratna is her husband’s soulmate only for a few years. Her demise is fleetingly indicated in a touching scene when Tulsidas is told that she may have drowned while trying to cross the river in a stormy monsoon flood. Ratna was on her way to her maika, to celebrate the saawan month. But even in this relatively short period she has had a telling influence on the course of Tulsidas’ life. Ratna’s ghost appears some thirty years or so later, to reassure the reformer Tulsidas’ that his chosen path in life is correct. The parting of Tulsidas and the ghost of Ratna is very touching. Very inspirational for Tulsidas as she exhorts him to carry on his mission of taking the scriptures, and indeed the Hindu way of life, to the masses. To the grihasth, the common householder.

And all this grand action is highlighted by the most wonderful Tulsi sangeet you would ever hear. Some of the best pieces of Tulsidas have been selected, right from the “title song”, “Ram naam mani deep dharoon…… jo chaahas ujiyaar” from Ramcharitmanas, to stanzas from his other celebrated works like Vinay Patrika, Geetavali, Kavitavali. Tulsi “pads” like “Tu dayalu deen haun”, “Kou udaar jag mahin”. Hanuman chalisa is there of course. And his famous stuti to Shiv, “Namami Shamishaan”. Namami has been composed to a pulsating, nearly war-like beat which I had never heard before. In fact I have even heard a version in a recent film called “Dharm” which is sung as a lullaby! But in the context in which this is used (the confrontation between the mahants and Tulsidas) in the play, it seems to be most apt. . Ditto with Hanuman Chalisa. Very different compared with the various versions I have heard. And many, many more songs. Folk songs, mantras, even an old recorded piece of Kumar Gandharv. And yet another recorded dhrupad of Gundecha brothers.

The songs are sung by none other than the celebrated Pune-based Hindustani classical vocalist Sanjeev Abhyankar, the one who received the national award for the best playback singer for his very first Hindi film song way back in 1998. A voice of someone who is in complete control of the octaves, a voice suffused with supreme devotion. And guess what this great singer told in the press conference! He said that all the credit for the success of this music should go to Anshu (the man behind this project), as it is his passion which shows up in the final music. What humility on part of this great singer!

This music is superbly composed by the music director, Hem Singh, who is little known outside the Lucknow circles. But this gentleman has done a wonderful job. I met him before the play and complemented him on his work. I told him what I felt, “kaljayi kriti”, a work which transcends time.

And the celebrated sound designer, K.J. Singh? I have no competence to judge, or even figure out, what he has done. But I do know that he has put together one of the best musical compositions ever. And this jolly sardar from Mumbai, the guy who too is a national award winner for his sound engineering for Omkaraa a few years ago, was confabulating with the auditorium sound guy till the last minute before the play started. Giving them appropriate suggestions, I suppose. And KJ also took Anshu’s family, and me as a hanger-on, for a late, late dinner that evening. Chatting with Anshu all the while as to what all he needs to do before the next staging.

Tulsidas narrating Ramkatha

Tulsidas narrating Ramkatha

And in this thing about great music it would be naive to forget about the performances given by the actors. That the actor who plays Tuslidas, Varun Tamta, has entered the soul of his character is undoubted. The effortless ease with which he straddles the stage playing a 30-year old Tulsidas in act one and then in act two, Tulsidas at 60 years and beyond is enthralling. Tulsidas narrating Ramkatha to the common men in one scene, reasoning with his detractors in the other, a husband in the third and a son in another. The pains and struggles of Tulsidas, and his innate humanness, all reflects so clearly on the actor’s face and movements. The strong counterfoil to Tulsidas is his young wife, Ratna, played by Manisha. A simple village girl with a mind of her own. And an ability to engage someone of the stature of Tulsidas as an equal. Strong, yet loving. The tenderness of the relationship is well brought out by the director.

The director duo of Parijat Nagar and Suresh Lahri have put this large cast together to weave an altogether enthralling story. A story which seems very relevant even today. The story of reason versus religious bigotry. A story of the voice of sanity among the cacophony of maniacal cries.

What about the man behind the show, Anshu Tandon himself? Well, he was seated between his wife and I, and “enjoying” the show. He was hoping I would not notice his tears, as I hoped he would not notice mine. We both kept our hankies ready, but at strategic distances from our respective eyes.

And Mr M Gorky? Well, his words were prophetic. True, there are indeed very few things good on earth. At the risk of sounding dramatic, I must say Jo Chaho Ujiyaar is one such. And Anshu is one guy, who keeps thinking about good things, and sometimes doing some great things.

Take a bow Anshu!

PS: 21st Jan 2010.

Anshu has posted a “trailer” on You Tube. Here is the link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BcEpmkLZXLw

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Passion Play

June 21, 2009
Jo Chaho Ujiyaar!

Jo Chaho Ujiyaar!

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”

“Umm… Uhhh..!”

“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.”

“Sure”

“The album has to sound professional, world class!”

“Sure”

“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.”

“Why?”

He thinks it is beneath his dignity to sing for a novice’s play.”

“Oh, then?”

“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.”

“Naseer who?”

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.

Nahin.”

“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.

santoshojha@gmail.com