The once-unified, syncretic music tradition of Punjab now lives on in the art of a practitioner who comes from the other end of the subcontinent…
I write this the morning after I attended a tabla recital by a man who must be close to being the best tabalchi of our age, Yogesh Samsi. Although I admire Samsi’s art (and craft), I remain unconvinced that his instrument can do its work without the endorsement alongside of a voice, sitar, sarod, flute, or violin. On this day Samsi played masterfully, as is his wont, but while he was eminently listenable, he could not, without those other aids and accompaniments, be memorable.
Anyway, for me, the nicest thing about Samsi’s concert was the debts he acknowledged to his teachers. The son of the well-known classical singer Dinkar Kaikini, he chose early on to depart from the family tradition and trust to his hands rather than his voice. At the age of four he started learning the tabla from Pandit H. Taranth Rao. Later, he sought the guidance of Ustad Allarakha Khan, one of the greatest tabalchis of the twentieth century. Samsi spent 23 years under the tutelage of Allarakha, a period long enough for him to have acquired almost all that the older man had learnt in many decades in the trade.
When their audience consisted of connoisseurs alone, musicians did not care to announce the names of the compositions they sang or played. Now, performing before a very heterogeneous crowd, of true rasikas, total musical illiterates, and those (like the present writer) who are somewhere in-between, most vocalists and instrumentalists follow the organisers’ instructions to tell the audience what exactly they are playing or singing. And most do this, albeit in a very perfunctory manner.
Samsi, however, seemed to take a real interest in the genealogy of the very many compositions he played for us. Each time, he would tell us with which Ustad it had originated. His repertoire consisted of some original riffs of Allarakha Khan, combined and enriched with others from Allarakha’s teacher Mian Kader Baksh, whom the tabla player referred to as his “Dada-Ustad” (this a not inappropriate term, and also a very charming one, since of course Samsi had never seen or met him). Still other variations came from other members of the Punjab gharana of tabalchis. Once, when attributing a composition to an unfamiliar name, he said that the artist in question had, like many others, gone to the other side after partition. As Samsi put it, “we do not know what happened to him, we know him only through his compositions”.
Some years ago, I had heard Samsi’s father, Dinkar Kaikini, sing Multani, a raga that carries the name of a city, now in Pakistan, that very few Indians will ever get to see. But Multani is only one of very many ragas that Kaikini sings, whereas his son had been centrally shaped by a tradition of tabla playing associated with the undivided Punjab. In British days, and before, these masters of music roamed from Multan to Patiala, from Srinagar to Simla, playing in the towns and cities of what is now Pakistani Kashmir, Indian Kashmir, the Pakistan Punjab, the Indian Punjab, and Himachal Pradesh. In these places they played at the invitation of various patrons, and with different vocalists and instrumentalists, to mixed crowds of Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, and even the odd Christian.
On August 15, 1947, the day that the Punjab, and India, were divided, the veteran Unionist politician Khizr Hayat Tiwana wrote to an English friend of how he wished he “could do anything to save the unity of the Punjab... It is heartbreaking to see what is happening... We will have to start afresh [but] there is hardly any hope of building things on old lines as communal hatred and mutual destruction are now uppermost in everybody’s mind.”
The ethnic cleansing that followed the division of the Punjab was horrific. Before August 15, 1947, there were more Muslims than Sikhs in Amritsar; now, since the city was allotted to India, they were killed or forced to flee. Before that day, Lahore was as much a Hindu and Sikh city as a Muslim one; after that day, the only Sikhs permitted to stay behind were those who tended the great gurdwara outside the Lahore fort. Here and there, a few families managed to escape the carnage and the exodus. There was the odd Hindu who stayed on in the countryside of the Pakistan Punjab; while some Punjabi Muslims managed to make their home in what was now India. Among them was the Urdu poet Sahir Ludhianvi, who — with other writers and singers — found refuge in the Bombay film industry.
Even as it claimed those million (or more) lives, the partition of the Punjab dealt a body blow to a once unified, syncretic, tradition of literature and music. A small slice of that tradition, however, was preserved in the shape of Allarakha Khan. I do not know how, and what in circumstances, Allarakha came to live in India rather than in Pakistan. But in doing so, he passed on his art — and his craft — to a man who, in background and demeanour, is as far from being a Punjabi Muslim as one can imagine. Yogesh Samsi comes from the other end of the subcontinent as his master. Whereas Allarakha was (as I remember him) burly and big, with a loud laugh and long, white hair that flew spectacularly about him as he played, his disciple is small, slight, bespectacled, and soft-spoken. Yet, through a delicious accident of history, it is this Konkani-speaking Saraswat who carries on, in his mind and through his hands, the great Punjab tradition of tabla-playing.