Gyaneshwara, my adorable father, the most virtuoso musician the Seunas had ever known, was almost in shackles. The imperious Nagabhata, who occupied the throne of Khandela, had just sentenced my father to a life term. He would be thrown into the deep dungeons of Fort Khandwa while darkness and injustice would continue to prevail upon the people in this tiny kingdom.
The harshness of the decision left me in as much dismay as it did the citizens of Khandela, who loved him to the point of reverence. I noticed the courtiers and ministers, envious of his fame and popularity, look on with glee at his predicament, except the noble Yashovarma, who pleaded with Nagabhata to reverse his decree.
‘He has done no wrong, Your Highness,’ he said.
Instead, the evil eyed Nagabhata derided him with scorn and contempt. Sitting astride the ungainly throne that matched him in its inelegance, he bellowed mockingly, ‘Gyaneshwara… O Gyaneshwara…’ I felt disgusted. The music box was in his ugly hands; its surface glowed at his face whenever he pressed hard on it. Nagabhata did not deserve to take its possession. Not only had I surrendered that wondrous thing to the insolent King’s fancy, but also put my father’s life into his hands.
Little had I imagined the tumultuous turn of events since the previous afternoon when I had been to the local fair.
Treasure box was my favourite attraction. I handed over a coin to the man holding out the box. ‘Dip into it and pull out what you want,’ he said with a naughty smile. ‘Remember – you don’t choose the object. It chooses you.’
I put my hand through the small opening, and after much fiddling, I drew my hand out holding something. It was a small, slender rectangular object with a glass surface and a circular ring with arrow symbols. It was unlike anything I had seen before.
I scrutinised the metal object on all sides, rubbed and scratched at its surface. Its shiny back had an apple figure on it; someone had bitten into the apple. It amused me. But was this a treasure?
Suddenly, the object came alive. The glass surface shone from inside like a handful of sky washed in moonlight. I marvelled at its transformation, touching the glass, then the circular ring, and the arrows gently. Every touch changed the design on the glass surface. Another touch, and the object burst into a staccato tune. I was taken aback.
‘What was that?’ exclaimed the man.
I hastily moved away from his sight and tapped on the arrow again. The sound of music first impinged on my ears, then slowly, reverberated with my senses. The music was lilting, more fluid than the ragas I was familiar with.
What kind of an object was it that sang on its own? I must take this to my father.
The poignant strains of an alap filled the air when I reached home. Sitting on the floor, with the ektara in his lap, my father was deep in concentration. As he plucked the string, his deep, mellifluous voice rose in tempo to launch into a raga and soon got so absorbed within himself that nothing could perturb him.
‘Do not disturb him. He is rehearsing for the big event tomorrow,’ said Kapila, our cook, emerging from the kitchen.
‘What event are you talking about?’ I asked.
‘Nagabhata has organized a grand music competition at this court – open to anyone who can engage with his court musician Srngadeva in a duel and defeat him to gain the title of Sangeet Samrat.’
‘Since when has our dreaded King taken an interest in music?’
Kapila said with a sardonic smile, ‘Every King is desirous of having his glory and magnanimity chronicled in the annals of history. Wouldn’t Nagabhata want to be acclaimed as one of the greatest patrons of arts and culture?’
‘Father will make an entry into the court again!’ I exclaimed.
Kapila hid his excitement in a deliberate nod. Perhaps, this was the occasion that he had waited for, in a long time – to relive the days when artists got their deserved due.
It was upon my persistent beseeching, one day, that Kapila had recounted the entire episode – that which the people of Khandela refrained from speaking about out of fear.
Twelve years earlier, when Nagabhata ascended the throne – as a vassal ruler under the Seunas of Devagiri – he invited my father, Gyaneshwara, to join a select group of court musicians. My father considered it an honour, but not for long. Nagabhata decreed that those who were granted this privilege could only perform in the court, never in public. His fiat included the set of ragas that anyone could sing – the injunction arising out of his whim and impulse than an aesthetic preference.
‘Music cannot be confined within boundaries. Let it flow unbridled like the wind in all directions,’ said my father. ‘If the King so wishes to listen to my compositions, let him come to the temple where I perform daily. I sing in deference to the Almighty alone and for the people.’ Saying this, he declined the invitation. Incensed at this show of open defiance, Nagabhata banished my father from the kingdom.
I was only two, and I did not know what it felt like living without a father. As I grew older, I heard he was travelling in faraway kingdoms to further his proficiency in music. By then, the King had banned every form of music and art from being performed outside the court.
Years went by, and the legend of my father grew stronger. People around me sang high praises about him. I hoped that he would return home one day. Alas, it happened with the unfortunate event of my mother’s sudden demise. Setting his pride aside, my father submitted a petition to Nagabhata, seeking permission to return to Khandela, and promising he would never perform anywhere within the kingdom.
Nagabhata had had his revenge; he assented. Musicians and artists welcomed my father with renewed enthusiasm, but he remained confined at home.
At this moment, as I recalled what had transpired earlier, I sensed why Kapila hoped for my father’s rightful stature to be restored.
We walked across the street to Kapila’s house to check on his ailing wife, Gangadevi. In her mid-thirties, she was still childless and troubled with her barrenness. I reserved great affection for her, for she treated me like her son.
‘Keshava, my boy, are you here?’ exclaimed Gangadevi. She rushed out to receive me with a plate of delectable sweets. She seated me next to her and said, ‘Here, eat this sweet, and sing to me the latest raga you learnt from your father.’
‘You pamper me too much. If I were to show you an amazing thing, will you prepare more of this sweet?’ I said, biting into a big chunk.
‘What is it?’
I pulled out the ‘apple’ object and brought it to life. Her eyes widened at what she saw. I touched the circular ring and the arrow symbols. She keenly watched me, making studied attempts to decipher the pattern I used to get the music I had heard earlier.
‘Is there a secret code?’ She always liked an element of mystery.
Suddenly, a female voice sang with an ensemble of various musical instruments. To my ears trained on different ragas, the song seemed excitable and high pitched. It sounded strange in the beginning. But with the next song, we were pulled into its mesmerising appeal.
‘Music box,’ squealed Gangadevi in childlike enthusiasm. She was fascinated. Then there was another song. ‘Wonderful music box.’ She swayed gently, then rocked herself, listening to one more song.
‘Where did you find it? How?’
Fighting down the temptation to reveal my accidental discovery, I replied, ‘By magic.’
‘Magic, indeed. It only happens to a good boy like you.’
For a long time, Gangadevi indulged herself with the music box; then, becoming hysterical, called out to the neighbours. Astonished by what they heard, they called others. Kapila tried his best to be discreet, but speculation grew among the people. Soon, word about the music box spread like fire in the city. More curious people thronged the house to look at it.
Oblivious to everything, Gangadevi continued to listen in ecstasy. One song had caught her fancy; she found the way to tap the music box to listen to that song repeatedly.
By evening, a small mob gathered at Kapila’s house to get an experience of the music box; it had now assumed a form and existence of exaggerated proportions. I refused to show it to them. There was a hubbub of excited voices. Farmers, merchants, artisans – everyone was interested. Unknown to me, a few courtiers had taken note that an object could produce music without the King’s behest.
Amidst the chaos that ensued, a soldier arrived at the street. I recognized him to be one of the many informers to the King that father had warned me about.
‘Who has the music box?’ he thundered.
Before I knew it, the music box was snatched away from me. I found no support from the cowering crowd.
‘How does this thing work?’ he asked, staring at it with a blank expression.
‘Tell me.’ He brandished his sword at me.
I showed him how to make it sing.
Satisfied, he screamed, ‘Nothing extraordinary can happen without the King’s notice. This belongs to the King. It is a gift to him from a divine source. Do you hear me?’
He glared at our faces to elicit obedience. Then he turned and rode away.
I spent the evening seething in anger and jealousy. The music box was in Nagabhata’s gain. What use could he make of it? The use of force revolted me.
When he learnt about the whole incident, my ever-inquisitive father asked, ‘What kind of a box was it?’ For a moment, I forgot everything about the object. What it sang paled in comparison with my father’s excellent command over the swaras.
‘Nothing better than you, father,’ I replied.
He continued to experiment with melodic patterns late into the night.
Now, as I sat in the viewing gallery of the court, amidst an audience enthralled by their beloved musician, Gyaneshwara, I struggled to come to terms with the scenes since morning.
‘This cannot be permitted, by any means,’ Srngadeva shouted, soon after my father had finished his masterly composition. It was one of my father’s best performances. The large court reverberated with the soulful notes of his singing and the learned audience that heard him in rapt attention gave him a thunderous applause. Even the most senior critics exulted at his unique improvisation of Raga Yaman blended with Persian variations. It filled me with great pride. Nagabhata squirmed in his seat.
Until then the event had been dominated by Srngadeva, who treated every musician with condescension. But with my father’s strong challenge, he sensed defeat. His earlier performance was no match to my father’s dexterous interplay of intonation and rhythm. For a person who carried more jewellery on his body than humility in his heart, what music could he produce? Shaken by his impending loss, he launched into an unexpected personal attack.
‘Everyone might well respect Gyaneshwara,’ he said. ‘But it does not suit his stature to claim as his own that which is not originally composed by him.’
A ripple of shock went through the crowd. What Srngadeva said was beyond anyone’s comprehension. How could he accuse Gyaneshwara of such a misdeed?
‘Why! Gyaneshwara knew this composition beforehand. Our great King has the divine source that holds the key to all great compositions,’ said Srngadeva, holding up something in his hand. A slender object shone in the streaming sunlight. I noticed the apple shape glinting on its surface and felt a lump in my throat.
‘This is how the mystery is unravelled.’ Srngadeva spoke with a malicious grin. As soon as he tapped on the music box, the singing of a male voice resonated in the pillared hall. The song that echoed off the court’s walls and its high roof bore an uncanny resemblance to my father’s composition in its tempo and rhythm.
‘How is this possible?’ I heard someone gasp.
The music stopped abruptly. Srngadeva looked around for reactions. ‘Only yesterday it was stolen by his son, Keshavadatta. And the rest is obvious. Gyaneshwara has cheated.’ Saying this, he handed over the music box to Nagabhata with a touch of drama.
‘My father never listened to it,’ I almost screamed.
Suddenly, the assemblage broke into a commotion. Voices rose and fell in astonishment and disbelief. It was hard to believe Gyaneshwara could have wronged.
Undeterred, the vile mouthed Nagabhata pronounced – ‘This man shows no penitence. One who disregarded my authority earlier and insulted me now dares resort to manipulative methods for winning a title.’ Turning to the guards, he commanded, ‘Imprison him for the rest of his life.’
‘This is preposterous,’ said the dutiful minister, Yashovarma, rising from his seat. ‘Gyaneshwara’s skill is unparalleled. He, who mastered Carnatic music from the Cholas and imbibed Persian influences from the North, can stand on his own. He does not need a music box.’ His plea for my father’s innocence found support from a few other courtiers.
‘There is no one more deserving of the title than him.’
‘Is there any credible explanation for this, my friend? Is this not the same composition?’ As Srngadeva tapped on the music box again, the music resumed from where it had stopped. Everyone listened in silence. My father looked puzzled as he heard Raga Yaman with the same variations as rendered by him. Was this serendipity?
‘There you go.’ Nagabhata’s face widened into a malicious smirk. The accusation remained undisputed.
I had lost all hope.
‘Gyaneshwara.’ The music box uttered the name at the end. It was heard loud and clear. A voice spoke in a language that sounded more Sanskrit than Marathi. It was a panegyric – I could infer – that kept repeating the name, Gyaneshwara along with newer musical terms like khyal and bandish.
‘The divine object has given its verdict. This brilliant composition belongs to Gyaneshwara alone,’ declared Yashovarma in an exuberant tone. ‘Can’t you all see?’ he stirred everyone. The wise and crafty Yashovarma had saved the day.
‘Salutations to Gyaneshwara.’ The frenzied crowd cried; every cheer getting louder, emboldened by the liberation granted by an authority higher than the King. Nagabhata appeared stupefied by the sudden reversal. His undisputed power seemed to be slipping away under his feet.
Gyaneshwara rose from his seat, bowed to the court, and turned to walk out. A small group of musicians and high ranked courtiers followed him and exited the royal court. I had witnessed an awakening of sorts in the history of Khandela.
Raga – Rag (in Hindustani) or Ragam (in Carnatic), the basic melodic framework for composition in Indian classical music
Alap – opening section of a Hindustani classical performance, introduction to the main raga
Ektara – one stringed instrument
Sangeet Samrat – literal translation: Emperor of Music. Honorary title granted to musician.
Swara – connotes a note in the successive steps of the octave
Yaman – a night raga
Khyal – (or khayal) Hindustani musical form
Bandish – melodic composition in Hindustani vocal or instrumental music
Team: Left to Write
Prompt: A modern invention from the 21st century gets transported to the 12th century. What happens next? Explore.
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