Over vegetables cutlets and sweet lime at the India International Centre, New Delhi, come pouring tales of gurus of yore who lived in forests and ‘commanded’ classical musicians to come over to give a performance; of natural healing occurring with nothing but music playing doctor; of militants and police putting guns and earthly conflicts aside to enjoy a few hours of heavenly ragas together. Indeed, with Pandit Bhajan Sopori for company, even a mundane winter afternoon turns into a magical journey into another time, another world.
His world was one where octaves, kalam and boles rang their sweet notes through the house and where infants played in their father’s or grandfather’s lap all through riyaz, strumming strings and humming melodies. Born in 1948 to the illustrious Sufiana Gharana of Srinagar (the exclusive traditional santoor family of the country), Pandit Sopori was initiated into santoor playing by his grandfather Pandit S. C. Sopori and later by his father Pandit Shamboo Nath Sopori, and gave his first performance at the tender age of five. Not only did he explore various dimensions of the santoor and sitar within his own world (he has a double Masters’ degree in classical music, besides one in English literature), but he also crossed over to the US, to understand nuances of Western music at Washington University, St. Louis.
Over five decades of dedicated work, Pandit Sopori carried out path-breaking innovations in the field of classical santoor music such as increasing the range of the santoor from the conventional one-and-a-half to more than five octaves, and creating award-winning combinations for almost every kind of musical heritage – from Punjabi to Bhojpuri – and all the major poets of the country. “I’m currently working on a Sindhi album, experimenting while retaining tradition,” he explains. He sees classical musicians like himself as a custodian of ancient values. “Simply earning money is an idiotic motive of performing,” he opines. “We are India’s heritage. We are identifications of her history. I can sacrifice anything to contribute to that legacy.”
Hailed as the cultural bridge between Jammu and Kashmir and the rest of India, Pandit Sopori rues the conflict in his state that has taken a toll on its artistes. “Politics should not come in the way of culture and music. Professional musicians in the state earn nothing; they aren’t even allowed to perform at weddings sometimes. It’s a nightmare situation,” he says, describing how he was once given permission to perform for just fifteen minutes in Srinagar. He, however, managed to capture the audience’s attention – and tears of joy – for over two hours. In another incident at Buffalo, US, he found that Kashmiri Muslims and Hindus did not want to sit together for his performance, as they weren’t on talking terms. “I told them, if you want me to perform, then both groups have to be here’.” Both turned up to hear him, and left hugging and crying after his music roused them to their conjoined identity.
At a performance in Iran a few years ago – “It had been thirty-two years since Indian classical music was performed there” – he had his predominantly female audience singing out loud to his music. “The police said, ‘This is not allowed,’ but they could do nothing. Such is the communicative power of music. But you have to have that control, that knowledge of your craft,” he explains.
Married to Aparna Sopori, a professor of English Literature, Pandit Sopori believes firmly in the healing power of music. His compositions have been used for psychological therapies in clinics around the world, and he insists that it can mend the ways of even the most hardened criminals. “My son Abhay Rustum Sopori performed at Jammu Jail and the jailors there said that they have never seen such smiles amongst the prisoners,” he recalls, his face animated with wonder. “It was like two hours of pure joy for those unfortunate souls.”
As a classical musician, Pandit Sopori does watch with both amusement and a tinge of weariness at the antics of popular Bollywood composers. But more than the film industry, he says he regrets when other classical musicians like himself kowtow to powerful lobbies in the music industry. “Bad compositions are worse than atom bombs – they completely poison the market,” he cautions of those who create nonsense verses and silly melodies just to cater to popular demand. In his own space, he has created various annual music festivals around the country, the most popular being the eight-year-old SaMaPa where they invite forty to fifty musicians every year. “We can’t leave it to the government,” he smiles. This organisation brings together the most junior Indian classical artistes with the most senior. “There’s so much talent around but they have never been invited to perform in Delhi,” he mourns.
A lady passes by as we talk, and stops to shake hands with Pandit Sopori, telling him how much she admires his latest rendition of Jan Gan Man. “My nation is my priority,” he says, sitting back down. “But music has become showbiz. It is our mission to save it.”
First published in Atelier magazine