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Gently flows the river

It was my final year of college; the Diwali vacations were approaching. ‘I want to celebrate this Diwali in a special way” I grandly announced to my family. “After all, this could be my last year as a student’ I said. “Oh are you planning on getting married next year?’ my father teased; “No, no, she thinks she has learnt everything in life’s book of lessons” my mother said with a chuckle. I was about to rebut these comments, when my grandmother gently said “I think she has a point”. Encouraged by my grateful smile, she continued “Why don’t we do something special- let us go to the holy city of Banaras.

I have always wanted to visit the temples there, and also see the Ganga, Diwali is such an auspicious time to undertake this trip” she added. I was speechless. A pilgrimage was definitely not what I had in mind when I said something ‘special’.

‘Oh yes, there is a Music Festival at the Banaras Hindu University campus, this Diwali” my mother excitedly added.

My brother was in his final year of engineering studies at the University, so there was the added bonus of meeting him too.

Before I could rally my thoughts to counter any of these ideas gushing forth, I was presented with a ‘fait accompli’. My special Diwali had been plotted, planned and presented to me on a platter so to speak!

I agreed to the trip, with ill-concealed disdain, typical of most teenagers. The only saving grace as far as I was concerned, was the veritable feast of music awaiting us at the festival.

Banaras is a city which dares you to look beyond the obvious and discover its true charm. Initially, I was wont to look down my nose at the chaotic character of the place, turn up my nose at the omnipresent smells and dust. But I was won over very soon by the warmth and friendliness of the locals. The impromptu home spun philosophy lectures, right from the ‘chai-wallah’ to the ‘rickshaw-wallahs’ were heart warming and very profound too.

The Music Festival turned out to be everything that I had hoped for. Listening to a concert, in the early morning hours on the lawns of the music college was divine. A treasured vignette of that recital was seeing a couple of peacocks, swaying to the music, as entranced as the rest of the audience. It was like watching a Kangra painting come alive. It was Diwali day! “I wanted this day to be special” I grumbled to my mother. ‘Of course, it is going to be just that” she said. “We are going to the banks of the Ganga today”

A dozen sarcastic rejoinders sprang to my lips, but before I could say anything, with a theatrical flourish, my brother handed me an invitation. ‘Read this” he said.” A concert, at the Ganges, of the Shehnai maestro- The living legend - Ustad Bismillah Khan” I shrieked with delight.

“What a splendid surprise!” That evening, we all assembled at the banks of the Ganga. There was no stage setting to be seen. The audience was distributed among several boats tethered together, with the main boat on which, Ustad Bismillah Khan and his accompanists were seated. We were to sail down the river, listening to the maestro. Not just that, after reaching the last ghat, the main program would continue in a regular concert setting. What a unique concept!

There I was, in the golden twilight of the setting sun, feeling the breeze ruffling my hair, the melodious shehnai transporting me into another world - a world of musical bliss. Above all, it was soul stirring, just watching the gently flowing river, the famous Ganga, around which are woven so many tales of Indian folklore. The soft swish of the oars, were a beautiful counterpoint to the music. All along the banks, we could see little lamps twinkling enchantingly, and bobbing out towards the water. I learnt that in Banaras this is a ritual on every Lakshmi Puja day during Diwali.

“Oh, this is indeed so very special, thank you” I whispered to my family.

We reached the venue for the regular concert. To everyone’s amazement, a “Ram Lila” was well underway. Seeing a stage complete with all the arrangements [including an audience waiting for the shehnai maestro], a wandering theatre troupe had just calmly taken over and proceeded to stage their play. Imagine the plight of the poor organizers.

Ustad Bismillah Khan, just smiled, and shrugged his shoulders philosophically. He went on to reassure the organizers by saying that “Every form of Art ultimately has a common aim-to reach out to people and share the beauty of the form.” In fact, at Khan Saheb’s insistence, we all sat down to watch the play.

There is something positive to learn from, in every situation in life. The musical voyage on the gently flowing river had culminated with a precious message- “The journey is just as important as the destination” Contrary to my expectations, it really turned out be a very special Diwali that year.

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