Even as the train ground to a halt in New Jalpaiguri station, hawkers and peddlers had already started making their way into our compartment. If you have ever travelled by train in this part of the country you would know what's the predominant item that all of them carry around. From digital watches to cameras to two-in-ones (yes this was early 90's and two-in-ones were still in fashion) contraband from across the border used to be sold as openly and matter of factly as anything under the sun. Being a ten year old kid, most of these flashy gadgets did not catch my attention unless it was a Yo-Yo with neon lights or a toy airplane or perhaps something which made a lot of noise. So it was but natural when I requested my father to let me have a look at "that thing" when one of the peddlers came to our berth and turned on the demo of the Casio SA-1. For the uninitiated, the Casio SA-1 is the smallest model of the synthesizers or keyboards or Casios as they have also come to be called, that are available in the market. Anyway, my father was both surprised and amused by this request as I had never before seen such a thing and so he thought that I had obviously mistaken it for another toy which did nothing but make a lot of noise.
Being a single child has its advantages and although I can assertively say that I have never been a demanding one, yet there was and still is an unspoken, unwritten code of understanding between my parents and I which grants me the right to request for anything I want anytime but at the same time respect their opinion about the same. This has done wonders to my relationship with my parents and in twenty four years of my existence I have almost never had to ask for anything to which they have had an objection.
Coming back to the incident, soon I had the instrument in my lap as the peddler started pressing some buttons and keys, showing us the various beats and tones that could be produced from it. After he had been done with his customary demonstration I finally had the thing to my own. So I started fiddling around with the set of black and white keys trying to produce a semblance of the latest Bollywood hit (I have no rememberance of the exact song) and to the surprise of all and sundry present there including me, within a minute or so I was actually playing it. For me, the journey had just begun.
Like most Bengali parents, mine were also very keen that I take to some form or the other of creative art. So it was around the time that I had moved into second grade that they decided that music was to be my leisurely activity. Tabla was chosen to be my instrument and to make it more interesting, my father himself decided to take classes in Hawaiian Guitar at the same time. The fact that the tutor they chose for the job was an expert in both the instruments certainly helped. Soon however owing to my father's lack of time (12-14 hour shop floor duties in a Steel Plant can drain you out) and my excess, it was me who was taking lessons in both, learning the nuances of Teentaal and Raag Yaman Kalyan at the same time. Within a year or so, though, the Guitar lost out to Tabla primarily because Zakir Hussain had become a household name and there was nothing else I wanted to become and also due to the fact that I realised that I was far better in understanding rythym than harmony. As luck would have it I had to change tutors too often and though each of them had their own ways and styles which ultimately helped me, yet it was unsettling in some ways. So two years down the line I had a new tutor who like my father was also an employee with the Bokaro Steel Plant, was undoubtedly the best Tabla player in the city and also a strict taskmaster. I still remember the way he used to keep a talcum powder case under my right wrist and hold my arm so as to make sure only my palms moved and the rest of the body remained still. I adored and respected him for his skills but more so because he taught me the most in the least time. So last year when I met him in a Durga Pooja pandal and touched his feet he introduced me to his wife and kid as "This is Atish, the most disciplined student I have had..." , it meant a world to me, not because discipline is the last word I can associate with myself now but because after all these years he still remembered me and that was prize enough.
Meanwhile my exploits with the SA-1 continued as I discovered that playing tunes was not that difficult a job and could be done in solitude without anybody's help. Soon I graduated to a Yamaha PSS-390 which had 4 octaves as compared to the former's 2. My desire to learn playing it properly (like the piano that is) meant that my parents were forced to look for another tutor. Surprisingly there was only one man in the entire city who knew how to play the piano decently. Or at least that's what we came to know from various sources. Soon I was taking lessons in Western Music, its wierd notations, the treble and the bass clef, sharps and flats, practising playing with both hands, learning chords. A whole new world was opening up to me. Sadly enough all of these lasted a mere three or four months as my tutor had other priorities and I was left stranded on the doorsteps of a wonderful world, one which I could see in all its glory but one where I could not reach. So there was no Mozart or Beethoven for me and I had to contend playing popular numbers from Bollywood.
Coming back to my first love, the tabla, my second guru also didn't last long owing to his similar working hours as my father's. It was about that time that a music academy opened in our city. Needless to say I got enrolled. Classes were held in the evening thrice a week which meant a compromise in my playing schedule. But such was the interest and enthusiasm that I used to reach the academy 15 minutes before time to practise on the best set of tabla. It was a different experience from the past two as it was more professional and had the air of a proper institution unlike the last ones which were held in the homes of the students. It was also probably the place where I, so as to say, flourished as there was more exposure. We used to have regular concerts in which the students used to play in groups. I also learnt to play the Pakhawaj and the Khol.
All this while I grew up on a regular diet of Rabindra Sangeet or songs composed and written by Tagore. There sure was Bollywood music in plenty, especially after the advent of the cable TV but as far as buying cassettes was concerned, it was mostly Bengali music. It wasn't that my parents discouraged me from listening to any other form of music. It was just that I simply loved it. Old songs from bengali hit movies, songs sung by Hemant, Kishore, songs composed by Salil Choudhury, folk songs, I loved them all and there was no need to go anywhere when so much was yet unexplored. Looking back today I feel glad I had those days, I feel delighted to have listened to those songs, because given the type of songs that I now hear, those days seem aeons ago.
Soon it was time for the first important examination of my life and although it had been nearly eight years since I had played the first bol, yet the change of tutors ensured that I had just about managed to learn the instrument for five years. Soon the pressures of the board exams and then the engineering entrance exams took over and my tabla tutor was replaced by others teaching organic chemistry and the like. In the meanwhile I also started dreaming of playing the Spanish Guitar (not the boring Hawaiian !!) and sing along with my friends sitting around a bonfire although I didn't know how to do either of them. So three years went by and then another as my quest for a degree from a particular engineering college took precedence over all other things that I loved. As fate would have it, the same place would soon make all my musical dreams come true............