A memorable evening with Vidya Charan Shukla
By SOHAIL HASHMI: Though the East and the West have great differences in issues cultural, in one matter they are like twin brothers. Both insist we should not speak ill of the dead. This does not apply to Changez Khan, Hitler and Mussolini. Some would add a few more to the list, but there are chances of violent disagreements on some of those names.
There have been honourable deviations from this haloed creed and if my memory serves me right, at least one of them has been attributed to The Bard, who made Mark Antony declare at the funeral of Caesar, “Friends Romans and Countrymen, we have gathered here to bury Caesar and not to praise him,” or words to that effect.
These were some of the confused musings that floated to the top of the mind when I heard the news of V.C. Shukla’s passing away. Does the fact that he is dead or the dastardly fashion in which death stalked him and ultimately consumed him, give him an escape from his deeds?
It is a commentary on our justice delivery system that V.C. Shukla, one of those who belonged to the coterie that ran the Emergency establishment for Mrs Gandhi, did not spend a long time behind bars for his acts of commission as Minister of Information and Broadcasting. Some of his achievements as Minister of Information included snapping power supply to newspapers critical of the Emergency, introducing Draconian censorship, banning magazines and newspapers, and sealing printing presses that dared to publish anything critical of the infamous Mrs G or her Emergency regime.
Many of us had been in and out of jail and had cases against us. Many friends, all of them students, were still in jail and more were being picked up, rusticated, suspended or denied scholarships. Those were the days when you did not crack a joke about the goings on, without looking around to ensure that you will not be reported. It is in this claustrophobic atmosphere that some of us went to attend a music concert at Mandi House, I think it was the Kamani Auditorium. I forget the occasion, it was perhaps one of the annual music festivals or an anniversary of a cultural organisation. These details are necessary to record because this turned out to be a historic event.
It was the beginning of the Festival. The inaugural concert was to be by Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. V.C.Shukla was the Chief Guest. We were praying for his absence and it seemed that our prayers were being heard. It was almost 7 pm and there was still no sign of V.C. Shukla, though the concert was to start at 6.30 pm.
People who go to classical music concerts normally speak in whispers and subdued tones. They might shout and jump about in a rock concert but a concert of classical music seems to have a civilising impact on the audience. The auditorium was uncharacteristically silent despite the presence of many of Delhi’s movers and shakers who are not regulars at Classical Music concerts. I think the presence of so many cops and plainclothesmen contributed to the restraint being exhibited by the usually euphoric and boisterous glitterati of Delhi. Many of them were there, perhaps, in the hope of a chance to say hello to the Minister.
Announcements about the imminent arrival of V.C.Shukla ji had been made several times and yet there was no sign of him. The wait was becoming oppressive and signs of certain restiveness were gradually being felt, it was now past 7.30 pm. Finally the organisers made the announcement that everyone was waiting for. They said that the Honourable Minister had sent word that he was stuck in an important meeting and that he was likely to be delayed further, he had also requested the organisers to not delay the proceedings any further to start the festival and he will join the moment he is free from his meeting. The news of Mr.V.C. Shukla’s continued absence was received by enthusiastic and prolonged applause.
It was decided that the programme would start but the formal lighting of the Lamp will be performed when the minister arrives. Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and his accompanists were invited on to the stage. Bhimsen ji set the Tanpuras, leaned towards the artists who were to accompany him on the Harmonium and the Tabla, the exchanged a few words. All was now set. Bhimsen Ji cleared his throat and was getting ready to start his Aalaap in his resonating voice that used to fill up an auditorium like few voices that I have heard.
Suddenly there was an unseemly commotion at the main gate. Some people rushed towards the gate, some towards the stage and some just waved their arms about needlessly. V.C. Shukla had arrived. The whole thing was disrupted; there were now audible groans and sighs of resignation from different corners of the auditorium.
Another announcement was made this time to the effect that the Honourable Minister had arrived. Didn’t we know! And that he would now light the lamp and felicitate the artist of the evening, the legendary Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. The lamp was lit first by the minister then by Bhimsen Ji, then by the organiser and then by some important hangers on. The Minister fortunately, perhaps realising the inappropriateness of the act, did not make a long speech. He apologised for his delayed arrival and said that the audience had come to listen to Pandit ji, and so had he, and sat down.
Now finally after an eternal wait, close to 8 pm, Bhimsen Joshi had the stage to himself. Without uttering a single word he tuned his Tanpura once again, leaned towards his accompanists, there were some confabulation and the audience realised that Pandit Ji had changed his mood. He was going to sing something different. A short Aalaap was followed by:
Jis nagri mein daya dharam naahin, us nagri mein rehna kya
(Why live in a place bereft of mercy and faith?)
The most stinging one-line condemnation of the Emergency that one could make. The entire audience was electrified, we were all on our feet. The thunderous applause drowned Bhimsenji’s voice but he continued repeating the line undisturbed, till the clamour subsided and he could proceed with his performance.
V.C. Shukla sat there in the front row, stunned, stupefied, looking first to the right and then to the left, until realisation dawned and he made the connection between the words and the audience reaction. V.C. Shukla suddenly seemed to shrink within himself. The seat that he seemed to fill a moment ago began to appear rather empty.
This was the man that everyone in the media and in the creative community feared, he had replaced Inder Kumar Gujral as information minister overnight, because Doordarshan under I.K. Gujral had not given live coverage to an Indira Gandhi rally. He had banned Kishore Kumar’s songs on All India Radio because Kishore-da had refused to sing at an Indira Gandhi rally. And here he was, looking lost and insecure. Just one line Bhimsen ji had been able to pull out from his large repertoire was enough to show V.C. Shukla the mirror.
Every time someone says V.C. Shukla, this is the scene that comes to my mind. I hope the name will begin to have the same association for you as well.