“Do you even know how to play a flute, buddy?”, the flute vendor in Dadar Market asked me belligerently, when I bargained. “This is an E#, made from a Sealdah bamboo! You even know the cost of that bamboo?”
I was embarrassed as the lady standing at the nearby vegetables stall looked at me curiously. I mumbled something about it being too costly and decided to move away. But, I was mesmerized by the tone and timber of the flute. It was the best I had ever played and I’d fallen in love with it. Unfortunately, the ₹3,000 price tag of the flute was a deterrent. I just stepped away for a minute and was back again, once the vendor was alone.
“Can you knock off the price to ₹2,000? See, I’m a flutist and know perfectly the difference between a Munger and a Sealdah. But, I can’t afford this.” I pleaded and hated hearing my own begging voice. He offered me others, but once you get a masterpiece you don’t settle for a second best. I decided to come later and hastened away with the shopkeeper looking at me with barely concealed contempt.
“Hey! Can you give me a minute?” I was startled. When I looked around, the lady at the vegetables stall was addressing me. I was embarrassed. She was tall and fair, and looked like a Bengali. Well, to me all beautiful women look Bengali anyway! I knew that she would offer to pay the remaining ₹1,000. I’m an artist and not a beggar. I was defensive immediately.
“I saw you bargaining for that flute and was intrigued. I was just behind you when you offered ₹2,000. Was it really worth that amount? I’m sorry, my 7 years old son wants to learn flute and I’m just trying to grasp the rudimentary knowledge.”
“No. It’s the cheapest I can find a real Sealdah in that scale and length. I’m just planning to buy it later.” I felt ashamed for my presumptive thoughts about her and consequently was more sincere in explaining her everything. I tried to compensate for my guilty conscience by educating her about the art which is my passion. “Let me explain the intricacies of flute making to you…”, and I launched into the details of the oldest and sweetest sounding musical instrument in the world. I explained her the differences between the thickness of a Munger, Karachi and Sealdah bamboo. Also, the superiority of the Sealdah in length, texture and the frailty of all these beauties. How they get cracked in winter, when not oiled properly and why their ends are always tied with colorful threads, which seem decorative, but do have a purpose, etc. We were sitting in a restaurant. I had ₹370 in my pocket and was just hoping that she will eat less! She didn’t have any such qualms and was just rushing through whatever they placed before her.
“Wow! You seem to be so knowledgeable about flutes!”, she gushed I was suitably pleased. Artists are notoriously vain. “Can you spare an hour thrice a week to teach flute to my son?”
I always considered myself an student and never a teacher because I’m very good at learning something but tend to confuse people when I try to teach them. Notwithstanding my drawbacks, this was a great offer and I needed money. My financial castle was always teetering on the verge of a spectacular collapse. I readily agreed.
“See, I don’t want to seem rude, but I want to know if you really are a good flutist. You do have an awesome theoretical knowledge, but I’d like to assure myself about your musical talent too. What I suggest is, let’s go back to that vendor and you play a piece. If you really are as good as you claim, I’ll pay you ₹2,000 per month for thrice a week. Also, I’ll pay for that flute and will deduct ₹1,000 from your fees for the next three months. If you can’t satisfy my curiosity, the deal is off. Fair enough?”
It was the fairest deal I ever encountered and readily agreed. She called for the bill. ₹740. I let her pay. If she can afford ₹2,000 per month, she also can bear this bill, which wouldn’t matter to her but would seriously dent my ever dwindling finances. I was sure that I will woo and entice her by my art.
The vendor was suddenly impressed when he saw me with a beautiful lady. I asked for the E# Sealdah importantly. He gave it to me, with his eyes on the pretty lady.
I have been playing flute since I was 10 years old. Today was the acid test. I had to prove myself. I sorted through the canon of Ragas. I love a few and hate a few. Malkauns is a basic flute Raag with 5 notes, and I really love it. A midnight raag. Although it was late afternoon and the time for Brindavani Sarang, I decided to play Malkauns. Who would know the difference?
How many times are you called to prove yourself? I played like I never played before. The market stood standstill. The E# Sealdah is a base flute and Malkauns is a high octave raag. I was successful in penetrating the mundane and careless materialistic minds through the high pitched notes. When I ended, even the vendor was awed. She was wooed. “Please pack this flute.”, she commanded to the vendor and wrote out her address. “Please be here tomorrow. We will begin immediately.” She paid and left me holding the wrapped long tube lovingly. I was beyond myself. The vendor was looking at me with a new respect.
Next day I went to that address in Dadar Hindu Colony. An old lady opened the door. “Aunty, I want to meet Ms Chaudhary. She has called me today to teach flute to her son.” I was burdened with my case of flutes, so that I can find a suitable one for the budding artist.
“No son. You are at the wrong address. There’s no Chaudhary in entire Hindu Colony. Please call her and check.”
I was nonplussed! I tried the number and got the rude warning to check the number. I was surprised! I went home.
After a month or so, I again passed by the Dadar flute vendor. “Ho Saheb!”, he called out genially. I went to him and asked. “Arre, you remember? I bought a Sealdah from you? There was a lady…?” I just needed someone to dilute the mystery. He interrupted me.
“Oh! Mrs Nandi Majumdar! Why didn’t you say that you know her! I was really shocked when you came back with her. I could have given you that flute for free! Her husband gets all his flutes from us and pays handsomely.”
“You know who’s she?”, I asked with a foreboding. The last name didn’t just ring a bell. It sounded an alarm.
“She’s the wife of the great flutist Pt Sonu Majumdar! But of course you know her! She gifted you that Sealdah!” He was looking at me, impressed.
Pt Sonu Majumdar is a Padmshree. He had performed all over the world and is considered one of the greatest flute players of our age after Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia. He is a great artist, but his wife was better. She was a great actor. She didn’t want to shame a poor and proud flutist by offering to pay for the flute and she was successful.
I was silent for a second, then laughed. “Ah, well! She was talking to me because she wanted a good teacher to teach her son flute.”
The above is a true story. The names are changed, but I’m sure that one can guess them by googling it. I did meet Ms Majumdar after a few years, when I began learning flute under her famous husband. She pointedly refused to acknowledge me. May be she didn’t remember me or may be she didn’t want me to embarrass her by thanking her. Whatever may be the cause, I treasure that flute. It was a gift from an artist to an artist. The flute which you see in the image and the video is the one.