All my friends were considered members of the Bukhari Brothers Corporation (the other BBC) and, as such, were subjected to all sorts of trials and tribulations. Poor (Sajjad Sarwar) Niazi was no exception. His biggest crime was that he was so loyal to me that it made me proud. Niazi – God bless him – always stood by my side. My arrangement of musical programmes would have been hopeless without his help. What did I know about choosing musicians for the radio? Niazi, however, had worked at a gramophone company learning this trade. He duly acquainted me with the ups and downs of this arduous path.
I had thought the news of a radio station opening in Delhi and hiring musicians would bring crowds of male and female singers to my office. But bravo, Delhi! “Who are you to audition us?” said the singers. “If you want to hear us sing, come to our kotha and sit with the nobility listening to our mujra. If you like the song, talk to our teacher, settle the fee for the mujra and pay the binder.We’ll then come to your office in a palanquin on any day of your choosing.” This was the Delhi of yore and its courtesans!
We had to eventually surrender to the egos of these women. Niazi advised that we had no choice but to go to their kothas to make a selection and fix their fees. I asked him, “What if somebody sees us?” “We’ll go there quietly at night,” he said. I agreed.
I reached the radio station at eleven at night after having dinner at Mr. Fielden’s. Muzaffar from the Army Press, Shimla and Niazi were waiting for me there in an extremely antiquated car. I knew Muzaffar: he was from Shimla and, like me, couldn’t drive. Questioning revealed that the car belonged to Muzaffar’s brother, Haji Manzoor Ahmad, and had been stolen from Haji sahib’s garage to make an impression in Chawri Bazar.
Niazi started driving, Muzaffar sat with him in front, and I sat in the back, as apprehensive as a groom.
Just as the car was moving towards Chawri, my heart started sinking. I had never been to a courtesan’s kotha before, so had no idea what was in the offing.
On the Machliwalan Road, when we reached the turn at Chitli Qabar, I saw a hotel and exclaimed, “Niazi, stop here for a moment. I feel like having a cup of tea”. These were obviously delaying tactics to stall the facing of the inevitable.
Niazi pulled over and we entered Bubban’s hotel, drank so much tea and ate so many eggs that Muzaffar cried out, “Mate, is it your belly or the sarai of Noor Mahal? Now get up please or the singers will go to sleep.”
I got up with a heavy heart, plodded back to the car with Niazi and Muzaffar and once again headed towards Chawri.
And enter Chawri we did. But right in the middle of the Bazar, our extremely antiquated car came to a sudden halt. Niazi poked around the engine but the car wouldn’t budge. At last, Niazi told us to come out of the car and give it a push.
The hustle and bustle of Chawri Bazar, me in a dinner suit, with a silky white muffler around my neck, sweat on my forehead, hands and legs shivering. But what could be done now? I started pushing the car along with Muzaffar.
When we were pushing the car, a gentleman came to us and said, “Babuji, why don’t you leave the car here? The mistress on the kotha above is very good”. I said to Niazi, “Enough. Come out of the car and let us go to this very kotha.” Niazi came out, hesitated a little and then asked the stranger, “So mate, does your mistress sing?” “No sir, she does not,” came his reply
This nearly drove Niazi to violence but thankfully I was able to restrain him physically.
We pushed until the car started again, but soon Niazi came to a voluntary halt: “Step out. This is the kotha of Akthari Bai of Agra.” Behind Niazi and Muzaffar, I walked up the stairs to the kotha of Akhtari Bai of Agra as if I was to be hanged there.
We reached a small courtyard, with a hall-like room on the right. On the floor was a creaseless white linen littered with white pillows. On the stage side lay a large blue velvety cushion, a large red pillow, and several small pillows in white velvet. The place was lit by several large uncovered bulbs above. It glowed with colour, but the air was rather stale.
He sat up and in that position kicked Akhtari Bai awake
Akhtari Bai lay asleep on the floor looking like a pile of bed sheets. The instrument players were also asleep here and there, as were their instruments. There was a peculiar tension on their faces, perhaps the sorrow of a fruitless evening.
The sound of our footsteps woke up a heavy-set man who lay asleep on the floor. He sat up and in that position kicked Akhtari Bai awake. A delicate, thin, emaciated girl sat up unwillingly and spread the smile on her lips that belies the tears of livelihood.
I turned around and made for the stairs. If Niazi and Muzaffar had not stopped me, I would have jumped down into Chawri and ran towards Jama Masjid like a man chased by fire. But I stopped, i.e, I buried my head in the sand.
Akhtari opened the paan-daan, made a few paans and offered them to us on a tray. Muzaffar looked at Niazi and Niazi looked at me, and then whispered into my ear, “Put two rupees on the tray.” I had a ten rupee note in my pocket, so I put that on the it. I learned a little later I would not get eight rupees back.
One musician twisted the ears of a sarangi, the other beat a tabla to life
One musician twisted the ears of a sarangi, the other beat a tabla to life, and Akhtari set the ground for a song. She started with this ghazal by Dagh:
I did not know if I would open up in the next couple of meetings, but Niazi achieved the feat in the very first. He sat right in front and very close to Akhtari, placing his ear close to her lips as if listening to a secret. I could not stand it. I shouted, “What are you doing Niazi?” He said, “I am checking if there are any scratches in her throat.”
I was deeply embarrassed and awed by Niazi’s answer. Obviously, back then I had no idea how to look for scratches in one’s throat or how these scratches affect the delicate disposition of the microphone.
Niazi did not find any scratch in Akhtari’s throat. He seemed satisfied. He came over to me and said in English, “She’s good. If she agrees, we should make a deal with her at fifty rupees per programme.” I told him, we should set the standard after listening to a few more.
Seeing us in a huddle, Akhtari said, “Why are you whispering like that? Does he have a scratch in his throat as well?” This cracked us all up. The clouds of strangeness dispersed.
We asked Akhtari if there was another singer around. She mentioned Durga Bai on the neighbouring kotha. We asked if she could be called in. “Why would she come here? You would have to go there,” Akhtari replied.
I said to myself: Durga would be like Akhtari, one kotha is like any other, what is the harm then in going to Durga’s? But we asked Akhtari to join us, to which she agreed after we insisted.
When she was ready to leave with us, one musician said to her, “You are the daughter of a Chaudhry. You will have to pay a tribute to Durga’s teachers. Keep a few rupees with you.” Akhtari replied with some arrogance, “Tribute for what? I am not taking nobility to her kotha!” Her remark turned our faces red, seeing which Akhtari added bashfully, “Please do not take an offense. Here we call nobles those people who come here to be entertained by our songs. But you are businessmen.”