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Tribute: Music notes from APJ Abdul Kalam

Durga Jasraj recalls some of her fond memories of late President APJ Abdul Kalam with Narendra Kusnur that offer insight into his passion for music

It's well-known that late former President APJ Abdul Kalam loved to play the veena, an instrument he learnt in his younger days and practised all his life. But there are many incidents that talk about his pure love for music.

Kalam greets Pandit Jasraj as Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, Javed Akhtar and Jagjit Singh look on
Kalam greets Pandit Jasraj as Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, Javed Akhtar and Jagjit Singh look on

Durga Jasraj, founder and director of Art and Artistes, had the opportunity of meeting Kalam on numerous occasions, and was impressed by the sheer enthusiasm he displayed for musical concepts.

Durga Jasraj with late President APJ Abdul Kalam
Durga Jasraj with late President APJ Abdul Kalam

“He sincerely believed that music is a healer, which unites souls. He even felt music should be used in correctional homes, which we call prisons, to help people get positive thoughts,” she says.

Though Durga never heard him play the veena live, her father, vocalist Pandit Jasraj, once had a unique experience. “He took him to the Mughal Gardens in Delhi with his veena and talked about how classical raags can be played to plants and help improve the quality of nature,” she points out.

Meeting the President
Durga first met Kalam in December 2002, when he was keen on launching the Indra Dhanush series, which was aimed at promoting Indian culture through music and classical dance performances at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Pandit Jasraj was to do the opening show, and Durga was stunned by the President’s sheer involvement. “He took great interest in the sound and seating arrangements. He was overwhelmed by the recital and I presented him the Golden Voice Golden

Years series, which contained my father’s recordings,” she recalls. At that time, Durga told him she had a dream of having a unique concert series Tiranga on a national platform. She says “I explained it to him, and his first reaction was: ‘We shall work on this together.’

Soon, I sent his office a concept note, along with a rough date of January 27, even though I had not finalised the artistes.” Tiranga would involve a creative musical interpretation of the national flag.

The first concert held at the Ashoka Hotel, New Delhi, began with an eight-minute documentary on the flag. Then, Pandit Jasraj played Bhairav to depict saffron, and santoor maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma played Pahadi as a symbol of white.

While mandolin wizard, U Shrinivas played the Carnatic raag Amruthavarshini to represent green, tabla great Ustad Zakir Hussain played a special composition for the Ashok Chakra. All the musicians got together at the end to depict the entire flag, and the poetry of Javed Akhtar and paintings of MF Husain were also used in the exercise.

Durga recalls: “After the event, Kalam gave an impromptu speech. He told me that my dream had only started, and asked me to take the concept to every corner of the world.”

Music on his mind
Later, Kalam continued to keep Durga involved in the Indra Dhanush series, and when Art and Artistes started the Indian Music Academy in 2006, he instantly agreed to be the chief guest at the launch.

“While I normally thought of doing events in Mumbai and Delhi, he inspired me to take all my concepts to various corners, in order to increase their reach,” she says.

Whether it was science, Presidentship, teaching or music, Kalam was passionate about and totally immersed in whatever he did. “The veena was a symbol of his love for music, and he would practise it regularly,” concludes Durga.

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