I fall into an odd category of people. Maybe odd isn’t exactly the apt word, I think the right word is unique.
I was born in Kolkata and moved to London when I was five and a half years old. I moved when I was very small and did not really have many memories of Kolkata, but my parents made sure they took me to India twice a year so that I could stay in touch with my roots and traditions, and most importantly, keep in constant touch with my Thamma, my guru.
When you’re small, you don’t realise how big of a change moving countries really is, you just go with the flow. You’re just happy you’re with your parents, and in my case, also sad that I was leaving my grandmother.
I arrived in London not knowing any English other than “yes” and “no”. Within four to five months I was speaking English fluently and wouldn’t stop speaking in English when Maa would pick me up from school. Maa got scared, she was nervous that I wouldn’t know how to speak Bengali. From that moment she decided that she would only talk and reply to me in my mother tongue. It worked wonders. I got tired of speaking to Maa in English and finally gave up. I would speak to my parents only in Bengali. As a result, today I’m very proud to say my Bengali does not have a British accent, and I can read, slowly but correctly.
For two years we lived in North London, it took fifty minutes by tube to get from Bounds Green Station to Barons Court station. From Barons Court Station it was a five minute walk to my second home and my safe place till date, The Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. I still remember Maa and sometimes Baba travelling fifty minutes from Bhavan to my school to pick me up, only to get back on the tube to return to Bhavan. On the tube, Maa would feed me, do my hair and then I’d take a nap. I would reach Bhavan and Baba would sit with me for kathak riyaaz. This was every day till I got to year nine or ten. After my riyaaz, I would sit in Baba and Maa’s class and run around the building with all my friends. My world was school and Bhavan.
I remember the day I first started playing the Tabla. Baba had a South African student, with whom I would sit for hours and talk. I would watch him play and sometimes correct him, which was funny because I never sat with the Tabla. I would just sit for hours in Baba’s class and watch him teach students. That specific day, I decided to take the Tabla from him and start playing a Kayda in Teental:
The South African student was shocked to see that I knew how to play the Tabla, he immediately called for Baba, “Guruji, Saberi’s playing the Tabla”. Baba was teaching another student at the time, he paused for a bit, looked at me, smiled and said, “Oh…” and carried on teaching. That was the beginning of my fascination with the Tabla and the love and attachment to Baba’s class and students.
Vocal was a little different. When I was in Maa’s tummy she would do her daily riyaaz. When I was born, she would do her daily riyaaz with me on her lap. The vibrations of Maa singing, and her rhythmically patting my chest and putting me to sleep while singing stayed with me, I guess. Singing has always been something I’ve done without any added external expectations or pressure. Singing has been the art form that has only ever been relaxing. Sitting in Maa’s class meant being in a room full of thirty to forty students at a time. Watching and hearing her manage so many students at one time was amazing.
The differences between Maa and Baba’s classrooms were striking. Maa’s classes are always a lot more organised and patient, a school style class that was just a lot more relaxed but with a clear system. Baba’s classes are chaotic, free flowing, discussion based with students in every corner of the room playing different things all at the same time and going up to the front to have their lesson with him. I learnt that there is never only one right way to teach or a single way to be a “good” guru. Both the classes had respect, discipline, values and principles in common.
I was the luckiest of them all, I got to be in both environments.
At the age of six I was exposed to a whole world of music and dance. I had a whole building to explore. How a child that age would go to a playground filled with swings, slides and seesaws, I had 4A Castletown Road filled with Tablas, Veenas and Tanpuras. A gift from my parents, and I couldn’t be happier.
I was and am unique because, my primary art form has always been Kathak but I moved to London while my guru was in India. My parents made sure that Thamma also travelled to London once every year, in addition to us travelling twice a year. But, this also meant that I received subconscious Taalim in two other disciplines that helped me become a musician and not just a dancer. Moving to London meant I was surrounded by Tabla and Hindustani Vocal at all times while also receiving Kathak Taalim from Thamma and Baba. The exposure to all three were and are so equally distributed in my life, something that most dancers are not as fortunate to have.
My parents kept me in touch with my Indian traditions, but London taught me to be open, accepting and honest. When Baba got the offer to move to the U.K to teach at The Bhavan, he was playing Doverlane Music Conference every year and accompanying high profile artists. Moving was a big decision, one that seemed brave and maybe even risky for some, but as a family it allowed us to remain the way we wanted to, without compromising on our honesty and altering our principles. The people of London taught me how a community thrives by accepting its flaws and discussing how to improve it. It also taught me that everyone has the right to express their opinions and thoughts regardless of their gender, age, sexuality or status in society.
I am unique because, my professional community and my birth country is one that expects individuals to be a certain way to be accepted and be successful but, London never expected anything of me. It let me grow organically, it showed me that there are many things that are a lot more important than profession and tradition. I was never held back to form opinions of my own and to express them. I was never held back from speaking up for what I believe in order to keep a certain power structure in place. The base of my profession and my passion lies in India, but it also means that the principles and morals by which the people of my community live are rooted in traditions and beliefs that tie individuals down in to being subservient and compliant.
I stand at a crossroads where I neither wish to distance myself from my world of Indian arts that I so fondly love, nor from the world that taught me my core value of being myself, speaking up for what I believe with integrity and self respect. Unfortunately, I stand in the middle of these two worlds with a unique dilemma of having to balance what I love to do with the person that I am.