Friday, 27 June 2014

Playing the harmonium for Sai's bhajans - student S.V.Satheesh's experiences_ PART 1

S.V.Satheesh with his dear harmonium during a programme in Brindavan,
A long cherished dream gets fulfilled

In the summer of 2002, S.V.Satheesh sat in the tiny room with extreme exhaustion. It was nearly 3 am and the whole night had been one of great effort for him. For almost a week now, he had been recording what could possibly become his first ever musical album. And today, he had just completed recording the last piece. Though he was feeling fatigued, he was also feeling fulfilled! This was a long-cherished dream come true - a dream that had formed in his student days at the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning.

Satheesh was ‘just another’ student who got enrolled for BSc in the college at Prasanthi Nilayam in 1992. His bonding with his Swami was almost instantaneous and he decided that he wanted to occupy a special place in His heart - just as He had occupied a special place in his! When he was wondering how should go about achieving his desire, Swami’s statement in several discourses struck him - “God is a lover of music. Lord Narayana told sage Narada that wherever a devotee sings his glory, He will install Himself there.”

And so, with a prayer to play for Him, Satheesh started learning the harmonium, practicing for almost 3-4 hours every day. He had no idea how he would get his first chance to play for Swami, but he just persevered and practiced rigorously. It was the beginning of a life-long saga.

Today, Satheesh has almost mastered several musical instruments - the harmonium, the accordion, the saxophone, the tabla, the mridangam, the violin and the santoor! By virtue of his ability to play the electronic  keyboard, he can surely claim to be able to play another hundred instruments at least - he just has to press the right buttons! It was either the harmonium, accordion or keyboard that he had played throughout his student-life at the Institute. That is why, today he was feeling fulfilled - because he had just completed a music album, playing the Indian santoor!

Satheesh felt an immense surge of gratitude towards his Swami. And in that flow of gratitude, he recollected how he had got his first ever chance to play the harmonium in Swami’s presence.

The wait and the big break

There is a magical thing about diligence that even skill and talent cannot match - longevity. One’s skills and talents may fade away one day but the results of hard work are always here to stay. Satheesh’s persistent practice ensured that he was soon playing the harmonium during the bhajan sessions in the hostel and the college. However, he was constantly aiming for that big break - to play in Swami’s physical presence. But then, there were stalwart harmonium players already - Sailesh sir, Arunesh and Anand Punjabi to name a few. How was he to get his chance? Satheesh waited patiently and worked diligently with faith. After all, faith is believing in what one cannot see which ultimately leads one to see what one believes in!

It was the January of 1993 and the practice for the drama, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, was in full swing. This was the drama that had been presented in Swami’s presence during the previous year’s convocation (22nd November 1992) and Bhagawan wanted the drama to be re-enacted for a Cardiology conference being held in the SSSIHMS in January. S.Ravikumar was playing the lead role in that drama. Well, his experiences with Swami are beautiful and touching and they have been detailed in other blogs. The point is that the drama was almost a musical and thus involved the entire music group. And since the practice sessions (which Swami attended) were in the Institute auditorium, the music group would also be assembled there everyday. This was essential because in the 1990s, there was nothing like background recording and all the dramas in the divine presence went on with live dialogues and live singing!

The clock in the bhajan hall in Prasanthi Nilayam showed 5:15pm. In another 15 minutes, the bhajan would begin. As was the practice, a flutist began to play some melodies for 15 minutes. Sri Mohan Rao, a bhajan-singing stalwart, panicked as he realized that there were no harmonium players assembled in the mandir.

Kneeling with the saxophone (extreme left of photograph) while posing with Swami as part of the Prasanthi Brass Band.
An intro and ode to Mohan Rao

At this point, it is an absolute must to make a brief mention of the contributions of Mr.Mohan Rao to bhajan singing at Prasanthi Nilayam. Of course, his experiences can fill pages of several blogs but it would not be an overstatement to say that he was one of the few pillars of the bhajan-singing for decades. Radiosai carried a beautiful article on his life. He has several amazing compositions to his credit including, Dum Dum Dum Dum Dumaroo Bhaje (which was modified and used in the movie Shirdi Ke Sai Baba ), Nandalala Nandalala Nanda Mukunda Hari Nandalala, Rama Rama Ravikula Soma, Jaya Jaya Mohana Murali Gopala etc.

There were times when he had ensured Akhanda bhajans (bhajan session that goes on for 12 or 24 hours non-stop) at Prasanthi Nilayam with only a few other singers like the Eradi brothers (who sing to this day at Puttaparthi) and Sri Raja Reddy (a legend himself). Those days, in the late 60s, the Sathya Sai University was not even an idea as far as the devotees were concerned. And so, all the bhajans were lead by a few stalwart singers among the ladies and gents.

After the successful culmination of one Shivarathri akhanda bhajan, the male singers sat in a discussion. They were wondering who would ensure bhajans at Prasanthi even if one of them were to (God forbid) fall sick. Even as the discussion continued, Swami suddenly stepped in. He looked at them and said,
“You are wondering what will happen to this tradition of bhajan singing? You see, students of my University will line up to sing and then, each one will have to pine for a chance to sing at least one bhajan during the akhanda bhajans.”

Saying that, Swami walked away. Nobody could decipher what Swami meant because the only students that He had then were those at the Veda Patashala and they could, at best, chant Vedas. There was no way they could sing bhajans. It was decades later that both Eradi sir and Mohan Rao sir recollected this incident with moist eyes in front students who were part of the bhajan group!

So, it was not as if Mohan Rao sir had not seen days of paucity. But then, for decades he had got accustomed to an abundance in the music group. After a long time, this was a rare occasion when there was no harmonium player!

(Sri Mohan Rao was also blessed in his final moments on earthly sojourn. Swami Himself oversaw all the funeral arrangements too when he passed away.)

A young Mohan Rao (circled in photograph) marvels at Swami's leelas on the sand bed of river Chitravati (1950s).
Satheesh’s moment of glory?

A senior singer pointed out to Satheesh and told Mohan Rao sir,
“Hey, this boy plays harmonium for the Institute and Hostel bhajans...”

Though this was something that Satheesh had been waiting for, he hesitated and was nervous. He had not yet sought permission from Swami to play the harmonium in the mandir. For those that are unaware, not a single person got the chance to either sing or play any musical instrument in the mandir before being personally vetted by Baba! It would be considered audacious, foolhardy and egoistic to do so without His permission. And yet, that was precisely what was being asked of Satheesh! He just blurted out,
“I have not yet taken Swami’s permission. I may not be good enough...”
“Don't worry, just give the starting chord and pitch correctly for every bhajan. After that we'll sing - you don't have to worry, Swami will take care of everything.”

Everyone was telling him the same thing because as far as they were concerned, it was the case of ‘cometh the hour cometh the man’! Soon, the bhajans for the evening were fixed. Since it was quite late that day, only 6 bhajans were fixed by 5:30pm. Then, Satheesh held his nerves and the right chords for the bhajans to begin. What happened next is unforgettable for Satheesh.

“I was in a situation that I always dreamt to be in, but was still not yet ready! I was also worried about what Swami would say when I played the harmonium  without His permission. I was extremely tensed up but at the same time, I was also keen not to miss the opportunity. And so, I began to pray to Swami to take care. I quickly  went through the bhajans that were fixed and mentally rehearsed them. After a couple of bhajans Swami came in, climbed the little stage and sat on the throne. I was too nervous to take my eyes of the harmonium for the fear of playing any wrong note, but at the same time was anxious to know Swami's response to a new boy playing harmonium in Mandir without HIS physical permission.”

And that was when he entered a nightmarish situation. The sixth bhajan was nearing conclusion and he had no idea about what would be the seventh one. It would surely be indicated at the end of the sixth one but since this was his first ever opportunity, Satheesh wanted a little time and info about the oncoming bhajan. He frantically tried to catch the eye of anyone around to ask but as is the case in Swami’s presence, all eyes were trained on His lovely form.

Satheesh looked up at the wall clock. It indicated 5:49pm. Swami would usually conclude the session at about 5:55pm. Surely there was enough time for another bhajan. And then, he froze. For when he looked down from the clock to Swami, he realized that Swami was staring hard at him! A few others too looked at him by following the direction of Swami’s stare.

Oh my god! Had he communicated wrongly through his body-language? Was his looking at the clock being wrongly interpreted as his impatience with the bhajan session and his desire to end it soon? Just imagine you are speaking to somebody and he/she looks at the watch frantically. That is not something you would do to your Lord right? Satheesh was a boiling cauldron of emotions. His heart was crying out to Swami.
“Please don’t misunderstand me Swami. Also, please somehow let somebody indicate to me the next bhajan and its pitch.”

S.V.Satheesh can be seen here playing the harmonium during the Ayudh
Pooja of Dusshera festival. He is on the harmonium, right behind Prof.
Anil Kumar Kamaraju.

The last line of the sixth bhajan was being sung and still, Satheesh received no intimation about the next bhajan. He was certainly doomed today. His fears were on the verge of turning into his tears. And then came the magical moment!

Swami suddenly kicked away the footstool. He stood up and asked for the Arati. The Arati is part and parcel of every bhajan session and Satheesh could keep pitch and play it even in his sleep! With gratitude to Swami, he began to play the Arati and soon tears streamed down his eyes. In a moment, Swami had changed his tears of fears into tears of joy! Swami moved to the door and just before exiting stopped. He turned around and glanced at the clock. Then He looked down and flashed a broad, beautiful smile to Satheesh. Once again, many others looked at him following Swami’s lovely beam. But this time, Satheesh was lost to the world. He was in bliss supreme. It had been a dream debut though Swami hadn’t spoken a word to him. He soon would become a regular in the bhajan group.

The exit that everyone shudders at

It is said that time passes very quickly when you are having a good time. Now the time was already 3:30am and Satheesh had not had a wink of sleep. He woke himself to the reality of the situation too. In a few hours from now, he planned to offer the CD that he had just completed to Swami during the darshan in Sai Ramesh hall at Brindavan. And he had not yet got a name for the CD. What would he name it?

The CD had been a fulfillment of his greatest dream and it embodied all his feelings towards Swami. It was almost as if he was offering his heart to Swami. And so, the name was very important. The name should embody the beautiful bond and relationship between him and Swami.

And even as he thought about his bond with Swami, his mind raced to the year 1999, his final year at the college. Just like this morning, time in Swami’s college had simply zoomed by. In no time, he had completed his under-graduation, post-graduation and was not pursuing his second post-graduate degree - M.Tech. He would soon have to leave the physical presence of his Swami forever and that thought in itself had made him feel sad so many times during the academic year. It was thus not surprising that during the winter vacations in October, Satheesh decided not to go home but spend every single moment with his Swami who was in Brindavan then. But then, that would only be delaying the inevitable. How was he to be with Swami throughout his life as he desired? Would his heart be shattered? Would his ultimate ambitions be postponed for another birth? Satheesh had no idea but every time these thoughts came into his mind, his heart cried out.

And then came along an opportunity that he did not dream of in his wildest dreams...

Satheesh did not want his presence on the divine stage to ever end. He physically wanted to be with his Swami forever.

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  1. Ah . Waiting eagerly for the next part.
    Now I may be wrong but a small correction . As per this conversation-
    It was Eradi brothers who started Chitha Chora

    1. Thank you Rajesh for pointing out that. In that Radio episode, Eradi sir does not claim to have composed it. He seems to say that he and his brothers were the first ones to sing it with the Alaap. After your comment, I did some research and there are different findings. Some say that Swami Himself composed that bhajan. I shall keep up the research and as soon as I find out the actual thing, will update it here.

      Eradi sir was not available on his phone today.

    2. What I remember from the conversation is that Eradi brothers first sang it and Swami suggested them to have an alaap. It might be a trivial issue to have pointed out, but I hope you have something interesting with your research

  2. @Aravind brother..Thank you for taking me back to my BRN days and recording sessions for various dramas along with SV Anna. Just being with him itself is such an inspiring moments.


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