Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Replugging the Eid trip to Gwalior

A bird was trilling somewhere in the branches above my head as I walked towards the tamarind tree next to Tansen's tomb. Legend has it that chewing its leaves bestows upon the eater a singing voice akin to that of the 16th century musical genius, one of the Navratnas (nine gems) of Mughal Emperor Akbar's court.

The tree was fenced in, probably to deter wannabe singers, but no one was watching as I plucked a leaf and swallowed it. It tasted weird. I tried saying something, but it was more croak than song.

"There's no way this tree can be that old," said Ankush Arora, a colleague and fellow explorer on a two-day trip to Gwalior city in central India.

"But this is the one I saw the TV anchor eating from on that show," I said, standing my ground, but wishing I hadn’t tasted that horrid leaf. I could still hear the unseen bird trilling nearby. Maybe it’s been feasting on these leaves for days.

While I was bidding my non-existent singing career a premature goodbye, Ankush was in a good mood -- but not for long. An hour or two later, he was trying to get an auto-rickshaw to take us to Sarod Ghar, the ancestral house of sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan. As the scorching August sun beat down on our necks, driver after driver gave us baffled looks when asked about the tourist landmark.

"Saroj Ghar?" asked one guy, craning his neck to hear better.
"Sarodddddd," said Ankush, beginning to lose his cool.
The driver had apparently never heard of the place, and was entertaining suspicions that we were drunk hippies trying to lead God-fearing auto-rickshaw drivers astray.

Ankush was offended. He is a true disciple of Indian classical music -- despite a penchant for frenzied bouts of hip-shaking to Bollywood numbers at Punjabi weddings -- and it seemed all of Gwalior was proving to be a hindrance in his quest for sarod nirvana.

Eventually -- and by eventually, I mean an hour later -- a Good Samaritan driver who knew the city dropped us at the museum at lunch hour. While we waited, I sneaked a look at the visitors' book. We were the first tourists in a week. It's a wonder anyone in Gwalior knows about this place.

But Ankush's knowledge of all things musical held him in good stead. The museum curator, a retired army man, was delighted to show us around and regaled Ankush with tales of rulers and their favourite performers, and how the rabab eventually became the sarod. I nodded along, eager to hide my ignorance. When the guide asked me something about my favourite musician, I hemmed and hawed and stared at one of the sepia-tainted photos on the wall.

Gwalior is like any other Indian city, one where tradition meets modernity; bustling streets lead to an oasis of quiet; and the all-present dirt hides the spotless hearts of its residents. We saw everything of note -- the opulent Jai Vilas palace and its miniature dinner-table train; the grand city fort in the rain and its 'I-love-you-Jaanu' graffiti; the Teli ka Mandir and the nearby saas-bahu temple; not to mention another city museum where an untimely power cut left us in the dark in a room full of life-size replicas of crocodiles. We also stuffed ourselves at an Awadhi food festival buffet at a city hotel (the dinner was delicious although it had too many Punjabi elements to be the "truly authentic cuisine" they promised us).

But the one person I’ll always remember from the trip is the receptionist at the no-frills (and no hot water) hotel where we stayed. He was one of those eternal optimists who smile from ear to ear -- Gwalior's very own Cheshire cat.

(Gwalior Trip: August 10-11, 2013 | More photos from the trip here)

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