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The innocence that touched the soul of India

Last updated on: December 28, 2010 13:06 IST

The innocence that touched the soul of India

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Claude Arpi

Keshava, the 7-year-old tabla prodigy stole the show at the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony. Claude Arpi on the gifted talent whose innocence touched India's soul.

A friend once asked me: What is the difference between Israel and India? The answer was simple, he said Israel uses guts, it is how the Jewish State has managed to survive in a hostile environment for decades.

India on the other hand uses Divine Grace.

I found this quite accurate. Without entering into whether Israel over-uses 'its guts' (and India, its 'Grace'), it sometimes seems that India continues by some kind of Divine intervention.

Such a vast and diverse geographical territory, 22 official languages, all the religions of the world represented in the same cauldron and India still goes strong, remains united and is striving. Is it not a miracle?

However even if India has been doing quite well economically, too many black spots remain -- Grace is too often required.

More than any other year, 2010 has been the symbol of India's negativities and successes. The Commonwealth Games held in October in New Delhi exemplifies both these two aspects.

Skeletons began tumbling out of the Organising Committee's cupboards -- ceilings falling, exorbitant rates for the purchase of toilet paper, the filthy Olympic Village, scam after scam -- all this, much before the Games began.

And then came the great Day, hundreds of millions anxiously awaited the Opening Ceremony. Everyone held their breath: Would part of the stadium collapse? Will this ceremony run smoothly?

The first cultural segment was 'Rhythms of India' and it is then that Grace intervened. First, groups of drummers walked in; coming from all corners of the country. Their spontaneity and simplicity embodied the 'common man' of Bharat.

And then a seven-year-old appeared on centre-stage -- the cherubic Keshava, and started playing his tabla -- immersed, so spontaneous, so fresh -- that he made us forget the dark sides of India, the scoundrels who looted the coffers of the nation, the late preparations or the insults in the foreign press and in that moment of innocence, touched the true soul of India.


Image: Keshava, the little tabla wonder boy

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The moment of grace

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The 60,000 spectators (including the Prince of Wales, his gracious wife and 'important' Indian dignitaries) as well as millions of television spectators realised that there was the other India, the one which had been completely eclipsed during the last few months.

That is what Keshava, the 7-year old from Auroville, the international community near Pondicherry, reminded us of.

Gopika, Keshava's mother, and her companion Nadaka agreed to reveal more about this special moment and the life and feelings of Keshava who like any kid expressed himself in all simplicity.

During a press conference in Delhi after his performance, journalists asked him how he felt before the show, he answered, 'happy', and during his performance, 'happy' and after, 'happy'. When asked what he saw in the stadium, he said, 'chairs, lot of chairs.'

It is this joyfulness and spontaneity that touched the heart of millions. Keshava did not really realise what was happening: His mother had told him that he would play for a 'light show' with other drummers and that he was one of them. She did not want to reveal to him the magnitude of the event as to guard his spontaneity.


Image: Fireworks illuminate the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters
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'He was very musical from the start'

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Keshava's journey is a fascinating one. At two, his grandmother painter and arts patron Prafulla Dahanukar gave him his first tabla after recognising his talent on the dining table as she sang him the bols.

Unlike most tabla players, he has never been tutored by a formal teacher. Young Keshava is a self-taught tabla player with a great enthusiasm for the instrument.

Music runs in the family as Gopika explains. "He was very musical from the start and I brought him up with a lot of spontaneity, always making up songs and rhythms as part of my bond with him. At the age of three, he had invented a walk -- clapping and stomping in perfect rhythm and he lived in it. Even his teachers at kindergarten saw that his sense of rhythm was apparent even in some of the activities in the school," she says.

Living in the international community of Auroville near Pondicherry, it was a blessing that Gopika -- herself an artist and singer -- came together with Nadaka, a musician who has made a name from himself in India in fusion music.

Nadaka, a Canadian who has lived in India since his teenage years, explains that he just taught Keshava some basics about the patterns in Indian rhythms by playing them with him on his special veena-style invention of the 'Raga guitar'.

It was a musical treat every day to see Keshava practice hours with Nadaka in great joy, relates Gopika.

Nadaka explained that he has always been struck by the fact that Keshava learns extraordinarily fast. Having played with some of the best Carnatic percussionists, he has no doubt that Keshava is a natural and understands and absorbs the rhythms and complicated patterns with an extraordinary memory for them.


Image: Dancers perform during the opening ceremony for the Commonwealth Games
Photographs: Tim Wimborne/Reuters
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The brightness, smile and talent

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Opportunity knocked on Keshava's door in early 2010 when acclaimed director Bharat Bala of Vande Mataram fame and the creative director of the Commonwealth Games opening and closing ceremonies, came to Auroville to ask if Keshava could play at the opening ceremony.

Bharat Bala had made the trip after seeing a video of the boy playing during a home concert with Nadaka and tabla artiste Ganesh Basavaraju.

He was struck by the brightness, the smile and the talent of the young prodigy and felt that it fitted his idea of showing the tradition of knowledge, the wheel of life, an interaction between the young and the experienced.

Nadaka says Keshava has always been an extraordinary and highly sensitive child, even unpredictable sometimes. When he likes something, he plunges completely into it, forgetting the rest of the world, but if he is in a different mood, one never knows how he could react, especially for such an important event.

"However if thousands could experience what I experience while playing with him I felt he would make it a success," says Nadaka.

Gopika decided that Keshava would participate in the event as it was something that came to him on its own and felt that it was meant as part of his journey.

This was just before they had to go on a concert tour in Canada. There, the young tabla artiste would come on stage from time to time to perform with his mother and Nadaka for a few minutes.


Image: India's flag bearer Olympic gold medalist Abhinav Bindra leads his team into the stadium
Photographs: Andy Clark/Reuters
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The magic that Keshava offered

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After their return to India in September, they started working on the piece written by Ranjit Barot for the 'Rhythms of India' segment of the Opening Ceremony.

Keshava immediately understood what was required of him. Ganesh Basavaraju came from Chennai to practice with him. He had hardly spent about two hours with Keshava who caught the routine in no time.

Gopika explains that over the years, Keshava has learnt a lot from Ganesh by just watching the movements of his fingers in concerts and practice sessions with Nadaka.

Finally, the Big Day, October 4!

The family, including Keshava's 11-year-old sister Kamakshi, arrived in Delhi a week earlier for the rehearsals. As one can imagine, it was a bit chaotic but interesting to see how it was all unfolding. There was a great support and understanding from the Wizcraft team, especially Farid Khan (the stage supervisor) who handled it very well from the child's perspective.

Keshava had to sometimes wait for hours before coming on stage for the rehearsals, but this did not disturb him. He could concentrate on his own world, reading some Walt Disney stories, fascinated especially by tales that involve transformation of characters.

Even for the opening ceremony, he patiently waited under the stage. Gopika related to him his favorite story until the time he was called on stage.

Farid showed him the crowd a minute before he performed. There was no fear in Gopika's heart nor in his. It was a golden moment before the show, she explains.

Keshava then walked onto the stage between the 1,200 drummers to take centre stage to play his part and turn on the world. The rest is history.

For Gopika it was the happiest moment of her life. It was a reassurance that she had taken the right decision for her child. She was reminded of the words of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo: 'The aim of education is not to prepare a man to succeed in life and society, but to increase his perfectibility to its utmost' -- 'It is not brilliant students that we want, it is living souls.'

The magic moment that Keshava offered the world was probably his 'own world' of Joy, Purity and Spontaneity. It was like an elixir of freshness on the wounds of previous months.

In these few minutes this little boy seemed to wash away darker sides of the preparations. It was a moment of Grace. And it came at the last minute, as always in India.


Image: Fireworks explode over the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium during the Commonwealth Games closing ceremony in New Delhi
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters
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