Dr Syud Hossain and Indian independence

Part 2 Life and times in the USA - 1921-1946

In Part 1, we got to know briefly the character of Syud Hossain, the man exiled from his shores to fight for
his nation’s independence. Syud Hossain, that was how his name was spelled and Syud was very clear about it from the very beginning, correcting people who misspelt it as Syed. However even Vijayalakshmi would spell it wrongly in her memoirs! In this section, we will run through his 25 years stay in USA and his final days in the limelight, before fading into obscurity.

Move to USA
The world congress of religions was then holding a conference in New York and using the influence of Agha Khan and Mr Chotani, Syud managed to get across the Atlantic to the new world. That he needed special help to travel is clear due to the simple fact that his passport had already been impounded, effectively ensuring that he could only remain where the British wanted him, far away from India.Thus it was in 1921, that Syud Hossain arrived in USA to lecture in New York and here he remained to report the Washington disarmament conference as a press representative for India. After this event, he continued to network with the few Indians rooted to American soil and inform about the land of India and her peoples, talk about the person called Gandhi, correct much disinformation spread by the British and also change the public opinion of the normal American. If one were to stop here, take a breath and think about that enormous task, any such person would just balk. But Syud had to do just that and survive only with the remuneration from his lectures about his far away land, his convictions and some good will.

Since that period, he was virtually the non-accredited Indian Ambassador to USA, until Asaf Ali took up the first formal position and later Vijayalakshmi Pandit herself took the job.

Together with Haridas Mazumdar, Dr. Syud Hossain and Dr. Anup Singh, he was a member of the second generation of Indian exiles, establishing close interpersonal links with religious pacifists and civil rights activists in the United States

Early years 1921 to 1934
Those were the days when the British sponsored negative opinion about India was spread about America by writers like Beverly Nichols who wrote that ‘Democracy in India had about as much hope of surviving as Scottish heather in the desert of Thar’!! He went on to equate Gandhiji with Hitler and state that Gandhiji was an ugly, vain, narrow, ignorant and supremely arrogant dictator. If he did peep from his present abode somewhere up above or down below, and see the world’s largest democracy called India, he would at least squirm. And there was the grotesque misinformation spread by the book Mother India written by the infamous and notorious Katherine Mayo about which I will write separately.

One of Hossain’s early contacts in America was Mazumdar. His first attempt at publishing on American shores was a magazine called Ars Islamica, expounding the various contributions of the Islamic community to Math, Art, Music, science and  so on (perhaps this is when he crossed roads again with Ozai Durrani, the minute rice man?) during the renaissance. Soon he was to get associated with the Orient magazine, a popular publication in New York.

The New Orient magazine
THE NEW ORIENT as was described then, provided a meeting place for the keenest, most sincere, and most sympathetic minds of East and West. It was the magazine of the Orient society and soon Hossain had become its secretary in New York.

The magazine started in 1923 with Hari G Govil as the Orient edited by Govil and later edited by Hossain (Hari went back briefly to India came back and joined IBM) as New Orient  and continued until 1928 after which Hossain left. The society arranged a number of social gatherings, lectures and entertainment and the magazine was widely popular and had a good readership showcasing many an Indian politician and writer (anybody desirous of studying his association with the Orient as well as his editing and writing styles and how beautifully he engaged readers is advised to read the book by Fedirka).The aim was of course to use the written medium to show how wrongly stereotyped India and Indians were was in the western eye. Later after Govil returned, it became the Oriental. Tagore, Gandhi, Gibran, Noguchi, Coomaraswamy, Wadia, Sarojini Naidu and so on were contributors. And there were many a western contributor too, like Einstein, HG Wells, Blanche Watson and many others. Not surprisingly it had a global reach even at that time, but for monetary reasons the magazine was running into difficulties and as it was soon to go under, Hossain took to other avenues to sustain his mission and himself, notably legal work and lecture tours.

And that was how his first association with the National committee for Indian Independence with Anup Singh evolved. It was the emergence of what eventually was informally named as the Indian lobby in Washington, the group that penetrated the higher echelons of the American leadership, the senate and the white house.
It is difficult to separate the next two decades of Hossain’s life between lecture tours, work at the University of South California and the India league activities in Washington, for Hossain was in those years, here there and everywhere.

Hossain went on to speak for a number of events and club meetings, as well as in churches and other prominent places. Detractors do mention that he projected himself and as to how wonderful a person he was (in typical American style, outspoken, be they philanthropists or outright capitalists) and how great a help he would be to the Indians of America, leading their cause against the British. The speaker bio’s or pamphlets provided about Hossein quoted praise from papers, eminent personalities and the various gentry. But his lectures attracted audience. One report even mentions that he collected over a hundred thousand dollars in 6-7 years, a stupendous sum. During these years, he lived in the best hotels and presented himself in immaculate attire. Hossain himself remarked ‘Saints and I do not get along together’ and Mazumdar also affirms ‘ Austerity and Hossain never went together’.

Soon tongues began to wag. Hindus in America felt they had no reason to pay a Muslim to live in five star luxuries while they slaved in burning fields of Stockton California. By 1930, the lecture contributions had started to dwindle and Hossain contemplated returning somehow to India.

It was also the time when the few Indians in America had lots of legal problems and Hossain represented their cause on a number of occasions. Soon it was apparent to him that his major client base was far away and in the west coast of USA ( though there were a few in New York, Chicago and Michigan), not only as clients, but as sources of funding for his as well as the Indian leagues activities. But as is well known, Hossain brought the word of Gandhi to America, in the most appropriate manner. Importantly, he was fiercely anti-communal, opposing figures like Jinnah or their advocacy for Pakistan.

And soon, his activities were under the British secret service folders – Check if you can the following for details.  Dr Syud Hossain, journalist: activities in USA and Canada IOR/L/PJ/12/247, File 646/25

Interestingly he found a lot of women supporters due apparently to his immense sex appeal. Many of the glowing articles written about him were by women. His circle of admirers and friends included people like Jacques Marchias, where their common link was interestingly, understanding Buddhism so much so that in 1933, Jacques Marchais helped him organize the "Roundtable of Contemporary Religion" in New York.

1931 – Move to California, USC
I obtained a better party understanding of Hossain’s days lecturing at the University of South California from the memoirs of the famous nuclear physicist Piara Singh Gill, a person who was nurtured by Syud Hossain in many ways and who is remembered by Singh fondly. Piara Singh was a pioneer in cosmic ray nuclear physics and party of the famous Manhattan project with Oppenheimer. Later on he returned to India, with Syud’s help and worked with Nehru and other famous people like Homi Bhaba starting up or working in many of the organizations like TIFR AEC, CSIO and so on.

Singh states that he first met him when he came to lecture in California in 1923 where all Indians attended to pay their respects to Hossain. It was the time of the great depression, and Singh was finding it difficult to support himself and his studies. His first observation was how Hossein decried the collection drive for Muslims affected in the Hindi-Muslim riots of Bombay with his stance that such fund raising becomes seed for further riots. How prophetic!! Anyway Hossain singles out Gill and gives him a lot of advice, asks him to forge on with his research even though times were bad and a shoulder to lean on should life become intolerable and unsustainable for Gill. This was to become an everlasting friendship.

Somewhere in 31 or 34, Hossain moved to USC Los Angeles. His courses were on the ‘Civilization of India’ and ‘The civilization of the Near East’. The dean even went on to recommend that every new student take one of Hossain’s courses and the net result was that every lecture of his was packed to the full. Gill would meet Hossain at the cafeteria and Hossain would educate him on Nehru, Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu. Their intellectual association was to continue until 1935 when Gill, moved to the University of Chicago for higher studies. A few years later in 1940, he decided to move to India and as expected Hossain offered to connect him up with the highest authorities and the great mentor he was, did exactly that allowing Gill to finally chase his dreams, in his own homeland, while he observed wryly from afar, from exile.

Even during these days at USC, he continued with his lectures.  He spoke at town halls, churches (on themes ranging from Budhha to Gandhi), he spoke without any religious leanings, fiercely supporting secularism much to the disgust of people like Jinnah. Clubs advertised his arrival and contents of his speeches. Take a look at this for effect - BRITISH RULE IS STARVING INDIA - Syud Hossain Declares 60,000,000 Get Only a Handful of Boiled Rice a Day. DEMANDS THEY BE FREED asserts Washington Conference Is Futile While Fifth of the World Is Being Oppressed.

Visit to India 1937-9
Not much talked about, Syud did visit India briefly, spending time at Dacca and meeting up with Subash Chandra Bose.

The Indian Lobby 1939-46
Dr Gould, a great friend of India and lecturing on such matters even today,  provides a beautiful commentary of those days and I am only using tidbits from the tantalizing chapters of his wonderfully lucid book ‘Sikhs Swamis Students and spies’.

Anup Singh, Mazumdar, Sridharani, JJ Singh and Hossain were the first participants of an organized effort to obtain US support for Indian independence. Three or four times a year, they would meet in Washington and hold debates marshaling public support. Syud used his connections in UK and India to get inside information to expose people like Churchill and their duplicity in Indian matters. Many an American intellectual was roped into the ring, and significant in her presence was the great Pearl S Buck and such meetings would always have at least one member of the American congress.

Imagine, the first meetings of the India league were held at the Ceylon India Inn, the only Indian restaurant in NY! Soon JJ Singh, who was until then somewhat of a playboy businessman dealing with Indian textiles, was to take a leadership role in the India League and make it the focal point of all lobbying efforts. It also appears that he was friendly with President Roosevelt’s son Jimmy. This was not to the agreement of some others and so Syud Hossain and Anup Singh formed a parallel organization called the National committee for Indian independence in Washington DC, supported by the businessman Watumull.

By 1942, in the middle of the world war, the Churchill sponsored propaganda wars started in the US, so also the quit India movement and the efforts of other groups such as the east west association of Pearl S buck. Americans were by then in India, at the CBI Theater and able to obtain much local insight. The Indian lobby meetings started to attract large audience much to the alarm of the British.

Durga Das provides an example in his memoirs - One of the most telling ripostes to the British propaganda was delivered at a time when Churchill was in Washington for one of his frequent consultations with Roosevelt. Some Indians and their American sympathizers booked a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post. Churchill was breakfasting with his host at the White House when the Post was brought in. Roosevelt was unaware that the paper contained the ad, which had been prepared by Syud Hussain, Chairman of the Committee for Indian Freedom, and was a biting indictment of British rule in India.

He passed the paper to Churchill, who opened it and saw the ad, captioned "What About India?" Churchill threw the paper down angrily. On learning the cause of his ire, Roosevelt calmly observed that the ad had obviously been paid for, and buying newspaper space for propaganda purposes was not unusual in the US.
Nevertheless, the days 1942-44 were filled with some amount of wrangling between Hossain and Singh. JJ Singh was better connected and more in the news and prevailed in the League. Eventually after some years of concerted efforts Hossain returned to South California as a professor, commuting regularly to Washington while JJ Singh and the India league continued their work. Matters, events and relations were strained, but still gathering steam…fate you see, was to intervene and bring a measure of relief.

Hossain continued to thunder in the lecture halls – he said in one meeting “Indians are not trusted with arms and yet hundreds of thousands of Indians are systematically taken across the seas to various parts of the world to fight nationalists not yet brought to the same state of servitude as themselves and to help to reduce them to that state. And he pushed even harder for independence "India is changing and changing very rapidly. The spirit of self-assertion and self-confidence manifested either in platform or in silent plans of works no doubt reveals the dawn of a new era in India”.

Vijayalakshmi comes to New York
The equations were soon to change as fate brought the two people together in December 1944. As the World War 2 was raging in Europe and other parts of the world, Ranjit Pandit passed away and it was decided by the congress to depute Vijayalakshmi Pandit to the US as a goodwill ambassador to marshal even more support. Since she had no formal approval to travel, she flew to US in a military plane, in a bucket seat, to the USA. Her children were then in the US studying at Wellesley by then and so as fate decided, the paths of Syud Hossain and Nan Pandit crossed again. As Dr Gould writes – This was of course a sentimental moment for Hossain and Madam Pandit because they had not met since their brief love affair back in the early 1920’s. He also mentions their meeting to be filled with tender reminiscences, though there were no overt resumptions to their old relationship for too much water had flowed over the dam.

Dr Hossain naturally headed the steering committee for Vijayalakshmi’s attendance at the UN San Francisco conference, speaking on behalf of the national committee for Indian independence rather than the Indian league. Sadly the event passed without fanfare and the next few years were also lukewarm as far as support for India was concerned, even in relation to the food shortages, perhaps due to internal issues and the rebuilding after the war.

Shortly before the conference, Roosevelt passed away, a covert but not overt supporter of Indian Independence. And later, Churchill gave way to Atlee.

During this period Gandhi received letters from several Indians in the United States complaining that Syud Hossain was following Vijaya Lakshmi everywhere like her shadow. Early in September 1945 Nehru received cable from Syud.

Request to Nehru
It appears that Syud Hossain finally (1945) took the decision to request permission to return home, perhaps after discussions with Nan Pandit. He cabled Nehru (excepted from MO Mathai’s book) – Thinking Coming India to help toward Hindu Muslim Unity on basis clarification fundamental issues. Could run for central election as Muslim nationalist if necessary. Please cable your opinion regarding usefulness feasibility such course….

Nehru replied, after consulting Asaf Ali and Gandhi – No chance running for central election owing technical difficulty absence name from electoral registers. Your return India helpful especially in Bengal if stay long though results inevitably slow in present conditions and your long absence. Difficult say where your usefulness greater. Gandhiji thinks you can do more important work in America.

Syud Hossain was once again thwarted, this time by his own people perhaps it was Nehru’s plan to keep the two of them apart.…

Lobbying for citizenship
For years Indian nationals continued to suffer many hardships, partially because they were not allowed to obtain citizenship of the US. Joan M. Jensen, historian and author, described the plight of Indians as follows:
“Excluded from immigration, persecuted for their political activities, threatened with deportation, excluded from citizenship, denaturalized, excluded from land ownership, and regulated even in their choice of a mate in the States, these Indians now formed a small band of people set apart from Americans by what truly seemed to be a great white wall.”

One of the persons who lobbied for support was Hossain. Indian community activists, J.J. Singh, Dr Anup Singh, Syud Hossain, Krishanalal Shridharani, Haridas Muzumdar, Mubarak Ali Khan, Taraknath Das, and a few others relentlessly lobbied with the elected representatives of the American people for granting of civil rights to the nationals of India who were already in the US. Fortunately in 1946, President Truman took special interest in the passage of Luce-Cellar bill which was finally approved by both Houses of Congress restoring the rights of citizenship of Indian nationals in the US. It was a great triumph for the Indian community leadership when on July 2, 1946, President Truman signed the bill in the presence of Sardar J.J. Singh and Anup Singh allowing Indians to become naturalized citizens and 100 Indians to immigrate every year. Saund was the first Indian in the entire western world to get elected to a major political office. In the US, he will be remembered as the first Asian to attain that distinct honor. J.J. Singh, Dr Anup Singh, Syud Hossain and some others who actively lobbied for equal rights for Indians never applied for US citizenship. They went back to live in free India.

Khalil Gibran
In 1924 his work on ‘Arabic canons of eloquence’ appears in Cairo and a year later he is invited by Syud Hossain to contribute articles to the New Orient Magazine, an international publication seeking to encourage the meeting of East and West. During his association with the journal he submits several articles for publication.

Return to India
1946 Amritsar
As is well known, Hossain was secular and never supported the formation of Pakistan. Jinnah was not happy with the way Hossain had projected Jinnah and Pakistan in US. As a result, Syud’s relations with Jinnah were cool and in fact Jinnah even accused him bitterly of defecting to the enemy camp, i.e. India during the pre-partition juncture. With this backdrop, let’s revisit an event.

Excerpted from Gills memoris - Oct 21st 1946 Syud Hossain was traveling from Lahore to Delhi by the Frontier mail, sharing the compartment with a man, his wife and their 3 year old child. When the train pulled into Amritsar, an angry crowd of 500 Muslims armed with sticks and daggers were waiting to pounce on Syud Hossain. They broke the windows of the compartment and neither the police nor the railway staff intervened.

To save the lives of his fellow travelers, Hossain exited the compartment. Perfectly composed, he demanded the attention of the crowd in a commanding voice. Telling them that he was not in the least afraid of getting killed, if this was their intention, he added – You cannot coerce me to do anything against my conscience. For 30 years, I have been fighting for India’s independence and for Hindu-Muslim unity. I am doing so even today, if in all these years, the British have not been able to coerce me or tempt me away from the path of my convictions, certainly threats of personal violence could not do so.
He kept the crowd spellbound until the train pulled out of the station to the accompanying shouts of ‘Long live - Syud Hossain’.

That was how his mother land received him during his short stay, but he could never stay, for soon he was deputed to Cairo.

At Cairo 1947-49
Staying at the famous Shepheard hotel in Cairo, he ran the first Indian embassy at Cairo, by now a distinguished diplomat, and well suited for the job with his knowledge of Arabic and other languages and the deep knowledge of the region and Indian ideals. He did well in representing India’s side of the difficult Islamist issues with respect to Kashmir and Hyderabad, in the Arab league.

Two years later he was no more, dead of a heart attack at the Papayoannou Greek hospital in Cairo. The Egyptian government gave him a state funeral and a marble tomb in Cairo. A road was named after him. As is said, his friends in Cairo swore he died of a broken heart.

Horniman’s appreciation
Syud Hossain did the forward for his mentor’s 1918 book ‘A friend of India’ which without doubt Benjamin Guy Horniman was. On the eve of Syud Hossain’s deputation to Britain, Horniman made a farewell speech from which the following is excerpted

Continuing, Mr. Horniman said the absence even for a short time of Mr. Syud Hossain was for him a great personal wrench. There were several reasons for that, the first of which was that Mr. Syud Hossain was his oldest friend in India. He might have said that about ten years ago he discovered Mr. Syud Hossain, but as that claim had already been put forward from another quarter, he would desist from making that claim himself, and would say it was Mr. Syud Hossain who discovered him about ten years ago …. And though for long they separated·, one having gone to another country than his own and the other also being in another country than his own, they had been together for the last fifteen months in Bombay", and during that time his respect for Mr. Hossain as a politician, as a publicist, and as a fearless honest and straightforward fighter (applause), had continually increased. But more than that they had been associated together in connection with a certain public institution which he would not specifically name (laughter), and Mr. Hossain had been to him a colleague of more value than he could adequately describe. His loyalty and devotion to him in all times of stress and in every description of trouble-and trouble of a kind which did not ordinarily fall on journalists, was beyond his power to express. He had been as devoted and loyal a colleague as any man could possibly expect to have. He was sure that all were undergoing a personal sacrifice in allowing Mr. Syud Hossain to go to England, for during his absence they would not have the ecstatic delight of listening to Mr. Syud Hossain, when he belabored his opponents with his rhetoric; but they did so with all good will and real pleasure in another sense, because they knew him so well that they were sure they were sending the right man to England, (Loud cheers.) The speaker next referred to Mr. Gurtu's qualifications, and concluded by saying that Mr. Syud Hossain and Mr. Gurtu would be second to none in their devotion to duty and in their determination to do what they were asking them do viz., to put the plain and straightforward issue of Home Rule before the British democracy.

Those who missed the first part read it by clicking this link  Dr Syud Hossain – A true patriot

Sikhs Swamis, Students and Spies – Harold Gould
Up Against Odds: Autobiography of an Indian Scientist By Piara Singh Gill
Colonial Displacements - Paromita Biswas
Toward a Locational Modernism - Sarah A. Fedirka
My Days with Nehru – MO Mathai
Communications and Power - Milton Israel
Dr Syud Hossain – A glimpse of his life, Speeches & Writings – JN Chakrabartti
Roosevelt Gandhi Churchill – Venkatramani & Srivastava

Tail note
Sometimes reputed and knowledgeable people in the business of writing ask if I really read all these books to pen such articles. Well, I do refer to related sections in each and every one of these listed books, while admitting that I am particularly fortunate to even lay my hands on these rare books. For that I owe all my gratitude to the great library system of the USA, especially my home library the NC State Hunt and the DH Hill library. I must also thank the US - Rice for books scheme of 1964 which transferred so many great books about India to the USA, where they are carefully preserved and made available for nutty characters like me who ask for them.
Sometimes the librarian says ‘like, wow! – “You are the first person to lay your hands on this 1948 book”! The other day, it was the inauguration of the robot operated Hunt library, and the librarian mentioned that they could perhaps introduce me as their most dedicated patron, even though he may have remarked so in jest!
And all I can do is smile, sad at the fact that nobody else has the slightest interest or inclination in such matters but at the same time happy that I can retell some of those stories to all of you in a simpler fashion. Maybe they are not appealing to the broad public, but some day, somebody looking for some specific information will stumble upon articles like this, with gratitude.

Syud Hossain’s finest Speeches
The paradox of civilization – Look at this excerpt –We human beings are a class in ourselves. Any animals, wild animals, savage animals – brutes as we call them – if they kill, they usually kill for purely biological reasons, they kill for food. No animal ever kills with any calculated motive of malice, no animal ever kills with all the abominable refinements of torture and premeditation and calculation. That is a special quality and attribute of ourselves - humans.


Another weekend to savor

That it certainly was, for though the week’s weather was a bit glum and grey, the Friday evening was spent watching a fascinating drama in space with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. With the accentuation of the experience in IMAX and 3D, and superb music by Steven Price, watching ‘Gravity’ was money well spent. And with that done with, we flew westwards to Ohio where Anu and Sabu had arranged a concert with the fascinating 32 year old Stephen Devassy from India and three competent young singers.

Both Shoba and I have been following the rapidly rising career path of Stephen for a few years now and enjoyed his musical support for the Indian Voice program as well as a few others, and it was after a span of some 6 years that I was seeing him again in person. The first was at San Diego and I had written about that event, a time when Stephen had provided accompaniment to the famous Hariharan.

Stephen has progressed famously since then, and the village boy from Ottapalam had indeed travelled a long way, performing across the globe and in front of many a luminary. Some of you may not know Stephen, so a little bit about the young musical genius.

This young lad burst into the music scene with dreams to arrange and perform the music he composed. Starting early with just a keyboard, he quickly anchored himself firmly in church choirs and gospel music, and started solo performances when he was in the 8th standard. As he progressed to college, he decided to divert his interests fully into music and that was when the famous vocalist Hariharan beckoned, with which Stephen’s world travels started. By 16 he had completed his exams on the Piano at the Trinity College in London scoring very high marks. Soon he immersed himself in the film world as a music programmer, working with many a musician, music director and singer, not only in the South but also the North. He still is one of the busiest programmers now settled in Mumbai, but then with the hectic style he has chosen, he also jets around the world doing many a stage program. His heart however is in creating original music and performing with his bands.

And that was how we met Stephen at Cleveland, the hallowed center for rock and roll and Carnatic music in the USA (recall my article about the Thyagaraja Utsava?). For those who raise a quizzical eye, that was where Moondog (Alan Freed) the DJ popularized a new style of rhythm and blues music calling it rock and roll and then went on to promote the first ever rock and roll concert. Freed was also one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame following which Cleveland warmly embraced rock and roll, making it a center for record-buying, radio stations and live concerts. Stephen, if you are not aware yet, is a keen western music enthusiast, while fully at home with all the Indian genres. Gospel comes to him readily, but funk, rap, rock and blues are no strangers and we were soon to witness his genius at impromptu jamming.

Stephen was very easy to get along with and as a simple and humble man, shared many a tidbit of the world he comes from, but at the same time was inquisitive, sometimes almost childlike, about the life of an ordinary American Malayali. He had traveled alone for this event and getting ready for the next day’s event was prime in his mind and a few electronics items were needed. Stephen incidentally, is pretty adept with tools and taking apart his musical machines if so needed, for he had discovered that his Keytar had suffered some minor damage. Once he had repaired it, his mind was at ease, and soon we were off to the musical superstore Sam Ash nearby, something Stephen does when he is in the USA. This was a place where he just gets lost, browsing the latest tools of his trade and comparing experiences with the specialists there, and Cleveland has a really big store. Sam Ash describes itself - Visit any Sam Ash Music Store at any time and you’re guaranteed to see somebody making music. After all, making music is what Sam Ash is all about and they mean business. Playing the incredible selection of instruments is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. You’ll find people of all ages, from novice to pros playing guitars, keyboards, drums or brass and woodwind instruments.

It was after Stephen finished selecting the hardware he needed that he spotted a serious looking gent rapping
away near a keyboard. We could easily make out was that this singer was quite good and Stephen decided to play with him. The experience listening to the duo-ensemble was well, nothing less than unique.

Dinner and conversation followed at Anu’s and Sabu’s home, and it was great fun, chatting about music, Stephen and his interests, life and so much else. Simi was busy with the preparations to host the show for some 400 people the next evening and Jishnu and Vinod, with all kinds of activities related to the dinner, the other hall arrangements and so on, and I will agree that the efforts were very painstaking, just look at the place holders the ever so efficient Simi made for each dish.

Stephen was fighting the drowsiness creeping in with the jet lag as he had come in directly after a hectic show in Dubai. You think we would have let him drift off to sleep? No way! For the charming threesome of children were making a bedlam while the young ladies were getting the dinner ready. And thus we heard snippets from Stephens’s busy life, his new pad at Bombay, his married life and events around his life and his many friends…

One of the events he remembered was the performance he gave at my alma mater, NIT Calicut. For him,
interaction with his audience was a must and the performance at NIT is something he always remembers, eyeballing the hyperactive audience in the front rows of the auditorium. But the story about his experience with a senior instrumental maestro during another extended tour, about having to massage the feet of this person, who had a fall into the orchestral pit during a passionate practice session, had us all in splits. We joked that he power in his fingers came from the maestro’s feet.Music has really taken him places, and he considers himself lucky to have performed before dignitaries like three of the Vatican Popes (a total of five performances) as well as the Dalai Lama.

The Keytar liberated him in stage shows, and allowed him to move around and interact with the audience, and he showed how as the concert started, making a grand entrance, fingers furiously playing a peppy tune, while his eyes were taking in the audience and occasionally at the keys. Stephen said in a recent Hindu interview - Till then the keyboard or piano was treated as a backup instrument. But when I was given a chance to do unplugged versions of chartbusters or jam with contestants, people started noticing me and the instrument. As a Motif artiste (he endorses the Motif series of keyboard synthesizers) of Yamaha, Stephen knows quite a lot about his keyboards and is up in the league (or even above in my opinion) of Loy Mendoza and Louis Banks. But whatever said and done, Stephen agrees that it was reality TV, shows like Indian Voice that took him to the hearts of millions in Kerala and Tamil Nadu as well as many others in India and abroad.

He had appreciative opinions on every new singer and sees only the good in everybody who sings, talking reverently of the greats like AR Rahman and Hariharan with whom he has performed often, of the great fun he has jamming with his pal Sivamani and his friendship with MJ, Karthik and other singers. And of course, we discussed things other than music, like food (he loves the porridge kanji!!) and he told us about something I am looking forward to eat – the Dindigul Venu Biryani at Coimbatore, something both Stephen and Sivamani love.

How many of you know that he worked with Colonial cousins, the twin set of CD’s Hariharan and Leslie Lewis made? Termed sometimes as India’s Jazz pianist or the South Indian Mozart, he has performed with the London Symphony Orchestra. He has done over a couple of thousand concerts and is totally at ease on stage and even takes pains to ensure that his co-artistes are at ease. His concept in his own words - It’s very simple. Music should be enjoyable. Listeners should be able to satisfy their tastes. Music relaxes us, rejuvenates our mind and helps us escape from the stresses of hectic life. I try to make waves among youth with music, because I represent them.

His performance at the concert was electrifying, and his endearing vibrancy on stage enough to get the audience involved. Remixing old tunes, and introducing new melodies interweaving western, Carnatic and Hindustani, he served us a heady mix of music for a couple of hours.

And the vocal accompaniment was equally good, with many a popular song sung by Bhadra, Shalini and Thahseen. Each of them is a competent singer with many shows behind them. Bhadra, the lovely lass continues to brings us art from the family of thespian Thikkurissy Sukumaran Nair, being his grand-daughter. She sang a number of peppy and melodious numbers, warming the hearts of the audience while the charming Shalini Rajendran anchored in with a number of ever popular songs. The third singer was somebody I knew from the blogger’s world and somebody I had corresponded in the past, in fact it was a surprise meeting him at this concert, the somewhat serious looking Thahseen Mohammed. We had shared notes on stalwarts dead and gone in the Malayalam music world, people like Mehaboob and K Abdul Khader. Thahseen weighed in with a few Rafi numbers and Malayalam songs. With Stephen supporting, all three gave us a lovely mix of Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi songs, and in the gaps Stephen would take us away into another sphere with his keyboard pieces.

Stephen, who loves Mozart's Symphony was inspired by Yanni (In fact it was playing Yanni’s ‘Nostalgia’ that got him entrance to Fr Thomas’s Chetna school many years earlier), the Greek musician, in making his musical compositions. In fact we spent many a minute discussing the Yanni show I had attended some time ago. He also recalled watching the Celene Dion show at Las Vegas and hoped that someday he could also be part of such mega events! From the new musical lineup, he likes Michael Buble and Michael W Smith. Interestingly he believes that he may have picked up the Sitar if it had not been the piano. But all said and done, audience interaction is important for him in a concert. In fact in an earlier interview, he explained "My early training on the piano was restricted to Western classical music, and I played Mozart and Beethoven and Chopin to audiences in Ottapalam and Thrissur who could not much appreciate it," recalls Stephen. "As I played my pieces fast, they seemed impressed. And when I began to introduce tunes - drawn from local films and folk music - the change was dramatic. They applauded, because they enjoyed what they heard."

And so that was how he got the audience to their feet – when he paid tribute to the most popular romantic tracks of the past years. He got the crowd to do the vocals for Thumbee vaa, Ayiram kannumai, Anjalee anjalee, Pehla Nasha, Kal Ho Na Ho, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and so on among others. The crowd happily sang along, like we did…remembering the scenes with Prabhu, Shahrukh and all those actors.

A sumptuous dinner catered out from Chicago followed with many a mouthwatering Kerala dish prepared with meticulous care. The dishes were attacked with gusto and consumed amidst animated conversations with Anu’s and Sabu’s Cleveland friends. Stephen was happy that the weather in Ohio was mild, for he hates the cold weather which is tough on exposed flying fingers. Gloves, he says, don’t help with the speed and dexterity needed, so he tries his best to schedule programs during the summer days. But he was surprised seeing so many people from Ottapalam at Cleveland, he mentioned that so many people walked up to him to mention they were also from Ottapalam. But good things have to end and soon, it did…..

Again, it was a week end with so many happy surprises, I met my friend from my Ambika Nivas Triplicane days, Babuji and his wife, after all of 33 years!! All in all, those three days were so nice, meeting so many young people like Jishnu and Simi, Saju and Bhadra, Vinod, Anup, Kannan, Shalini and Thahseen and so many others. The hours we spent talking about Calicut, for Bhadra and Saju also studied there (Shalini too hails from Calicut), common relatives and so on till the wee hours of each morning made us want more than the available hours in a day. And so, we all agreed to remain in touch, as new friends…… And for all that, once again, thank you – Anu and Sabu…….

Stephen has a studio and sound technology college in Chennai which we have decided to visit, the Muzik Lounge, and perhaps we will meet Stephen the musician again there, arranging music.Or who knows? We may come across him again, somewhere, sometime, someplace and enjoy more music….

Photos – Courtesy Jishnu
A movie and a concertA movie and a concert