Juhi Sinha is one of my favorite authors. Her biography of Bismillah Khan and her travels through Rajasthan made me a fan of hers. So it was a pleasant surprise to get an email from her one day. I grabbed the opportunity, and she graciously agreed to an interview. Hear Juhi Sinha talk about herself and her craft…
Juhi Sinha Interview
Tell us about your background – where were you born and brought up? What did you study and what do you do for a living?
Juhi Sinha, I have a fairly staid, dyed in the wool bureaucratic background. My father was in the ICS (Indian Civil Service, the forerunner of the IAS) of Madhya Pradesh cadre. So though I was born in Allahabad in the home of my maternal grandparents, my childhood was spent in Madhya Pradesh. After a year’s stint in England, my father was posted in Delhi where I went to school (Convent of Jesus & Mary) and college, (English Hons Miranda House). My favorite subjects in school were English and Geography which I guess explains my writing and love of travel.
I got married while still in the final year of college and completed my graduation six months later. It was an arranged marriage to a young IAS officer (Gujarat cadre) with whom I traveled extensively across the state. Incidentally, we never met until our wedding though we corresponded regularly during our year-long engagement. There was no taboo on our meeting. But it somehow got delayed and after a point, we both agreed that we would meet only when we got married. In hindsight, it’s hard to say whether we were old fashioned or well ahead of the times. Given the number of internet dating romances today! But we got really lucky.
Small district tours and frequent transfers don’t make for easy employment avenues. But I did teach English at the Rajkumar College Public School, Rajkot briefly. Also, I soon began writing fairly regularly for Femina and Eve’s Weekly (short stories). Short articles for the newspaper (Times of India, Hindustan Times, the Indian Express, Tribune etc). And an occasional story for the BBC World Service (radio). I must, however, confess that I did enjoy being just a housewife – enjoyed my home, cooking, the garden. And bringing up my daughter (and dog!). I had grown up with the UP language of Hindustani and a love of Urdu. So for about six months, I had a Maulvi come home to teach me to read and write Urdu. My classes came to an abrupt end when my husband was transferred to Delhi.
What describes you the best – Traveler, Explorer, Author or Film-Maker? Which of these roles have you enjoyed the most?
I tend to seek out and prefer the path less taken, quiet, uncrowded getaways so perhaps Explorer, Film Maker (it gave me the chance to travel extensively and to see my writing become multi-dimensional) and author and traveler.
Your biography of Bismillah Khan mesmerized me – it brought both Khan Saheb and Benaras alive for the reader. What was your experience of meeting him and any anecdotes or insights that you can share with us from your interactions with him?
I was fortunate enough to meet Bismillah Khan many times at concerts and different locations, but my enduring memory of Bismillah Khan is a sunny winter morning on the terrace outside his roof top room, in Benaras. He sat cross-legged on a Charpai soaking up the sun, with a half smile playing on his face. He was the picture of a man content and at peace with himself. I realized later when I did more research for my film that this was not entirely true, and that it might perhaps be more accurate to say that he had made peace with the circumstances of his life.
One of the things that impressed me about Khan Saab was the multifaceted dimensions of his personality. As a Muslim there was a certain discipline that he followed – regular Zakat, or charity and visits to Mecca. He was the devout Muslim who every year on Muharram walked from his house in Benia Bagh to the mosque at Faatman. Here he sat under an old neem tree and played the shehnai all day.
There was Bismillah the Sufi who far from accepting the Islamic dictum that music was a gunah ‘or sin’, believed that his music was the means to his union with the divine. There were numerous occasions, he told me, when even though he played alone he could feel the presence of the immortals around him.
And then, of course, there was the Bismillah who was a Benarasi, one who whole heartedly embraced the Benarasi ethos of ‘fakkadpana’, a carefree enjoyment of life and living, for to be happy was in itself a tribute to the Maker! He was the Bismillah who believed in the sanctity of Gangaji, and the tangible spiritual aura of the city. The city where he received divine darshan and blessings from Balaji Himself, who told him, “Maza Karega, maza Karega!” (You will enjoy Life!)”
Khan Saab felt that he had the enormous advantage of the opportunity, talent, and luck. As he put it “Allah agar ilm de toh muquaddar bhi de”! (If God grants talent, let him also bestow luck and good fortune). And finally, I sensed his tremendous faith in the Almighty. Often faced with financial constraints he would say philosophically, “Malik Dega”! (The Lord will Provide)
Would that more of us could have such faith!
How has seeing Benaras through the eyes of a maestro changed your relationship with the city?
On many visits in and out of Benaras as a child, my recollection of Banaras was that of an over crowded city with narrow, not too clean streets lined with an endless row of Benarasi silk and sari shops.
My days of reconnaissance of Benaras for my film and my interaction with Khan Saab gave me the ability to see the romance and mystique of this ancient city, Benaras was also Kashi, the city of light and the abode of Lord Shiva. It was the city of the Ganga where the boatmen sang bhajans in raga Malkauns, where the strains of ‘Thumri’ and ‘Kajri’ clung to ‘galis’ and mohallas. Here weavers and tradesmen kept alive the best traditions of the silk fabric and deeply entrenched values of communal harmony. It was the city that paid musical homage to a river every day at the evening Arti.
Perhaps Khan Saab’s memories were tinged with nostalgia, but I feel privileged to have been given a glimpse.
While making films in the remote areas of the country – what were your biggest challenges as a woman? Did having an IAS officer husband ease out many things for you?
I never felt daunted by the challenges of making films in remote areas of our country for two reasons.
- I selected the locations precisely because of their remoteness. For the challenges were offset by their pristine beauty eg. Gomukh, Valley of Flowers, remote villages in Rajasthan, Sikkim etc.,
- I had an excellent and fully supportive team that gave me courtesy as a producer/director, without coloring it with gender biases.
And yes, of course, it helped me greatly to know that because of my husband I could at a pinch, get in touch with local district authorities. All services- both in the private sector and in government – have a certain ‘Biradari’- so does the IAS.
Having traveled across India, tell us what part and what aspect of it fascinates you the most.
The mountains have a great lure for me so the northern states. Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jammu & Kashmir, Sikkim are great favorites. But so are Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh! It’s really hard to play favorites – in a word wherever there is scenic beauty, forests, quiet, there I love to travel! And last but not the least, the music and cultural traditions of any region hold a potent attraction for me.
Based on my travels, I think there is a huge communication gap between urban and rural India – they are like two different countries. Though ubiquitous technology has started playing an equalizer. Juhi Sinha, What does your experience say?
I agree that there is a huge gap between rural and urban India. But it is a gap that is shrinking rapidly, and perhaps not always for the good. There was – and though reduced still remains an enormous diversity in our country. The Terrain, language, dress, music, dance, food etc. all of which make travel such a delightful multi sensory experience. Yet I sometimes feel that the unique quality of each state and region has acquired a patina of an overall pan-Indian veneer. The shalwar kameez is seen across India from small villages in Kerala and Tamil Nadu to hamlets in Uttarakhand and Assam. Idli dosas are readily available from Badrinath to Puri. Chhole Bhature is on the menu in almost every state (along with regional variations of Chow Mein and Maggi Noodles!)
What do you think about the travel writing shifting to digital platforms like blogging?
I am seriously technology challenged. And though ignorant and diffident about digital platforms will certainly try and learn more about them.
What do you read and can you share with us your favorite authors/books?
I have an all time favorites list that includes PG Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, Gerald Durrell and James Herriot. I have greatly enjoyed and admired “Gone with the Wind”, “The Thorn Birds”. More recently I enjoyed “The Kite Runners.” “Love Eat Pray”, “Waiting for Daisy”. And “The Interpreter of Maladies.” I love reading books on travel. Even fiction that brings out the character and flavor of the place where the story is set. Unfortunately these days I don’t get the time to read too much. I’m either researching for or writing a concept (for a film/documentary). Or trying to finish my next book. Newspapers, magazines, TV, a family also pleasantly-crowd my days.
Juhi Sinha Tell us about your other books and the one you are currently working on.
Apart from Children’s Books (2 for CBT,4 for Scholastic India), my first book “Beyond the Dunes – Journeys in Rajasthan” (Penguin India) was a travelogue that combined my experiences as a traveler and a film maker. My second book was “Bismillah Khan – the Maestro from Benaras” (Niyogi Books). My third book was a collection of writings on the monsoon, “When Peacocks Dance” (Penguin India). Next book is a collection of short stories which I hope will be out soon. I am half way through a novel which I hope to finish this year.