From this morning's Times of India: "In March 1998, one evening while his father was admitted to the ICU of Breach Candy Hospital, Amitabh Bachchan recited Hindi poems by Dr. Harivansh Rai Bachchan before a distinguished audience for the British Council. Big B, was nervous because this was one of the first times he was doing this publicly. But it went down well. And early next morning, charged by the experience, he returned to the hospital to find his father propped up in bed waiting expectantly. “How did it go,” Dr. Harivansh Rai inquired. Good is what Amitabh replied and he actually recited his father’s poems one by one in the ICU. Dr. Harivansh Rai listened attentively. When the Big B had finished, he said, “Thank-you, now when am I going home?” Dr. Farokh Udwadia discharged him the same morning."
I was working for the British Council back in 1998 when that reading took place. It happened at the National Gallery of Modern Art, where a collection of artefacts from the British Museum collection was on display. It was Britain's contribution to celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of India's independence. The show was called The Enduring Image and the British Council put together dozens of events to accompany it. One of these was a conversation between Jaya Bachchan and Tom Alter, along with a screening of the actress's first screen performance from an FTII diploma film. My boss Roopa Patel and Saryu Doshi, head of the NGMA, went to meet Ms. Bachchan at Breach Candy where, as the Times article points out, the elder Mr. Bachchan was hospitalised. During the conversation, Amitabh Bachchan came out to chat and, of his own accord, suggested he might read his father's poems. Roopa Patel and Saryu Doshi were, of course, delighted; Amitabh was then at a low point in his career, but was nevertheless India's biggest star by far.
In the course of helping arrange the event, I learned how true all stories were of the actor's professionalism. He had an assistant (Pearl?) and through her, every detail connected with the event was scrutinised and agreed upon, right up to the wording and colour of the invite. A few years later, the British Council organised an event involving Abhishek Bachchan and discovered he was rather more relaxed about such matters. That programme, if I remember correctly began over an hour behind schedule.
In Amitabh's case, it wasn't the actor's punctuality that proved a worry so much as his health. He developed flu just days before the reading, and we were informed the whole thing might have to be cancelled. We'd been inundated with requests for invitations, of course, and had set up a screen in the NGMA audiorium to accommodate the overflow. One of the most gratifying memories of that time was the fact that, despite having a number of sponsors and VIP associates to please, we kept at least half the passes for every event aside for the general public , by which I mean people responding to ads in the papers who weren't part of the Council's mailing list.
Amitabh did make it to Colaba for the programme. He walked in a little bent and covered with a shawl, seeming weak, almost unable to climb the five levels up to the rotunda where the reading was scheduled (the British Museum's security demands meant a number of exits had to be sealed, so the NGMA's tiny lift could not be utilised). After he was introduced, he walked over to the mike, and then I saw the kind of transformation I had heard of, but never previously witnessed. A spark kindled in his eyes with the first words he spoke, he summoned a store of energy from some place he'd hidden it safe from the fever's attack, and proceeded to hold three hundred people rapt with a robust, witty interpretation of his father's poems.
Later he read from In The Afternoon of Time, Rupert Snell's recently released translation of Harivansh Rai Bachchan's autobiography. For this, he sat down. The platform we'd built proved too low for people at the back to retain a good view of him. The gallery itself grew uncomfortably warm, the NGMA's air-conditioning not having been designed to cool hundreds of people on a single level for an extended period. Despite all of this, not more than two or three people left during the 90 minute reading.
On Monday he is scheduled to read in Bandra, as part of the Times of India's India-Pakistan peace initiative. Though the event is in Bandra Fort, a public space, entry is by invitation only.
Update: The Bombay Times article mentioned 'invitation only', but there are passes available to members of the public, which can be picked up from the Times building and a location in Andheri.