Last Sunday, Atul Gautam, a tabla virtuoso, died unexpectedly of a massive brain haemorrhage. He was only 33. Those of us who had the good fortune, in both public settings and small gatherings, of watching and hearing Atul play the tabla remember many things about him.
But three in particular stand out. Atul's passion for learning was contagious, both in terms of higher studies and continuous practice. Once he started playing, he displayed what the University of Chicago psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has identified in his widely applied study of productive workers as an autotelic personality. And third, by working closely with some of the leading musicians, Atul served to advance the cause of neglected and under-funded eastern classical music in Nepal.
Most of us do work that could be mind-numbingly boring once we figure out how the work is supposed to be done. Unless we consciously trouble ourselves to create new ones, there remain few challenges to get us continuously excited about our daily work, regardless of what the work is. Human resource theorists often suggest that managers to keep parcelling out challenging assignments to employees before the inevitable anomie of routine work sets in to sap energy and creativity.
That is why, it takes a certain kind of individual, who, without any prodding, keeps finding challenges in their routine work and continuously aims to improve what they do. Atul was one of those rare people. Lit up by fierce motivation from within, he could go on practicing for eight hours a day-delighting in infinitesimal improvements in the ways he played the tabla. Besides, not content to be a mere practitioner, he enrolled himself in a doctoral program in Banaras. His aim was to contribute to the theoretical foundations of music.
Being a classical musician is a labour of love anywhere in the world but more so in Nepal. There is hardly any money or much publicity. The practice facilities are decrepit and the audience is small. But Atul managed to bloom where he was planted. He devoted himself completely to his music since the age of seven. And he played with no expectations of making money or earning public acclaim. He played because playing well for the sake of getting into the flow of making music without worrying about time, money and what others said was a reward worth savouring-again and again. Indeed, he showed one could produce much with very little. And in doing so, his autotelic or self-contained personality shone through, touching all who came in contact with him.
Atul understood that making music, like any piece of good work, was a collaborative activity. Whether in impromptu jam sessions with Sarita Mishra and Dhrubesh Chandra Regmi on Saturday mornings at Pashupati's Kirateswor Sangeet Ashram or elsewhere, he had no difficulty attracting others to play with him, thereby rising above the tales of jealousy and backbiting which, alas, hobble the Nepali arts community.
Interestingly enough, with his striking looks and inspired performances, Atul was the closest thing to 'a rock star' that Nepal's classical music fraternity had. But his greatness was that instead of basking in his own spotlight, he put his signature strengths to serve the cause of music: to quietly train the next generation of tabla players, volunteer for fundraising shows and increase the visibility of classical music and musicians. There is much we can learn from Atul's short life about how to be a productive worker and a happy human being. May his soul rest in peace.