Classical music

Strings attached: My journey as a modern sarod player

An unblinking look at the creative demands, power play and commercial pressures that confront a contemporary musician.

My music can be described as firmly rooted in the Shahjahanpur gharana perpetuated by Radhika Mohan Maitra, but deeply influenced by the Gwalior and Agra, and to a lesser extent, Jaipur khayal gayakis, and peripherally by the early grounding in the Maihar style of sarod playing that I received as a child.

I am a most unlikely professional Hindustani musician, and an even less likely candidate to represent a sarod tradition with such a rich history and massive repertoire. Both my parents are people of science. My father, until his retirement from the faculty of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, in 1998, was an experimental chemist and teacher, and my mother taught junior college physics, although they are both deeply interested in and engaged with Hindustani music, my mother having studied khayal since the early 1970s.

I grew up in the Powai suburb of Mumbai, on the IIT-B campus, and used to tag along to my mother’s vocal music lessons since before I can remember. One of my early childhood games was to try and imitate DV Paluskar’s 78 rpm recordings. He was my favourite musician when I was three, and remains one of my favourite musicians now.

Not many years later, a debate erupted between my parents on which stringed instrument I should be taught. While my father preferred the sitar, my mother argued in favour of the sarod, and it was she who prevailed. Soon, records of known names such as Ali Akbar Khan and Amjad Ali Khan were added to our shelves, which, until then, consisted mostly of vocal music.

I was eventually taken to see Brij Narayan, an eminent sarod player from Mumbai, and he very kindly agreed to teach me. My next teacher was Buddhadev Dasgupta, with whom my association lasted about a decade. Dasgupta had learnt from the great sarod master, Radhika Mohan Maitra. The pace at which I internalised Dasgupta’s musical style and material was rapid, because as a teenager and young adult, I literally hero-worshiped my guru and tried to emulate every aspect of his personality, to the point of being a social disaster.

My lessons with Buddhadevji took place wherever and whenever possible. Of course, while I was still a school-going teenager living in Powai, his concerts in Mumbai were the best possible excuse to have a lesson. Buddhadevji also visited IIT-Bombay as an external examiner of MTech mechanical engineering theses. Later on, as an undergraduate at Hampshire College in the US, between 1998 and 2002, I was fortunate to have Buddhadevji visit me on several occasions, and at other times, I went over to see him wherever he stayed, during his frequent visits to the US. By this time, supplementing in-person lessons with couriered cassette tapes, telephonic revisions of lessons, and e-mailed notations had become quite the norm for us.

Unable to continue my studies with Buddhadevji, because of intrigues within his inner circle and differences between us about my future, I spent two years, from 2003 to 2005, trying to consolidate whatever I had learnt until then, and learning repertoire and techniques of the Etawah gharana of sitar, from a master musician from Mumbai, Vinayak Chittar. Vinayakbhai and I continue to collaborate to this day and he remains my friend and all-round musical coach.

A new phase 

In early 2006, I wrote to the only other master of my gharana I knew of, Professor Kalyan Mukherjea, asking him for guidance. He had returned to his native Calcutta in 1990, and I was quite sure that given my reputation in that city as an enfant terrible, I would receive a curt rejection. However, I was pleasantly surprised to receive an empathetic reply from him, expressing some knowledge of the circumstances of my departure from my earlier teacher, and an invitation to audition for him. He told me later that he liked what he had heard of my music, and was impressed by my technique, but he did not appreciate the tonal quality of the sarod I had played back then.

Kalyan Mukherjea was not your run-of-the-mill Hindustani musician. Of course, his musical pedigree, as a disciple of Radhika Mohan Maitra and Dhrubatara Joshi, was impeccable, as was his honeyed touch on the sarod. But these apart, Professor Mukherjea was a reputable mathematician of the 1960s and ’70s, having contributed important papers in the field of algebraic topology.

As an undergraduate, Mukherjea had studied at Cambridge University and had received his doctorate from Cornell. He had then served on the maths faculty of UCLA for nearly a decade before returning to India and joining the Indian Statistical Institute in Delhi. It was possibly due to this background that his was a probing mind that refused to accept individual assertions as answers on any musical question, and applied all the tools of critical enquiry to his study of Hindustani music, an approach that was closely aligned to my own.

Kalyanda agreed to teach me, and asked me to come back the next day “if possible, with a better sounding sarod”. He was sure that “his ego thoroughly battered, this fellow from Bombay would not return”. As he eventually told me, he was surprised to see me show up the next day with a “traditional-sounding” sarod.

It had been quite a struggle to obtain one of a vintage that would satisfy his tastes, and without my friend Naba’s help, it would have been near impossible. For the first two years, Kalyanda’s focus was on slowing down my alap phrasing and increasing the length of pauses between phrases. Simultaneous vocal lessons from Yeshwantbua Joshi in Bombay, where I continued to live, helped me internalise the volumes of information Kalyanda was throwing at me. He also spared no effort to “correct” all the gat material (compositions) I had learnt from his gurubhai, Buddhadev Dasgupta, in what he called “distorted forms”.

Finding aesthetic roots

I do not know if all the corrections took me closer to the gharana’s aesthetic root, but because I came to appreciate the aesthetics of Kalyanda’s music and that of Radhubabu’s very deeply, I now play these compositions exactly as Kalyanda and Radhubabu played them, and not how I used to play them before I became his disciple. In the first two years, he taught me the raags Bihag, Chhaya, Chhaya Bihag, Shuddh Kalyan, Jaunpuri, Samant Sarang, Saazgiri, several types of Bilawal, and Yaman. Teaching me, at this point, essentially meant loading me with fresh perspectives and challenging me to develop new ideas in a raga, while making sure that I remained within its aesthetic boundaries and played tastefully.

In August 2008, Kalyanda’s wife, Lalita, succumbed to cancer of the oesophagus. He was never the same man after this. By this point, we had become dear friends. Somehow, after Lalita’s passing, Kalyanda had become acutely aware that his time on earth was limited. Our teaching sessions grew longer, and took on fairly unconventional forms, such as him emailing PDF notations and conducting telephonic sessions almost every day, in addition to my regular visits to Kolkata.

The in-person taleem sessions lasted for eight to ten hours, at the end of which he would be exhausted and want his three small whiskeys and innumerable cigarettes. It was the excessive smoking that caused his already frail body to develop serious cardiac problems. There were days in the latter half of 2008 and much of 2009 when he would teach me several ragas and compositions in one day. Our day began with him listening to my riyaaz, followed by breakfast. We would then spend three hours learning new material or consolidating things that I had not digested properly.

Then there would be lunch, inevitably accompanied by beer, followed by a session in which Kalyanda would give me feedback on technique and suggest specific exercises to address any issues he thought needed looking at. This is especially amazing given the fact that since May 1995, my guru had been a hemiplegic, having lost the function of the entire left side of his body due to a stroke, and was, in essence, an ex-sarod player. He had also developed glaucoma in the late 1980s and went blind eventually. All that we really had at our disposal was his brilliant intellect, my desperation to learn, and his to teach. My brain was bursting with information and I struggled to cope with all that he was giving me.

My guru Kalyan Mukherjea suffered a heart attack in late February 2010. My wife Tiksha and I rushed to Kolkata, only to find him at the door, standing hunched on his walker. “I didn’t mean to alarm you guys,” he said. “I feel a little out of it, but I am not going to croak any time soon.” We spent a delightful couple of weeks with him during which, despite his frailty, he insisted on teaching me. Despite his assurance, he suffered a second heart attack on March 31, 2010, and could not survive it.

An heirloom sarod. Credit: Arnab Charkabarty
An heirloom sarod. Credit: Arnab Charkabarty

Heirloom sarod 

In 2008, two days after Lalita’s passing, Kalyanda phoned me and asked me to go over. I did not expect him to give me lessons in that state, but I took my sarod along anyway. I walked into his study, where our lessons usually took place, to find Jon Barlow, a mutual friend and a disciple of Radhika Babu, sitting there with the sarod I instantly recognised as Amir Khan’s. Radhu Babu had bequeathed the sarod, in his will, to Kalyanda – a subtle protest, perhaps, from a dying man about the way his legacy was being appropriated by some.

This beautiful instrument had been my guru’s concert instrument from 1983 to 1995, when he ceased to play the sarod. Jon was busy tuning the instrument as I entered. Kalyanda joined us soon after, and we shook hands as usual – there was no foot-touching in our relationship, for he hated these displays of power and servility. He then motioned for Jon and me to sit down, and Jon handed me the sarod. “I want you to have this sarod, as Lalita had grown very fond of you, and I don’t think it will find a more able keeper than yourself,” my guru said. “If it survives your lifetime, feel free to pass it on to a similarly suitable person.”

Jon and I have become closer friends since then, despite our considerable age difference. I consult him on many technical matters, for he has some deep insights into sarod construction and maintenance, as well as into the music of Radhika Mohan Maitra.

Addiction to speed

It is necessary to state that while sarodiyas who have received comprehensive training in the Shahjahanpur gharana have impeccable technique, we do not chase breakneck speed for the sake of it. The reason for avoiding a romp in the park, so to speak, in every concert, is primarily aesthetic, although some of us are known occasionally to break the mould. Another aspect of Radhika Mohan Maitra’s musical style is the aesthetic placement of tihais and their sparing use – avoiding the use of such devices to excite the philistine.

One of the specialties of my gharana, the Shahjahanpur sarod gharana, is a type of gat called the Ferozkhani gat. These gats are played at a medium speed, almost invariably in Teental. The nomenclature in this case refers more to an approach to organising the salient features of a raga into a gat, rather than a particular rhythmic pattern, which is the basis of classifying the Masitkhani and Razakhani gat types. Ferozkhani gats are usually played between 130 and 200 beats per minute, and to quote from an article published in 1980 by Radhika Mohan Maitra, “are generally played in medium and medium-fast tempo rather than in fast tempo like Razakhani Gats”.

It is also marked by smart jumps from one octave to another with a surprise movement and is generally composed of at least three cycles of a tala movement. Sometimes the sthayee and the antara portions do not have different identities, but are coalesced into one unified entity.

My own composing has evolved along these lines, and the lines between the sthayi (main line), manjha (middle section) and antara (third and concluding section that goes as far up as the fifth note of the third and highest octave and back) in my own gats are often blurred, leaving the listener with an entity that strives to highlight key phrases of each tonal centre of a raga while integrating them into a rhythmic structure over several cycles of a tala.

My musical thoughts 

The six years since my guru’s passing have given me the time I needed to thoroughly internalise and organise much of the material he has left me with. Yet there remains a vast trove of taleem that I am yet to study in depth and make my own. I hear from many performing musicians of comparable, greater or less ability, that they have stopped listening to other musicians in order to keep their musical thoughts “clean”.

I cannot fathom the meaning of this, since listening to the great masters – and recordings are becoming more and more available now – of the past and present often triggers the memory of something I was taught by my gurus, and gets me working, comparing notes, and reasoning through my own ideas.

The past masters that I regularly listen to are Ustad Faiyaz Khan and the entire Agra clan, Kesarbai Kerkar, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Rasoolan Bai, Siddheshwari Bai, Begum Akhtar, Nisar Hussain Khan, Mogubai Kurdikar, Mallikarjun Mansur, Padmavati Shaligram, DV Paluskar, Yeshwantbua Joshi, Gajananbua Joshi, Nivruttibua Sarnaik, Krishnarao Pandit, and several others. These are the benchmarks against whom I often cross-check the material I have learnt. I often adopt design changes to phraseology imparted to me by my guru, based on these vocalists, whom he admired.

I believe that an instrument keeps evolving and becoming more and more capable of musical expression, so every generation of instrumentalists in the Hindustani music tradition must evaluate how much closer they can bring themselves to the vocal idiom, and try to beautify it further by using unique aesthetic capabilities of their instrument.

In terms of the development of alap and jod phrases on instruments, I consider Vilayat Khan and Radhika Mohan Maitra the gold standards in terms of how they have conceived design, texture, dynamics and timing, and imparted cohesion to them. Among my colleagues, Vinayak Chittar excels in these aspects.

A bulk of my instrumental listening, therefore, consists of these three artistes, although I keep my ears open. In terms of raga content and attractive use of meends, I am deeply influenced by the sitar playing of Mushtaq Ali Khan (1911-1989) and the last great beenkar Asad Ali Khan (1937-2011), and this creeps frequently into my playing.

The contemporary vocalists, among whom are recently deceased artists I had encountered personally, who compel me to think about my view on a raga, and thereby impact my music subtly, are Kishori Amonkar, Mukul Shivputra, Dinkar Kaikini, KG Ginde, Ulhas Kashalkar, Arijit Mahalanabis, Lalith Rao, and very recently, Arun Kashalkar and Aditi Upadhya.

Finally, teaching is another way in which I revisit material and learn new things. I have been very fortunate to have had a number of very intelligent and musically engaged students, mostly adults, who are curious about both content, technique, and how to put them together in a presentation. This keeps me in touch with the most basic things about playing music on an instrument, and compels me to practise many things that many seasoned musicians might take for granted.

One of the reasons I have kept growing musically is the fact that I am not afraid to slow down some of the most basic technical exercises to a “beginner speed” and play them for hours, if needed, in order to correct some unseen errors, or to teach my fingers a new set of skills, or perhaps to acclimatise them to the scale of a new raga.

So while I have received much musical material from gurus, friends and by listening to numerous great musicians, the onus is finally on me to be my own teacher, and listen very critically to myself, be on the lookout for weak spots in my playing, and keep finding exercises, technical, rhythmic and melodic, that will help me clean up those aspects.

A good student, therefore, can be an effective teacher. But for this to happen, certain conditions must be met. Of these, the most important, as demonstrated by the case of Kalyanda and myself, is motivation. A student must be motivated to learn and a teacher must be motivated not only to teach, but to try and find ways to customise that teaching.

It is as a consequence of this extraordinary teaching relationship that I am able, today, to negotiate music on my own terms and see it for what it is, and totally ignore the flash, fluff and mystical claptrap that the commercial world of music sometimes places before us.

This is the second of a two-part series. You can read the first part here.

Arnab Chakrabarty is an accomplished sarod player who will perform in Mumbai on Friday, November 11, at a concert presented by First Edition Arts and G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture. The highly respected table player Abhijit Banerjee will accompany Chakrabarty. This has been adapted from a talk that he will give before the concert.

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