“He did not play to dazzle, but to convey and build on the central thesis of a raag”, is how musician Arnab Chakrabarty recalled his teacher, Kalyan Kumar Mukherjea, a master of the sarod who died in 2010.

Mukherjea, who hailed from the illustrious Shahjahanpur gharana, was a mathematician at the Indian Statistical Institute in New Delhi by day.

On February 25-26, Chakrabarty along with three other musicians will pay tribute and highlight Mukherjea’s impressive contribution to music at an annual festival commemorating his 80th birth anniversary, at the GD Birla Sabhagar in Kolkata.

Chakrabarty, 42, one of his generation’s finest sarod players and musical minds, and tabla player Yogesh Samsi will play on the first day. The second day will feature Vocalist Manjiri Asnare-Kelkar and sitarist Budhaditya Mukherjee.

Chakrabarty trained with sarod maestros Brij Narain and Buddhadev Dasgupta for more than one-and-a-half decades before embarking on an intense five-year training stint with Mukherjea. He is now pursuing further musical studies with Irfan Muhammad Khan, the Shahjahanpur gharana’s hereditary khalifa, who is a custodian of massive reserves of musical knowledge.

Over email and video-conference, Chakrabarty, now based on Canada, described Mukherjea’s musical journey, and his contribution to the field, as a performer, thinker, composer and guru.

Tell me about Mukherjea’s training. What stood out from what he told you?

Kalyanda, as I called him, loved talking about the time that he spent with his guru, Radhika Mohan Maitra. Kalyanda was around 11 years old when he started playing the sarod. Access to a preeminent teacher was never a problem because Radhubabu, as Kalyanda called him, was one of the closest friends of his father, Arun Mukherjea, then a civil servant and later a Supreme Court judge.

For its time, Maitra’s teaching method was unique, and uniquely progressive, because it relied not only on the student’s memory, but also on writing, and later, as technologies evolved, on recording. He familiarised a beginner with each sarod string through right and left-hand template exercises. Then, he noted the basic gat in a raag along with several taans in the student’s notebook, expecting the student to execute and memorise these.

As a student’s prowess on the instrument grew, he would give him or her concise aalaap phrases to execute and memorise. Improvising came later, only after a student had mastered several gat-toda sets and taans in at least 20 to 30 raags.

Radhubabu’s teaching indirectly focused on making learning enjoyable and addictive. He was a patient teacher, but when a mature student failed to achieve adequate raagdari standards, he or she occasionally experienced the flavour of his caustic tongue.

Another of Radhubabu’s remarkable qualities was that he encouraged his students to go hear every maestro who was performing in Kolkata, and even take notes and analyse what they had heard. This was one of the ways to allow his students to develop critical filters that are indispensable for a fuller cultivation of this art form.

A sarod. Credit: dalbera from Paris, France, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

What is Mukherjea’s significance in the recent history of sarod-playing?

Kalyanda was among the brightest of Radhubabu’s students, and from the beginning, his favourite. Few matched Kalyanda in intellect, wit, and humanity. He was an unusually fast learner, so Radhubabu gave him materials more freely.

At times, even senior disciples would ask young Kalyan to learn tough raags like Kukubh Bilawal, Dhuliya Malhar, or Shuddh Nat from the ustad, and teach it to them. Radhubabu was not one to fall for such machinations.

One of his students told me that “once he had carefully rolled a capstan cigarette, lit it, and blown some smoke rings”, he would tell Kalyan to “stop being a postman” for x or y. He also composed several excellent gats that many of his younger guru-bhais and students like me play.

What in your view was special about his technique and raag interpretations?

Kalyanda remains a unique voice in the world of Hindustani instrumentalists because his was not a shock-and-awe approach. He did not play to dazzle, but to convey and build on the central thesis of a raag. That said, he questioned many ossified tenets of tradition, such as certain raags hewing to a certain octave, tetrachord or a general tonal region, despite the possibilities of exploration being considerably larger than prescribed.

He explored alternative fingering techniques, which allowed him to expand the range of what was typically played on the sarod, especially voice-inspired tanas in the third octave and above. He also devised fingering techniques that would enable one to quickly jump vertically between notes, obviating the need to begin a new string on a down-stroke, one of the factors holding the sarod back a little in the speed department, and so on.

But most important, he had discovered the need to tread lightly on the string with the nails of one’s left hand, so as to deftly execute an ornamentation, and still have enough sustain left to complete the phrase without the need for an additional stroke. His approach to the instrument itself was clever and efficient, but much of these contributions remained focused on the raags, and weren’t contrived to divert attention to the musician.

Kalyanda’s raag interpretations were catholic, in that he embraced a wide variety of influences. The potential drawbacks of this openness were balanced by an acute critical sensibility that had been instilled in his early taleem.

Which raag renditions of Mukherjea’s do you find yourself turning to the most often and why?

His recordings of Jaunpuri, Marwa and Shuddh Kalyan are some of the finest versions of these raags. [See links at the end]. But I turn to him for something deeper and more enduring – the very approach to raag structure, form and how to imagine and articulate the relationship of notes.

Radhika Mohan Maitra, who taught Kalyan Kumar Mukherjea. Credit: Senia-Shahjahanpur Gharana.

Mukherjea was also a mathematician. He retired from the Indian Statistical Institute, New Delhi. How did he balance his mathematics with his music? Did he talk about this?

In the 1960s, Kalyanda was more a professional mathematician than musician. Of course, he had exceptionally good taleem. As a tenure-track associate professor at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles] , he could not devote adequate time to his riyaaz. In this period, he published a few papers that were considered leading contributions to the field of algebraic topology at the time, cementing his reputation. With time, more elegant results began to emerge in his areas of interest, and for a while, he was beginning to tire of the intensely competitive field.

In the early 1970s he reconnected with his old friend, Amjad Ali Khansaheb, whose meteoric rise to stardom had just begun. Khansaheb encouraged Kalyanda to put in more hours of riyaaz, telling him that he had all the ingredients of an exceptional sarodiya; all that he needed to do was the woodshed.

Kalyanda took these words to heart and recommenced his practice, and by the time he returned to India for good in 1976, he had become a full-fledged performing artiste with a silken touch on the sarod. Of course, he had been in constant touch with his gurus, Radhubabu and Dhruba Tara Joshi, who would send him lesson tapes via sea mail, which he incorporated into his ongoing study of music. But he also greatly relished the autonomy that living abroad gave him in his musical pursuits.

After joining ISI Delhi in 1976, Kalyanda returned to serious maths for another few years, but without sacrificing his three fixed hours of sarod practice from this point on. His personal life took a tragic turn as his first marriage began to fall apart. From 1979, he was decidedly more of a musician than a mathematician, publishing the occasional work of note when, in his own words, he “needed to, for practical reasons of retaining my job”.

The main building of the Indian Statistical Institute. Prateek Karandikar, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Did he ever contrast the institutional support that science in India gets versus the lack of it for the performing arts? Musicians are more or less left to their own devices after they finish their training, aren’t they?

Yes, we did discuss these contrasting realities. He was from a generation of bourgeois Indians to whom the financial uncertainty of being a professional musician was unthinkable. At various points in his life, Kalyanda toyed with the idea of quitting maths to play music full-time, but was cowed down by the knowledge that he was not a hustler. He viewed the material struggles faced by professional artistes from the lens of his own guru.

Radhubabu was the son of a wealthy East Bengal zamindar who had lost all his worldly possessions in the Partition. Kalyanda was a first-hand witness to the period in which Maitra rebuilt his life, essentially as a music teacher and occasional concert performer. Seeing how his guru had been treated by the world of go-betweens and impresarios left him with a deep disdain for them.

Mukherjea, given his other profession, played only about four dozen public concerts. What was his take on the concert circuit during his time?

He did want to perform more but was too shy to go about asking impresarios for opportunities. Some of his close musician friends were more enterprising, even opportunistic, and sometimes this too got in the way. Kalyanda’s remarkable equanimity in the face of some of these adversarial circumstances was exemplary.

Did he give you any advice about how to negotiate the performance arena? Was he optimistic about the Hindustani music ecosystem? Why or why not?

Despite all odds, Kalyanda was an eternal optimist. He always appreciated the good in every performance he heard, even if he found much in it that he did not agree with. As a result, he was not one to write off any capable performer totally.

Like me, he had mixed feelings about the Hindustani music ecosystem. My view is that we must recognise the good in the worst of situations, even as we attempt to remedy things that need to change. He was very concerned, though, that an increasing number of instrumentalists that he heard on the radio did not treat the raags properly, and made a dog’s dinner of them in performance.

What did you get from your time with Mukherjea?

When my training under Buddhadevji culminated, I found myself adept with a strong technical foundation that he was such a master at instilling. With that training, Kalyanda was exactly the kind of guru I desired and sought – to help me calm my mind, harness my energy, and guide me in my journey without shackling the autonomy I needed as a learner. He was quick to call me out if he sensed any deviation from core musical values, but other than that, he gave me the space to find my own way.

In our time together, it was more like the relationship between an involved professor and a graduate student. Some of the tangible gains I made by learning from Kalyanda are one, an immeasurable improvement in pitch accuracy, and left-hand flexibility thanks to the acquisition of advanced fingering techniques; two, access to more faithful transcriptions of gats composed by Radhubabu and his musical forebears; three, better knowledge of the provenance of these compositions; and four, a huge leap in my comprehension of that elusive but all-important idea of raagdari.

Which musicians in earlier generations and his own did he admire and why?

The range of artistes he admired was formidable. Among vocalists, he admired stalwarts like Abdul Karim Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali, Faiyaz Khan, Kishori Amonkar, Krishnarao Pandit, Kumar Gandharva, and Parveen Sultana. Kalyanda also admired Nivrutibua Sarnaik, and Sharatchandra Arolkar.

He was particularly fond of both the vocal and violin music of Gajananbua Joshi, a friend of Radhubabu’s. He had also formed a friendship with Jasraj, whose early work he admired. Of vocalists of his generation and younger, he spoke very fondly of Ashwini Bhide, Manjiri Asanare-Kelkar and Ulhas Kashalkar. Among instrumentalists, he practically hero-worshipped Ali Akbar Khan for his transcendental abilities on the sarod.

He was also a tremendous admirer of Vilayat Khan, but was just as charitable in his remarks about Ravi Shankar, whom he had heard live in the 1950s. Of the younger generation, he admired Amjad Ali Khan. He considered Budhaditya Mukherjee the “finest instrumentalist alive” after Vilayat Khan. Kalyanda was also enthusiastic about Kala Ramnath’s violin recitals on the radio. Of his gurubhais, he retained tremendous respect for the technical abilities of Buddhadev Dasgupta, even though they often did not see eye to eye on raagdari.

Despite the wide spectrum of artistic approaches represented in this list, Kalyanda did not see a contradiction in appreciating them; he maintained that it was up to the beholder as to what aspect of beauty one admired and where. He found something worth appreciating in all these artists, while being brave and forthright enough to call out whatever he disagreed with.

Raag Jaunpuri
Raag Marwa
Raag Shuddha Kalyan