In the insular world of Hindustani music with its archaic, almost medieval, rules and protocols, an obituary for a master musician by one considered a “renegade pupil” might come across as surprising in some quarters. Therefore, it was with considerable unease that I accepted the request to pen this eulogy. Yet, my artistic closeness to, and personal distance from, Pandit Buddhadev Dasgupta, who passed away on January 15 at the age of 84, puts me in a position to offer a fair, compassionate and respectful view.
Asked who I think is the most pitch precise sarod player, as I often am by my students, I always unhesitatingly reply with the three-letter appellation familiar to sarod players – “BDG”. This confuses and confounds some of the newer students, for they have never heard the best performances of Buddhadev Dasgupta, which are only now gradually making their way to YouTube from the vaults of private collectors.
Truth be told, only one of Dasgupta’s commercially available recordings does justice to his reputation built on the sweat and blood it takes to play the sarod with that extraordinary tunefulness. The diligence and focus required to cultivate such pristine intonation was a pivotal aspect of Dasgupta’s personality.
Dasgupta’s formal training in music commenced in 1943 under Radhika Mohan Maitra (1917-1981), who was the son of a Bengali zamindar from Rajshahi (now in Bangladesh). Maitra’s unlikely friendship with Prafulla Mohan Dasgupta, a music-loving civil servant in the colonial administration of Bengal, led to the former’s acquisition of his foremost disciple – Buddhadev, who was PM Dasgupta’s elder son.
This was certainly the best-known instance of a bright and academic young man from outside the aristocratic patron class taking up serious study of Hindustani instrumental music in Bengal. The emergence of Dasgupta and the sitarist Nikhil Banerjee as front-ranking performing artists paved the way for young people from middle-class Bengali families to learn Hindustani music, and as Max Katz argues in Lineage of Loss: Counternarratives of North Indian Music, contributed to what he calls a “Hindu middle-class appropriation” of an art in which hereditary Muslim musicians once reigned supreme.
Dasgupta, therefore, will be remembered as an epochal figure not only for his astonishing intonation on the sarod, but as someone who opened a door and connected the new bourgeoisie of pre-independence Calcutta of the mid-20th century to the world of hereditary Muslim Ustads and their Bengali zamindar patrons. And in the process, contributed significantly to a wave of sweeping social change.
A stylistic maverick
Befitting his role as the progenitor of the middle-class takeover of Calcutta’s Hindustani music scene, Dasgupta’s personal musical expression embraced what was at the time considered a new and somewhat romantic style of khayal singing as its primary inspiration. Interestingly, Maitra, his guru, had also been influenced by the vocal music of his time – that of Faiyaz Khan, in particular. Dasgupta’s stylistic departure from his guru was premised largely upon his love of the vocalism of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and the sitar playing of Vilayat Khan.
Playing khayal-inspired music required Dasgupta to invent – where needed – new ornamentations and techniques, and literally redefine virtuosity, particularly of the left (fretting or sliding) hand on the sarod. He will be remembered as the pioneer of the quick, linear melodic runs known as ekhārā taans, which involve playing one stroke per note at considerable speed as well as mastering difficult and awkward stroke patterns while changing strings to keep the melody seamless and unaffected by the string change. The invention of the ekhārā taan technique is Dasgupta’s greatest gift to the community of sarod players.
Other sarod players have adopted this expression and refined it to a great extent, with some claiming credit, falsely, for its invention. Dasgupta, for his part, shied away from any sort of public controversy and made no effort to resist his increasing marginality to a compositional and expressional idiom of his own invention.
Over time, Dasgupta’s musical leanings evolved from a heavy melodic bias to a greater focus on the percussive potential of the sarod, leading to the development of a personal style that utilised a wide range of combinations of plectrum strokes in a manner similar to how drum sounds are combined to yield percussive patterns. This, in turn, resulted in a compartmentalization – so to speak – of melody and rhythm into separate chapters of emphasis and elaboration, in what went on to become his hallmark style. The melody was keenly explored in the alaap and jod, with the percussive bias revealed in gat playing accompanied by the tabla. This approach made Dasgupta popular with a generation of tabla players who perceived him as a musician with whom they could find a more involved role than just keeping time.
An accessible guru
I know exactly three people who addressed Dasgupta as “Guruji”. To most of his students, myself included, he was either Kaka or Jethu (Bengali terms, respectively, for younger or elder paternal uncle). Despite the widening age gap between him and successive generations of students, Dasgupta remained motivated to stay in touch with young people and their ways. Where he failed to connect with them, his remedy was to show his affection through food. Taking young students along on his frequent gastronomic journeys across Calcutta, and introducing them to the haunts (mostly restaurants and coffee houses) of his salad years would become his way of building intimacy with his students, with most of whom he would often exercise a hint of paternal authority.
Basic proficiency on an instrument would be drilled into a student via repetition of selected exercises that combined pitch accuracy with precision of the picking hand. Once the student had more or less memorised a lesson, Dasgupta would write out the relevant notations in their notebook in his beautiful calligraphic hand. These notes were to serve as a reference in case the student forgot some aspect of the lesson. A modernist with few inhibitions about technology, he encouraged students to record every lesson if possible.
As a student’s competence on the sarod grew, madhya-laya (medium paced) gats would be taught in various ragas. The melodic lines of the gat would be repeated by the student until the master was satisfied that the material had been digested. He would then notate the material as above. Dasgupta would then give us anywhere between 50 and 100 pre-composed taans per raga (usually customised for one or two main compositions he would focus on) beginning and ending at various points in the tala cycle, and containing unusual and difficult picking patterns. It was incumbent upon the student to remember each one, usually five or ten at a time, and reproduced to his satisfaction.
What might come across as an industrial method for teaching an art form as delicate and nuanced as Hindustani music was actually quite effective, for it made sure that a student’s hands coordinated well and that they were in tune and in time. The design of the compositions and taans were such that a student would be hard-pressed to violate the grammatical rules of the raga even if they tried. The engineer in Dasgupta ensured that the student internalised the material and its application as efficiently possible.
Dasgupta was acutely aware of the limitations of “mass producing” student musicians in this manner. Therefore, as he gauged the progress and seriousness of a particular student, he would impart what he thought were the finer points of musicianship in one-on-one sessions.
His lifelong pursuit of precise intonation on a demanding instrument coupled with effective teaching strategies has ensured a healthy legacy for Buddhadev Dasgupta. It is no wonder, then, that the largest concentration of technically-excellent sarod players today is among his disciples. Among them are some noteworthy musicians such as Debashish Bhattacharya, Prattyush Banerjee, his own son Anirban Dasgupta, Abir Hossain and Soumik Datta (all sarod players) and the sitarists Sugato Nag and Nayan Ghosh.
I am sure these musicians will maintain and extend their mentor’s legacy, ensuring the highest standards of rigour and aesthetics in the transmission of their knowledge to future generations.
Arnab Chakrabarty is an accomplished sarod player.