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Updated: December 5, 2013 20:46 IST

Music, medically speaking

ANJANA RAJAN
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Pandit Dhruba Ghosh. Photo: R. Ragu
The Hindu Pandit Dhruba Ghosh. Photo: R. Ragu

Pandit Dhruba Ghosh, named for the SNA Award-2013, on his approach to the sarangi.

Sarangi exponent Pandit Dhruba Ghosh combines a reverence for the old with a receptiveness for the new. Son of tabla maestro late Nikhil Ghosh and nephew of late Pannalal Ghosh, he learnt vocal music and tabla from infancy. Raised in an environment that “enabled a lot of healthy music bacteria to thrive,” Pandit Dhruba says he and his siblings (tabla and sitar exponent Nayan Ghosh and vocalist Tulika Ghosh) are fortunate to have been “born with healthy music receptors fitted into our brain to be able to accept those gifts.” Among the recently announced Sangeet Natak Akademi Award recipients for 2013, he is happy, though certain he still has “miles ahead to walk.” Crediting his father for providing “timely encouragement and inspiration — else one is confronted with obstinate orthodoxy right at home” — he also feels the award “signifies primarily a re-recognition of the great masters who inspired me to take up this instrument at a time when such a decision was considered professionally fatal.” The sarangi, says Pandit Dhruba, “can now claim equal or perhaps a distinct solo status like the sitar or sarod.” Edited excerpts from an email interview with the Mumbai-based artist:

Can you tell us something about your association with world music?

I have been associated with several groups in the West since the mid-’90s like the Grammy winning CD ‘Miho: A journey to the Mountain’ with Paul Winter Consort, The Ensemble Modern of Frankfurt, The Ensemble Musique Nouvelle in Belgium, the Atlas Ensemble of Amsterdam, Robert Miles of London, Trilok Gurtu’s African Fantasy Project, The Nasser Shamma project in Oman, The Vancouver Inter Cultural Orchestra, The World String Orchestra of Tokyo, The Asian Fantasy project of Tokyo, The Constantinople Project of Montreal and TASA of Toronto. All the groups have had something serious to say on the world music canvas, consistently working to build up a sensible form. I have even recently performed sarangi with readings by a renowned French author Francois Emmanuel as part of the India-Europalia Project in Brussels. I also played with the Lord of the Rings symphony at the Acropolis in Athens. TASA has been a small but a very dedicated group of musicians mainly from Toronto, Canada who have relied on Hindustani music and Carnatic rhythmic concepts. We have made two CD projects with TASA.

What do such collaborative ventures require from the serious classical musician?

Collaborative ventures firstly require a powerful intellectual and aesthetic RAM processor within me, the performer, so that I should not repeat myself in any way, whilst drawing from the sources that built me up —the traditional classical Indian music roots as well as a rich enjoyment of classical traditions from other parts of the globe. Serious projects require immense ingenuity to evolve the materials that one studied with and look for merging of tissues with those of the other forms involved. In World Music or collaborative projects tissue-rejection (as in medical terminology) can be a severe problem. The intellectual and emotional power of the musician is demanded to the hilt to ensure no tissue-rejection ever happens. This can succeed only in serious projects, not the tentatively-carry-the-public-with-you types which take the short-cut route using heavy percussion rather than a judicious blend of powerful melody and inner rhythm.

Ideally I would love to play the sarangi in a classical western symphony orchestra. I have played in classical ensembles to a wonderful mutual satisfaction. Will wait for a classical composer to write a full symphonic work involving the sarangi in a major way. I have studiously worked towards this with my projects in the West with serious composers. I have been very, very fortunate to perform Hindustani classical sarangi mostly for the core western audiences in Europe and North America as well as hold workshops for their composers and performers, and this I feel is serious building up of an edifice for a full active communication with the West...no half measures or quick-fix solutions as most fusion groups are wont to.

What was life like growing up in a big Indian city, playing a relatively lesser known classical instrument in an era when urban India, whether in education, lifestyle, or popular cinema, was aspiring to match up to a western worldview?

Growing up in a metropolis has had its positive gains as well as some negative ones. However a metropolis trains one to develop a deciding power as options are many and time short. Urban India’s tilt towards non-Indian fads has become manifest in a big way pronouncedly since the turn of the millennium. I do believe that fashions have their life-span and once they have reached saturation point the cyclic change begins to enact itself. The art of an artiste’s life is in seeing the bigger picture as well as the microcosm of one’s own life. When judiciously interfaced it can have immense potential to do good, or do harm by choosing short-cuts which do have some corrosive effect on the main body of our music. The choice of sarangi was an innate one. The only hurdle was mastering the technique. Learning vocal music and tabla was a great added advantage which our father gave us. He also inspired us to listen to Western classical symphonies almost every day with the lunch-hour broadcast of All India Radio besides long-play albums. That greatly expanded my mental horizons.

Who were your gurus?

Besides my father I was fortunate to receive technical guidance in sarangi from Ustad Sagiruddin Khan who studied with the famed Ustad Bundu Khan of the Delhi gharana. Bundu Khan achieved near-mythological status in Hindustani music even during his lifetime by his highly innovative approach. That was the prime inspiration for my work in sarangi technique and further developing the art of solo playing. I then studied further raga-shastra from Pandit Dinkar Kaikini and also a few intense sessions with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

Do you think efforts to popularise the sarangi have borne fruit? What is the responsibility of artists in this context?

The sarangi has a status like the mother of the house. She may be seen or behind the curtain but she will sustain. Likewise the sarangi will survive. It will never become a popular instrument in terms of a large number of people playing it. In fact, it has always caught public imagination by its intense sound and emotionally piercing voice, both when played alone or in accompaniment to classical vocal music. In Hindi films before the digital era, movie lovers were bowled over by the playing of maestro Ram Narayan ji apart from his bold solo recitals. Fortunately he is still amongst us. The responsibility of artistes is twofold: Younger sarangi players have to boldly claim a place for themselves by deeply involved playing, and enormous learning in raagdari (or Raga Shastra). The other sector is that of vocalists. Some of them can lead the revival of using sarangi for accompaniment in addition to the harmonium. The sarangi has been used in world music both in the West and in India amply. But sarangi has to be played with the same independence and power like the cello or the violin. Only then will it make its international presence on the world music scene.

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