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Updated: February 5, 2010 16:35 IST

Singing strings

Nita Sathyendran
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Purbayan Chatterjee.
Photo: R. Eswarraj
The Hindu Purbayan Chatterjee. Photo: R. Eswarraj

Purbayan Chatterjee talks about how he negotiates different musical spaces to create his own lyrical style.

Sensational is perhaps the best word to describe sitar artiste Purbayan Chatterjee. This dashing 34-year-old ‘fingersmith' is arguably one of the finest instrumentalists of his generation and is acknowledged to be a torchbearer of the Senia-Maihar gharana, continuing the musical tradition of legends such as Ustad Allaudin Khan, Pandit Nikhil Bannerjee and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

Rasikas in the city recently got a glimpse of his virtuosity as Purbayan along with veena artiste Rajhesh Vaidya, tabla player Bikram Ghosh and Co., bought the Nishagandhi Festival to a stellar finish with a Carnatic-Hindustani-Western fusion concert.

Like many an Indian classical musician, Puryaban's journey with the sitar began at home. At three, he started learning music and was later taught to play the sitar by his father, Parthapratim Chatterjee – himself a sitar player and disciple of Pt. Nikhil Bannerjee and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

Early start

Puryaban began giving concerts at the age of five, his first being at the India festival in Basel, Switzerland in 1982! "Taking to the sitar was a natural choice for me. I was travelling with my father and his troupe in Switzerland and was being a bit of a trouble. To quieten me down my father gave me a baby sitar and everything just clicked," recalls Purbayan.

"For the next six or seven years practice was all I did, although, just like any other kid forced into something, I did have my moments of rebellion. But somewhere along the way I became passionate about the sitar. Having my dad as my guru was advantageous because mistakes were corrected then and there. Then again you can't skive off from turning up for practice. My mother tells me that at times tears would flow, as my dad patiently took me through the basics. I did get a head-start on life, though," he adds.

After training with vocalist Pt. Ajay Chakravarthy (because "vocal is the root of all music"), Purbayan also had the "great opportunity" to train with the late Ustad Ali Akbar Khan for about 10 years at the maestro's home in California, which also helped him meet and strike a friendship with tabla maestro Zakir Hussain.

While maintaining the traditions and the sanctity of the gharana, his "single greatest source of inspiration" (Pt. Nikhil Bannerjee), his gurus and the ragas, Purbayan has come out of their shadow and has been creating waves in India and abroad for his style of balancing the traditional with the modern elements in music; blending the disciplined aestheticism of the dhrupad with the dynamic lyricism of the khayal.

Creating a style

"It was a conscious decision on my part to not emulate the style of the gharana. When I started doing fusion/experimental/ crossover work, I realised that I had best create a style of my own."

A great part of his career, he says, has been spent trying to find a balance between the two sides of his personality.

"Modern day musicians like myself have split personalities, the reason being that on the one hand we have to carry forward a 1,000-year-old tradition and at the same we are influenced by the world around us and the new genres of music that we get to hear. Next month, I will be launching a portal www.purbayan.com, which highlights this very balance," says the artiste who regularly collaborates with musicians such as Zakir Hussan, jazz musician Pat Metheny, drummer Sivamani, Shankar Mahadevan, flautist S. Shashank, violin duo Ganesh-Kumaresh, veena artiste Jayanthi Kumaresh and the like.

"Each time I collaborate, depending on the genre, I have to adapt my personality. For instance, when I am collaborating for traditional music with Zakir Hussain, I have to maintain the sancity of the raga and when I am playing with Sivamani, I allow myself to let myself go. Although I take pride in being a traditionalist, fusion music is the way forward in the times we live in.”

Purbayan's experiments continue…

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