Bringing to a close the series on accompanists, here is Gouranga Chowdhury, a musician who defies categorisation.
Walk into percussionist Gouranga Chowdhury's drawing room and you see a venerable gentleman seated on a divan with a tabla before him, guiding a class of cheerful youngsters in music. By the end of the evening, he is on the carpet, surrounded by all manner of percussion instruments and a few more besides. More instruments keep appearing, pulled out from cupboards, emerging from cloth covers. Still more are hidden away in lofts and on top of almirahs. The scene is symbolic of Chowdhury's musical journey. He came to Delhi from his native Silchar (Assam) to learn the tabla. Today, he is renowned for his ability to play an amazing array of instruments."I have learnt a bit of everything," he says almost apologetically. His first interests were the tabla and the sitar. It wasn't easy though. "If my right hand worked, the left wouldn't," he laughs at his early tabla attempts.
Bharatiya Kala KendraChowdhury, known affectionately as Gouranga Da by artistes, blossomed under its founder-director Sumitra Charatram in Bharatiya Kala Kendra . "My first guru was my mausaji (uncle), Revati Ranjan Devnath. He lived in Sumitraji's house. It was he who got me employment at Bharatiya Kala Kendra. I am always grateful for the experience and Sumitraji's guidance. I learnt so much during my years at the Kendra. I found out how rich Indian music is. I had no classical background, but whenever I heard classical music I loved it, whether in a film tune or otherwise. And whatever new thing I saw or heard, I wanted to learn. Even today I have that habit. Now my teeth are bad, my throat is bad. Still, every line (of song) gives me anand."His first break in the BKK ballets was as a manjira (cymbals) player. But his youthful energy ensured he was soon indispensable. When regular artistes took a holiday, "I would jump from the tabla tarang to the drums, to the nagara, to some other instrument."Chowdhury, who also learnt the pakhawaj under Guru Purushottam Das, had a studious bent that helped him amalgamate different genres of music for stage productions. Take Chhau, whose tala patterns were different from the usual Hindustani talas. "The Chhau syllables of Krishna Chandra Naik were wonderful. Say it was a 40-beat tala, I would set it in cycles of 10. The drummer might not know notation. I would say, just play, I will count," he explains, adding softly, "That was my contribution."The emergence of recording technology brought insecurity. "I must have spent 15 years at the Kendra. Then I realised, as they started using recorded soundtracks, there was going to be less and less scope for us artistes. Still, I am grateful for those times. I had the good fortune of associating with the greatest of artistes."
NSDHe started working with the National School of Drama in 1986, where he eventually got a permanent job and has remained till today. "Mohan Upreti (noted theatre director) helped me get the job at NSD."There the requirements were different from the dance-based productions he was used to. "But I moulded myself accordingly," says Chowdhury, who has worked with a range of directors including B.V. Karanth, Panchanan Pathak, B.M. Shah, Ebrahim Alkazi, Bhaskar Chandravarkar and others.If modesty is Chowdhury's middle name, "versatile" could be his alias. The instruments he plays include the tabla, dholak, pakhawaj, madal, dafli, naal, tabla tarang, duggi tarang, gubgubi, ektara among others, though, mysteriously, All India Radio never awarded him a grade. He has worked with dance maestros like Birju Maharaj, Swapnasundari, Munna Shukla, Bhagwan Das Verma, Narendra Sharma and others. He even played the role of Sudhama in Natya Ballet Centre's Krishnaleela. He was associated with the Little Ballet Group, the Song and Drama Division and the National Folk Dance Ensemble initiated by late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.He also sings in a resonant voice, saying, "I filled up a notebook of songs from Ronan Biswas of Siliguri. I also learnt many from Pathakji."
Bamboo ektaraHe has made an unusual ektara of bamboo and a "mini chenda" among other novelties. Once he made instruments for a living, but the hard work was unsuitable for one whose hands had to make music.Versatility is okay, but sometimes Chowdhury draws the line. His son, also in the music line, bought a set of Jazz drums and an octopad. "My conscience doesn't allow me to play these," he says humbly. Then again, he has his hands full!