The talking tabla of Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri

On a song: Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri  

Like a migratory bird, tabla exponent Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri arrives from the US during the musically hot season of winters in India where a hectic schedule awaits him with a bagful of events centred on either his solo, accompaniment or workshop every year. This season is no exception – what with his scintillating solo during the mammoth Chowdhury House Music Festival, his edifying art of accompaniment during the day long musical to celebrate the birthday of Swami Vivekananda at the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Kolkata, and a bunch of others.

His guru, Santosh Krishna Biswas, has become immortal only because of the unparalleled stature of his disciple as a performer, guru and administrator of internationally acclaimed institutions in the US and Switzerland. Almost every big classical event in India has featured him. More importantly, a lovingly organised soiree in Kolkata this year was dedicated to his guru .

Interestingly, the young Swapan started learning the art of tabla at a time when several luminaries such as Ustad Karamatulla Khan, Guru Jnan Prakash Ghosh were at the peak of their creativity and fame. Almost all aspiring musicians of that era strived to learn from them to win their blessings.

What led him to Santosh-babu who was not an insider of the 'hallowed zone' of the golden era?

“You see, I was a pampered son of a medical practitioner and a vocalist mother – both of whom loved music but never thought of etching a career out of it,” says Chaudhuri. His father had learnt flute from the legendary Pannalal Ghosh and had composed music for several dramas and acted too. “Like all educated and well placed Bengalis of their generation, they too believed that music was an essential part of good grooming. This feeling was nurtured by the local club where my father met Santoshbabu who played tabla rather well and who happily agreed to join in the riyaaz sessions of my mother (Meera Chaudhuri who was an AIR artiste). They became great friends even before I was born,” recalls the musician.

Very naturally, Chaudhuris initiated their little son to vocal music and discovered his latent talent. Encouraged, they requested this dear friend who hailed from a conservative family like their’s, had similar values and yet who was a brilliant disciple of the famed Hirubabu, to teach tabla to their son when he was barely five. A reticent Santoshbabu did not wish to lay so much emphasis on music as he strongly believed that academics should come first. But the prodigious traits of little Swapan inspired Dr Chaudhuri to persuade him, and he relented.

There is a faraway look in his eyes when the master reminisces, “Since this house in South Kolkata, built in 1904, was close to the club, I debuted in cultural events organised by its members initially and very soon got noticed by connoisseurs. Many advised me to swap guru for a celebrity name but I stuck to him. I started discovering my guru and understood his depth of knowledge much later. He always told to me to imbibe knowledge from all sources but direct it and develop according to my own inclinations.”

Edited excerpts:

Your guru was a banker and you graduated in Economics. Is there any connection between maths and the art of tabla?

If there is anything beyond science and maths – it is music. Maths is a mere tool. In the beginning, one needs to count the beats and then gradually start feeling its rhythm within. It is very logical. How does a musician measure shruti? One cannot, yet one can feel its presence. The logic says that it has to be like this and the singer does it according to his perception. In the case of rhythm, the dividing bars of a tala give a canvas to build a crescendo. The temple cannot be linear.

Mathematically, the ninth beat in teental and jhaptal should be the same. But their placement varies within the bars of each tala; so does their importance. Each has a special chhand. By counting it you get only a straight line – not the gait or pulse of a tala cycle. This applies to Indian concept of tala cycle only. Earlier in the West there used to be talas having only four or six beats and that too in linear order, but not now. Influenced by Indian and Brazilian rhythm concept, they are developing poly rhythm, albeit in fast tempo.

The concept of vilambit is typically Indian. Apart from a few African mnemonics, the concept of bolbani is Indian too.

Indian music is rooted in spirituality and you are a devoted musician. When you play tabla what helps you to connect with the Supreme Being?

We have 27-30 bolbanis, may be more. I am doing a research work on the origin of these bols. Till now, I can say that they all came from Vedic ‘chhand’ (rhyme) and ‘beej-mantra’ (root Mantra). Tabla actually speaks the bols. Strictly speaking, tabla is not a percussion instrument. I call it a very sensitive melodic instrument because it needs fine tuning constantly. A perfectly tuned tabla can cast its spell. Purity of sound has its own impact that transcends the mind from earthly to ethereal level.

Name a few of your favourite musicians who make your role as an accompanist enjoyable!

I enjoy the company of all, even of those who are not taaldar or layadar. The reason is because I don’t need to show my superiority; instead I need to help them by following the rules and regulations related to the art of accompaniment. When I play solo, I take the command. But even there I never feel like proving a point. I simply play to share the delight of music-making.

Many greats chose the US as their work-field for several reasons. What was your aim?

Once I reached there to honour the offer given by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, I felt that this music should be all over the world, more so because great musicians like him struggled to spread it. Thanks to their endeavour, it is much easier for the present generation of musicians to perform before knowledgeable listeners. Indian music has made an entry in the general stream of the educational curriculum of US. The fact is that the West looks up to Indian culture and philosophy with great respect because this is still living. They are learning Sanskrit, Vedic chanting, spirituality and music which is a very important part of Indian culture and philosophy. Unfortunately, our contribution in this direction is not counted by many.

How do you plan your day out there?

Since I work till midnight, I get up at 8 a.m. normally and sit for riyaaz. In the US, nobody visits without prior intimation. So I continue undisturbed till noon. Then I cook my favourite (exotic Bengali) dishes such as mochar ghonto, shukto, shorshe-machh! I was initiated in this art by none else than Ali Akbar Khan saheb! Many of my disciples know about this passion of mine and the fact that I cook in large quantities. They arrive with their little containers to get a share. In Ali Akbar College, the teaching time starts from 4 p.m. The college time continues beyond the class, as I encourage interactions till late hours. I reserve the weekends for concerts.

What is the difference between Indian and American students and what is your teaching methodology?

I follow the same method as shown by my guru who believed that one has to come down to the level of a student to see, communicate and understand his psyche and then guide him up to another level. I am very warm, but when it comes to my subject – I follow strict discipline. Indian students are very talented, they are drawn to music. But since the path is not easy at all, they should pursue their studies as well. Instead of imitating others, one must follow one’s guru devotedly for a strong foundation – without which nothing works in the long run.

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 4:03:26 PM |

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