Weaving the magic wand of the santoor

Even while he imparts the traditional music of the Maihar gharana of santoor playing at his ashram, Pandit Tarun Bhattacharya has always innovated with techniques and played fusion with other musicians

July 05, 2012 09:07 pm | Updated July 12, 2012 05:19 pm IST

FURTHERING THE TRADITION Of the Maihar gharana of santoor

FURTHERING THE TRADITION Of the Maihar gharana of santoor

A revolutionary player of the santoor, the only santoor maestro of the Maihar gharana, music ambassador of India, and a magician of tunes — the adjectives may be many, but the name is one — Pandit Tarun Bhattacharya. A disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar, Tarunda has deftly carved a niche as one of the most celebrated and globally recognised names amongst Indian instrumentalists. He has demonstrated several intricate patterns of playing, never before tried on a Santoor, and introduced a new spirit of innovation into Indian classical music.

Breaking barriers

Visiting Bangalore for a series of performances as part of SPICMACAY Bangalore chapter’s observation of World Music Day, Pandit Bhattacharya sat down for a journey down memory lane. “I still remember the day I was accepted as the disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar. When I touched his feet, he lovingly moved his hand from my head to the base of my spine, and I could literally sense a current surging through it.”

It is indeed a coveted blessing to spend nearly eight years with Pandit Ravi Shankar. “Panditji had arranged to meet me in Kolkata where I was due to play for him. On that fateful day, I was stuck on the Howrah Bridge in a traffic jam and arrived 20 minutes late. He refused to listen to me, but after my ardent requests, I was allowed to perform in front of him, and I played for nearly 40 minutes.

He loved it, and I expressed my desire to be his student and learn music starting from the basics. For more than seven years I travelled with him, living with him and constantly learning.”

Tarunda however was no stranger to Indian classical tradition — his parents were both renowned sitar players, and their home, which also doubled up as a music academy was an abode of several musical instruments, with which Tarunda had already familiarised himself, given that he had started his musical journey from the early age of four.

Already well versed with the sitar, sarod, and tabla it was nevertheless the santoor that had captured his attention from the very initial days. His initial guru was his father Robi Bhattacharya. Later, he was slowly seasoned under the tutelage of Pandit Dulal Roy.

Considering Ravi Shankar is a legendary sitar player, and Tarunda’s passion lay with santoor, it must have been challenging to adapt the techniques across instruments. “It is very difficult to play some notes or alankars of sitar and sarod in santoor. In fact, it was typically believed that those notes could not be reproduced on santoor. Every day after my riyaz, I would place the santoor in front of me, and meditate over how the notes can be reproduced and how different innovations can be made on the santoor. I discovered the differences that can be produced when the string is hammered with the right hand as compared to with the left, and which portion of the string can be struck to produce a thick note or a thin one.”

Tuning instruments

Tarunda has a record of many innovative performances including displaying for the first time that a lower octave glide notes (meend) can be played on santoor. Perhaps his most celebrated invention has been that of the mankas or tuning instruments that can be used to tune the 100 strings of a santoor (otherwise called a Shat Tantri Veena) even during a performance.

Tarunda went on to chart a course of global success and recognition through his music including a pre-Grammy nomination for his album Nomadic Christmas. His fusion albums with several internationally renowned musicians were runaway hits. However fusion for Tarunda is not a forum for two musicians from different cultures or schools to come onboard and start playing their respective instruments. “Months before doing a fusion album with an artist, I ensure that I send him some of my CDs and also listen to some of the compositions by the other artist. Once we are familiar with each other’s styles, we meet at a common musical point, wherein we recognise similarities between the two forms of music, and we explore that aspect and enhance it. This is true fusion for me.”

Combining with Odissi

He recently returned from a successful performance of his latest show Music Meets Bells performed with his wife, the famous Odissi dancer Sanchita Roy. The show was performed in 17 states across USA and is one of classical blending, bringing together the dance form of Odissi with classical music performance as a sort of “jugalbandi”.

“The challenge lies in the fact that while Odissi as a dance form is one that is set to a particular composition, there has to be impromptu improvisations that needs to be brought in to match the performance on santoor. It must go hand-in-hand,” explains Sanchita Roy.

But no amount of success could take away the sense of responsibility he held towards furthering the tradition of santoor. Santoor Ashram is a living testimony of his dedication to continuing the traditional Guru-shishya parampara of learning that he had experienced himself. There is no charge levied whatsoever on the students, who are provided accommodation and food. The ashram caters to children from economically poor sections of the society. My Guru, Pandit Ravi Shankarji, refused to accept even one rupee as fees for the immense knowledge he bestowed on me. I am only furthering that tradition, where the Guru not only is your teacher, but also your parent and guardian.” There has been no decline in his passion for music even as he crosses the threshold of well over five decades of his life . “My dream is to create a well-trained and dedicated group of youngsters who can carry forward the torch of the Maihar gharana of santoor.” As clear a vision he sports about his responsibility, he also has the same watchful direction to give society too. “Society in general, with media and parents, share a responsibility towards music. They need to inculcate an appreciation for traditional Indian classical music in the younger generation. We have special coverage for sports, politics, international politics and even movies, but no such attention is bestowed on traditional music! We have plethora of channels streaming various content, but none dedicated for classical music.

This is a tragic development in our country. It is not necessary that everyone becomes a great musician, but there must certainly be a good attitude towards traditional music. Such music has the capability to bring out our innate humaneness from a young age. Activities of groups such as SPICMACAY, to which I have been connected with for well over three decades, play a role in this.”

Does he feel there is more he would like to achieve? He smiles and quips “I love music and I am really happy with my life! It is a meditation for me, and I experience a divine bliss through my music. What more can I ask for?”

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