At an age when many musicians would retire to a life of teaching and rest, Pt Swapan Chaudhuri’s command over the tabla reflects undeterred mastery. Even as the globetrotting maestro turns 78 on March 30, his magnetic grip over his international audiences is astounding. He renders complex bols of the age-old Lucknow Baaj at high speeds with earthshaking dexterity.
Being the maternal nephew of famed tabla maestro Pt Shankar Ghosh of Kolkata and born to a vocalist mother, he believes that though he did not hail from a typical musical family, music was very much a part of his upbringing. He took to classical singing at an early age after which he switched over to tabla under the guidance of Pt Santosh Krishna Biswas, a close family friend. “Tabla is tough. I practised really hard with the intention to either be a top-ranking musician or quit. I never opted for mediocrity,” he shares.
It was playing before the legendary sarod monarch Ustad Ali Akbar Khan that catapulted his career remarkably. “At Khan saheb’s behest, I played a whole solo at his Kolkata home in 1969. I was 24. He was so impressed that he took me as an accompanist during his upcoming concert. This inspired several leading musicians of the time to take me for sangat. This was the turning point in my career,” reminisces the septuagenarian.
Revered for a powerful style embellished with spontaneity, speed and pristine tonality, Chaudhuri believes that he was blessed to be born in an era of towering legends whose influences shaped him. He says, “There were giants like Ustad Thirakwa and Ustad Amir Hussain Khan, Pt Anokhelal and Pt Samta Prasad, to name a few, who inspired me deeply. What struck me was that all of them had their own distinct style and imitated nobody. While my guru’s style influenced me, he emphasised on non-imitation and individuality. ‘Follow me, don’t imitate me’ was his mantra.”
Talking about the one quality of his mentor Ustad Ali Akbar Khan that most impacted his life, he says: “Khan saheb taught me that music disciplines you and teaches that one needs to be egoless to play pure music.” Having enjoyed a father-son-like relationship with Ali Akbar Khan, Chaudhuri remembers how the latter taught him to visualise music and flow with it rather than merely count it mathematically for laykaari. Hindustani taalas, he explains, are endowed with unique rhythmic divisions that give them a distinct character and colour. Visualising them, he believes, is the secret to great accompaniment.
A recipient of this year’s prestigious Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship, Pt Chaudhuri has been a devoted guru as the director of percussion at the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, California, since 1981, along with teaching at the Los Angeles Walt Disney Conservatoire.“Tabla is gaining worldwide popularity. No wonder it is included in the general curriculum of educational institutes,” he shares, adding that there is a growing number of university students majoring in tabla at the graduate and post-graduate levels.
Transforming the cultural mindset of foreign students and adding colour and flavour to their rendering of tabla compositions does pose a challenge, but Pt Chaudhuri says that he feels proud to see no difference between Indian and western students. “Music has no boundaries,” he smiles.
Swapanda, as he is affectionately known, believes that fusion is not a bad idea. It, however, still remains a highly-researched subject. “Merely fusing various diverse instruments isn’t fusion. Researching over time will help us define fusion better. In the US, rather than ‘fusion’, musicians believe in bands that have individual and unique signature styles,” he says.
A fan of cricket and a voracious reader, he remembers how after an injury during a match where he was representing Jadavpur University, his father said to him: “Either you play cricket which has a time limit, or tabla which is timeless.” “I chose tabla!” At 78, the maestro believes: “If there is joy inside you, you simply cannot hold it back. It will reflect in your music.” Known for his cheerful disposition, he says he owes his famous infectious smile to his mother. “If your mind is pure, you will smile naturally,” he gushes.
What keeps him young? “Tabla itself! Whenever I am stressed, I run to my tabla and it vanishes! Music makes you happy and age is no factor. The love that I receive keeps me young at heart.” His philosophy? “I learn from wherever I can. It’s a pure joy to learn even if I see a kid playing well!”
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