Debasmita Bhattacharya interview: 'It feels like nature is summoning you to play'

  • Author: George Howlett

The young Bengali sarod star discusses inspiration from nature, music and gender, and the illusory nature of raga.

—Part of Living Traditions: 21 articles for 21st-century Indian classical music

Debasmita Bhattacharya is one of India s most exciting young sarod players. She balances classicism with an expansive modern mindset, pushing Hindustani music into the 21st century without diluting its core values. Still an emerging artist, she is rapidly gaining plaudits for combining youthful energy with a patient, knowledgeable maturity.

First trained by her father Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya, a senior sarod disciple of the late maestro Padmabhusan Pandit Buddhadev Dasgupta, Debasmita displayed early talent on the traditionally male-dominated instrument. As a teenager she became a direct disciple of her father s guru, a fascinating artist who gave up a career in marine engineering to devote himself to music.

She also pursued academic learning, completing an English Literature degree and later a Masters in Music at Rabindra Bharati University, as well as seven years as a scholar at the ITC Sangeet Research Academy. Her concerts had been making waves in the Kolkata area and at national festivals, leading Darbar to bring her to the UK in 2017 for an acclaimed eight-date tour. Recently she has looked further afield, working with musicians from China, Africa, and Scandinavia alongside a disciplined schedule of classical recitals.

Her instrument, a 23-stringed fretless lute, has a rounded, resonant tone, somewhat weightier and more introspective than the sitar. The main playing strings are plucked with a coconut-shell plectrum, and pushed against a mirror-like metal fretboard by the fingernails of the left hand. The sarod is thought to derive from the Afghan rabaab, an instrument brought to India by Islamic horsemen in the 18th century.

Classical sarodias glide their way through a melody, blurring its boundaries in a ‘singing style'. The Bhattacharya family hail from the Senia Shahjahanpur gharana, a tradition kept alive largely through the efforts of Pandit Radhika Mohan Maitra, her guru's guru, in the early 20th century. It features wide slides, long, percussive taans (melodic elaborations), and unique compositions and ekhara bani (picking techniques).

In mid-2019 Debasmita came to London, performing for Darbar at the Southbank Centre's Purcell Room. She led an enraptured crowd through a selection of ragas, not even being put off her flow by having to replace a snapped string halfway through. At the end she seemed genuinely surprised at the standing ovation, although few others were (a punk-singing friend described it as “one of the most interesting nights I've had in London so far...absolutely epic!”).

I spoke with her the morning after the concert, meeting in a hotel bar that thankfully turned off the background Madonna at my request (clipped auto-tune just wasn't a fitting backdrop for discussing the sarod's distinctive fluidity). Our session, originally scheduled for an hour, stretched to nearly two and a half as we covered a range of topics in depth.

Like her playing, Debasmita s conversation overflows with optimistic eloquence, full of energy and insights on everything from banjo technique and the barriers faced by female artists to the fundamentals of sound. Her analytical, discerning inclinations are clear, but seem inextricably connected to an almost child-like general fascination for music and life itself (what more could an interviewer ask for?). Below is a tidied and condensed account of our discussion.

Debasmita and Gurdain Rayatt at Darbar 2017. Photo: Rehmat Rayatt

  • The Purcell Room crowd last night included Western newcomers, seasoned Indian connoisseurs, and plenty more in between. How do you approach playing to complex, mixed audiences such as this?

In the end, music must always be intuitive. So as soon as I start playing then the focus is towards the raga rather than the audience. Each situation may end up bringing out particular moods, but from the first note it is all about exploring the power of the raga itself.

However the setting can certainly influence your choice of raga. Darbar's audience is such an interesting challenge - you have to find unity in diversity. So the ones I played yesterday, such as Jaijaiawanti, have strongly ambiguous elements. I wanted to see how complex ragas would communicate to a complex audience. Almost like an examination to myself.

For a long time I've been asking myself this question: what should a performance really be about? I feel that whatever the audience, my responsibility as a classical musician is always the same - I must communicate with each person directly, from within certain musical boundaries. For me the essence of the music is to bring others into personal spaces where they could not otherwise go.

  • Do you think that Western audiences listen to Indian music differently?

Music has no barriers like this really, and both audiences are very intense with the music. But I do find that in certain senses Westerners can actually be more involved than Indian ones. Perhaps the unfamiliarity leads to extra concentration, but just as importantly I think it's that in the West they grow up with an expectation of having pin-drop silence at classical concerts.

So there's this particular way of appreciating - when they listen they just listen deeply. The fun is at the end, when the applause becomes huge, but in between there is so much silence. I've been to the Philharmonic Orchestra and witnessed it. We Indian musicians are used to hearing the audience respond as the music is happening.

Debasmita and her guru Pandit Buddhadev Dasgupta

  • You mentioned your guru-ji [the late Padmabhusan Pandit Buddhadev Dasgupta] a few times last night. What was his style of teaching like?

At the age of 14 or 15, after I had learned with my father for around ten years, guru-ji - who was also my father s teacher - called and said he wanted to hear me. I played for him, and on the same day my training started. He was decisive like that. I still remember the very first sessions, on Raag Durga.

I would go to his house for lessons and listen very carefully to everything, then do my practice at home. It was very constant, very hard to put into words - to have a guru-ji like this was the most memorable journey of my life. He is such an authentic person.

  • Yes - I've read some of his autobiography [Bamaner Chandrasparshavilash, translating to ‘the desire of a dwarf to touch the moon']. He comes across as a real character, full of humour as well as seriousness and dedication.

Definitely! Guru-ji had a great sense of humour. He was capable of being light-hearted as well as very stern and focused. He was strict with everyone, but had a with a deep sense of love and affection for every student. In some ways he was stricter with me than anyone else, but in others he went easier on me. Serving your guru selflessly is a satisfaction, as he is an ocean of knowledge, who is giving me so much...

  • How did you come to learn with him? What were his methods of teaching like?

As he was my father s guru I was like his granddaughter in a way, so I first met him when I was a child. But when I started lessons he was in his 70s. He could still play beautifully, but not quite like he did in his 50s and 60s. So he would sometimes pick up the sarod, sometimes sing, sometimes write things down.

The learning sessions could be very random. He used to call me to come to his house any day for talim [structured practice], and the talim was vast and varied. It was mostly listening to him singing and trying to understand the thought process. I used to record the lessons on cassette sometimes - if you don't then it's hard to remember. Many gurus don't like this, but it's not possible to remember all the details otherwise. He encouraged me to document however I liked.

And later on I lived at his house - I remember I used to wake up at 5am and listen to him playing from outside his room. He was in a different world altogether. He was a perfectionist in true sense, and always so inquisitive about everything. One thing he focused on was to 'maintain the originality of a composition' - not to mess with it with your own interpretations, as one should respect the composer.

He was very strict, and never happy with his students - once you re happy the improvements stops. Indian parents and gurus are much stricter than in the West. They just give you a slap! But they will do it with love and care. Even yesterday, I felt that guru-ji was listening, and that he might come and tell me about my mistakes after! However in his teaching he showed me that errors should be welcomed. If you make a mistake, it will show you the path.

  • Later on you became a scholar at ITC [India's most prestigious Hindustani music academy]. What was the learning environment like there?

After learning at his home for around 5 years, guru-ji asked me to join ITC SRA. I had to go through an entry test, with all the legends of Indian music - Ulhas [Kashalkar], Shivkumar [Sharma], Ajoy Chakraborty, Maskoor Ali Khan, and Smt Girija Devi ji were all there as teachers, along with my own guru. Joining them at 19 was a big break in my musical journey.

That day the journey became more difficult too, because I was suddenly among the giants of our music. They believe in the guru-shishya parampara (traditional master-student bond), and so were very focused on us - what we were learning, how we were doing it, and so on. The environment brought pressure, but it was an amazing place to be, with lessons, workshops, and recording sessions by the icons of our music. I m very grateful to SRA for helping me to be who I am today.

There was one concert where some of us students were supposed to perform with my guru-ji, playing some of his compositions. In the rehearsal I couldn't play at all. Guru-ji just said, “If you can t play here, you can t play in the concert”. He said, “go outside and practice more”. I did, and was crying out there on my own because he was being very tough on me. But I practiced, gathered myself together, and came back in, and showed him, and he said, “yes, that s ok”. And I got through the concert, thank god!

And another time at ITC I played in a student competition that Shivkumar-ji was judging. I sat on the floor, and remember looking up at him in the chair. Afterwards we spoke and I will never forget the two mantras he told me. The first was: “No matter if you re a good musician in your life, try to be a good human being first.”

The second was: “As you move upwards - higher in the scale - then tilt your head down.” Let me explain - the Sharma family are from the mountains in Kashmir. Shiv-ji s father taught him that as you move higher up a mountain, there is more and more to look at beneath you. And once you re at the top you can only look downwards. You must balance yourself - or else you will fall too quick!

'The music must always be intuitive'. Photo: Darbar

  • What does your typical day of riyaz [immersive practice] look like at the moment?

Ideally, I start at 6am, and play until around 8. I take a break, and afterwards pick up my instrument again. If I m feeling at home with myself then I ll play as much as I can from there. I used to practice at night more, but it can be exhausting especially when you re performing the same evening. If I have a day to myself then I ll probably do around 5-6 hours in total.

Although lately I've realized the riyaz is actually all the time, even away from the instrument. Music is really based on chintan [thinking] and mannan [realizations], and you can come to these in your mind without a sarod. So practice is a 24hrs-a-day activity for me.

  • How strict are you with samay [the traditional practice of only playing a raga at its associated time of day]?

I would like to conform to this way of doing things more, but the routines of the modern world make it hard. I am still early in my journey of learning, so feel I should practice the ragas I may end up performing soon, whatever the time of day.

  • The concept of samay, like many in Indian classical, is intimately tied to the natural world. [Vocalist] Manjusha Patil says that Raag Lalit only feels right at dawn, and Ustad Bahauddin Dagar uses seven shades of Sa [root note], tuned with the sun s daily arc. Do you find direct inspiration from nature?

Absolutely! When I practice early in the day I can feel the presence of the sun, the fresh air, the expectation of the coming day. And the sound of the birds, the feel of the breeze at night, and the smell of the soil after rain - they all help you to play certain ragas! I m happy it was raining yesterday as Jaijaiwanti has some feelings of water in it.

Two years ago I was in America, and there was a valley near my hotel. It was so vast, so open, and I couldn't help but take my sarod out there to play - such an incredible experience, something I haven t been able to really fully express yet. At these times it feels like nature is summoning you to play, like the environment is drawing the music out of you.

  • It's beautiful to hear how the music is still directly connected to such primal forms of human experience. I guess our proto-human ancestors were also moved by birdsong and the breeze, but it has taken our species millions of years to come up with music that can articulate these sentiments.

Yes. These feelings of deep connection with nature help with the creative side of music. For alap [rhythmless introduction] it is good to be in an open space, and also the natural world is good for playing ornamentations well. But if you want to have hardcore technical practice then being alone at home can help - just close the door and go into yourself. There is no nature there, no black and white even, just you and the music. This can be better for taans [melodic elaborations].

  • I was reading an interview with [Carnatic vocalist] Bombay Jayashri on religion and music. She describes how she sung about Lord Krishna, and afterwards met a lady who remarked on how she must have been thinking about the deity to sing so well. But, in her words, “I said no. I wasn't thinking of feeling, my love is for the raga, not for Krishna. I don't think I love God more than I love music”. Do you feel these sorts of distinctions? Or are they inseparable?

It is always my own realisation. I am not so attached to my religion itself when I am playing, as the raga becomes my religion. The Sa, the first note, that is my god. I think only of the raga, not of Krishna or of Shiva. And if I say my concert was not so nice, I mean that I was not able to make my god happy - and my god is the raga. Like the gods, raga is above us.

However my experiences of music can sometimes take divine forms. With Darbari Kanada I imagine a strong power, a kind of manly essence - but it has no face. And with Yaman I feel something resembling Devi [the divine feminine]. I must nurture her, and if she is happy after the jhalla [unaccompanied rhythmic exploration] then I know I will be blessed for the rest of the raga.

  • Some artists talk of ragas in strikingly humanistic terms. I interviewed [Hindustani vocalist] Dr. Ashwini Bhide-Deshpande, who talks of them as having “their own likes, dislikes, and angularities...I want the raga to befriend me too. If I m interested in a raga, I want it to be interested in me”. Do you relate to them like people?

My experience will be different to a musician such as Ashwini-ji, as I've just started my journey, with only 24 years learning so far. But yes, you do have to create a friendship, like trying to shake the hand of the raga. But it may not shake back at first! You must be ready - for example Darbari Kanada is such a meditative, heavy, serious raga. Only after 50 or 60 years will I think of performing it.

  • Most people have at least a few friends with very different personalities to them. Ashwini-ji sees the same phenomenon with ragas, saying that the relationship is about “two wavelengths resonating rather than direct similarity”. Have you found this much?

Yes - learning a raga is like a marriage. Half of what emerges is the sentiments of the raga itself, and half is the influence of my own experiences and feelings. These two sides can be very different, and only together can the picture be understood. And while a raga is always more than just the sum of these two halves, it cannot exist independently of them either. In this way raga is an illusion.

Similarly with rasa [a Sanskrit concept meaning ‘juice, taste, essence ]. A raga may be associated with beauty, romance, heroism, fury, drama, and so forth. But these sentiments are always illusive - I cannot think of what is beautiful, romantic, or dramatic in an isolated fashion. They must have a situation in which to make sense. So the role of the musician is to give a shape to this illusive thing. It must be part of me too. I must give soul to the raga, then the friendship can happen. Just like a marriage.

"Learning a raga is like a marriage". Photo: Darbar

  • Did you ever feel that your musical education was different due to your gender?

The sarod has always been seen as male. There have been great female artists in the past, such as Sharan Rani and Zarin Daruwala, but often the careers of women have been suppressed behind well-worn patterns of male domination. However for guru-ji it was just about the music really. And similarly for my father. He would say, “if you re going to play the sarod, forget about man and woman”.

Guru-ji told me that I should always consider myself as having the abilities of a man. So the physical limitations we all face as musicians, like speed or the power of a stroke - I have to perform these things as men have done. Maybe I will have to give double effort. But there are ways of doing it.

  • Yes - I mean Django Reinhardt was able to create a new, virtuosic style of jazz guitar despite only having two properly functioning fingers on his fretting hand (the others were badly burned in a campfire accident). I've taught guitar for years but can still barely play some of his lines properly!

Django is unbelievable! Maybe it was easier to create a new style was because of his limitations - as if he had to find other ways of moving around the instrument, so would come across new shapes more often. But either way, female musicians should not worry about the physical limitations so much. The main thing is that you are determined.

  • Do you feel that things are changing for women in Indian music?

Nowadays we have so many more opportunities. It is much easier for us to communicate directly with the audience, without gender being a distraction from the music. It's a mindset. India has had lots of female political leaders after all - in Kolkata our chief minister is a woman.

I believe that anywhere you go, people's emotions function very similarly. It's not so much about man and woman - we need to go deeper into absolute human nature.

  • How can men in the Indian music industry help in the push for equality? What should they be thinking about?

I would say: don't give a woman any opinions, just let her be the way she is. Even a devoted husband who believes in equality can limit his wife, as he may be overprotective when trying to help her. What I find beautiful is when a man gives their space to a woman, and says “do things your way, if you want to”.

You cannot just expect the world to treat you as equal - you have to stand for equality. You need to be powerful. It is so beautiful when women support other women, and when men respect that space. This is starting to happen more. Is it enough? Absolutely not. But things are changing. Personally, I consider myself very lucky, as if I play well, I will get a space, and if don't, I won t. But I was born into a musical family. It is not like this for everyone.

"...the sound of the birds, the feel of the breeze at night..." Photo: Darbar

  • You've been doing some fusion work over the past couple of years...

In my eyes I m a very hardcore classical musician. But yes, I've tried some fusions. In America I played with a group of Pakistani and Western musicians, which was amazing. I collaborated with a Chinese pipa [four-stringed lute] player. In Chinese music they have some scales which match our ragas - for example it can sound like Bhupali is there.

I performed with Carnatic musicians in Italy [part of Darbar s programme at the 2017 Ravenna Festival]. Patri Satish Kumar was on mridangam [double-headed drum] and Giridhar Udupa on ghatam [clay pot drum]. We played a Carnatic composition set to adi tala - so it's more like a steady 4/4 the whole way through compared to our tintal [16-beat cycle]. I really enjoyed myself, and felt that fusion was really happening.

I played with Sura Susso [a London-based kora harp player from Gambia] once. He was in India and invited me to perform with him. I love this instrument! And also the djembe [West African goblet drum] - many people in India play it, like Taufiq Qureshi, in his own style. So Indian artists are adapting from African music now.

Here in London I've been talking to the Philharmonia Orchestra, and somebody introduced me to a rapper. It's new, but I'm liking it. In fusion you get a sense of how to be patient. You have to give each other space. But you must know how to ‘come back/ to classical music afterwards.

  • Do any particular projects stand out so far?

I was at Ethno Sweden in 2015, playing with about 100 musicians from all around the world - Croatia, Armenia, Tanzania, America, England, so many other places. It felt like a huge turning point in my life, those 10 days, and I still remember the folk tunes we played. So many sounds!

How can you play with these musicians? The tunings are all different. So perhaps I have to start from a different note - maybe ma [fourth] or Dha [sixth] becomes the Sa [root]. This is not easy, as we do not have frets.

When meeting new musicians then you see how much more there is to learn. If I have too much ego, I should go and do some fusion! So I would love to find more - I always search for an ‘open canvas feeling in the music I play, and am very positive about fusion s place here.

  • Do you listen to lots of music from around the globe too?

It is important to have some times in your life where you re fully immersed into your own genre. I was like that for around seven years, very much focused on classical. But now I try to listen to every style of music - recently I've started listening to house, a lot of African house.

  • Which aspects of collaboration have thrown up the most difficulties?

I struggle with the written notation of the West, though I studied it when I was younger. But I think with rehearsals you can always come to learn what you need to. Also, Western music has a simplicity that I am still trying to understand more. It is not always so complex, with so many things happening at once. You can see a story - like in an opera. But because it moves forward through the story, if you miss something, it is hard to find your place. In the West, if I forget one note then it's like the whole building might fall!

  • Yes - it seems that Western classical musicians might have a different core experience of musical ‘fear to their Indian counterparts. As you say, they are trapped within the exacting path of the written score, and worry they might completely ‘lose the plot if they go wrong and slip from the predefined narrative.

  • Hindustani musicians usually describe different fears. Traditionally they train under demanding, disciplinarian conditions, often fearing their gurus. And many approach auspicious ragas with trepidation (Ali Akbar Khan sees Malkauns as “a favourite raag of the djinns [spirits]...If they don't [like your playing] they will kill you”). But in the end Indian classical artists are taught to improvise, to play freely. So maybe their fear is not so much for the sequences of notes themselves?

Yes - it's not whether a note is wrong, it's the notes next to it. We have a ‘scope of rectification - we can correct quickly if we start to lose the plot. But in Western music, there may be no next time, as the music goes in lines not cycles. So Western musicians must find other ways to become comfortable. I still have a lot to learn about how they are thinking.

  • I'm interested in the role of harmony in Hindustani music [i.e stacking notes on top of each other in layers]. Unlike in the West, the concept is often seen as largely absent from Indian classical, which tends to focus on single-line melodic development. But Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya [the slide guitar pioneer, no relation] was telling me that harmony has always been there in some ways.

  • For example a sarod's sympathetic strings resonate together, and Ustad Vilayat Khan tuned his sitar's chikari [rhythmic strings] to a chord. And his own 23-string chaturangi guitar can harmonise on many strings at once. Do you explicitly think about harmony at all?

I don't think about it so much, but agree that it is there. We have other approaches to adding ‘layers . The antara [second ‘verse of a melodic composition] is based on the shape of the main melody, but it comes afterwards rather than on top. Harmonising in a very literal sense is hard. The sarod is fretless, so to play in harmony you must precisely place two fingers on the fretboard at the same time.

For sampurna [full seven-note] ragas, like Yaman, you can do it in thirds [i.e. each note is played simultaneously with the one two scale steps higher]. But some ragas do not have the full set of notes available to use. In Raag Jog some of the notes you would harmonise with are missing, so you are forced to choose other ones to pair with. You have to approximate - it won t be 100%, but it will be somewhere near.

  • [Debasmita treats me to a quick demonstration, singing a line in Raag Jog with impressive flair and showing how you can harmonise it by adding a shuddha Ni (natural seventh) - a note not found in the raga itself]

  • Speaking of Western comparisons... Was it acceptable for me to describe your instrument as the ‘fretless devotional banjo in my programme notes for last night s concert? They both have similar designs and textures, and may even share a common ancestor. Have you looked at banjo music or technique at all?

I actually played banjo when I was in the USA! Not so seriously, although it's one of the most beautiful instruments I've ever tried. The picking is all different - you are supposed to use fingers rather than a plectrum - but there are many similarities still. The sarod is like the guitar. Once you know it, you can learn other string instruments quickly, so the banjo came to me quickly.

  • Indian classical music is a living tradition. You can trace its lineage right back to the temple chanting of Vedic times, but the music has been in constant flux, absorbing a multitude of influences over the centuries. Do you consciously consider how to balance tradition with innovation?

Not really - it just happens. I cannot think ‘this is the way I will balance the ideas, as the music must come from a deeper place. If I consciously think I need to make some changes then I listen to recordings of other artists, and find new ideas in there. But overall I cannot pre-plan very much.

In the end you must surrender - surrendering yourself for what you love is the most beautiful thing in the whole world. Once you're in the ocean and start feeling how deep it is, you think ‘oh my god, one life is not enough! I'm a very free person - and know I just have to play music.

The sarod is a literal mirror of its artist. Photo: Pallab Mondal

  • Which forms of criticism have stayed with you and helped you the most? Perhaps from audiences, or your guru-ji, or even yourself...

So many! If someone is criticising you then it means they re listening. I never let critical comments go - I grab them, love them, nurture them. My father would ask me how each concert had gone, and if I said it was good he would ask me ‘how do you know it was good?

I was playing a concert in Kuwait recently, and took the sarod with me onto the stage. The leather part of the body can take some time to ‘settle , with the temperature and humidity and so forth, and so I took around ten minutes to tune up. My guru told me never to start until your instrument is perfectly in tune or else you re disrespecting the music.

But afterwards I got a message from a lady who said that though she had enjoyed the music, I should remember that people come to hear playing rather than tuning! I understand why she said this, and told her that I would remember her criticism forever. So while I cannot compromise with the accuracy of my tuning, I can work on doing it faster. I should not have any pride.

  • Yes, Indian instruments can be quite temperamental. One of your strings snapped as you were playing last night! It didn t seem to put you off your stride very much...

I got nervous when it happened - such a sudden, loud sound - but quickly felt OK after explaining to the audience that it is normal for sarod sometimes. They were laughing, thank god!

  • I remember the laughter. In fact a lot of my friends enter their first Indian classical concert expecting a very solemn, devotional atmosphere, but leave surprised at the playfulness and humor they found as well. So I guess shared moments like this can help relieve tension too.

Yes - to me the broken string made the performance better. It reminds the audience that our music is improvised and unpredictable. Two-way communication like this is so beautiful.

  • Tuning is such an interesting part of Indian music. Most instruments have many strings, which must all be set to precise sruti [microtones]. And they often drift out during a performance and need to be corrected while playing.

  • Shahbaz Hussain [who accompanied Debasmita on tabla] managed to fine-tune his drums as he was playing them last night, striking them with the hammer without missing a beat. It was subtle, and not intended to show flamboyance, but those in the crowd who noticed loved it!

Shahbaz was brilliant, so amazing! And yes, these sorts of things help to communicate with the audience. Rhythm can be so playful like this - it is the closest part of music to nature, as we all begin life by experiencing the mother s heartbeat.

  • Yes - I'd go even further. Humans are said to be the only animal that can think in abstract terms, and reflect on our surroundings. In particular, we can consciously recognise patterns in the events that go on around us. And what is a rhythm other than a regular sequence experienced through time?

  • So perhaps our fundamental mode of understanding the world has a rhythmic essence. If our brains can t understand rhythm then they can t understand anything, as everything that happens has some sequence or time dimension to it. Seen this way, maybe rhythm really is life?

Absolutely right. You can even have rhythm without sound - a deaf and blind man can experience the regular patterns in things, and feel what deviates from them. And books will have their own rhythms as you turn through the pages.

"We all begin life by experiencing the mother's heartbeat" Photo: Darbar

  • You've mentioned that you're not flying out of the UK for a few more days. What have you got lined up next?

Tomorrow I will go to Leicester, to do a workshop with kids and play for a meditation session. Then another concert in the evening. Then I come back to London for a baithak [house concert] somewhere near Hounslow. Then a free day! Or so I thought - actually I might be recording with [bansuri fusion artist] Shammi Pithia on one of his tracks.

  • Musicians sometimes speak of ‘unanswered questions with regard to their own approach, which continue to drive them. For example [Benares tabla maestro] Pandit Sanju Sahai told me in an interview that he always returns to asking what his ancestors would think of his music - a question which will always provide him with new answers. Do you have questions like this?

I think my answer might surprise you. I actually don't have any questions when I play. I don't really question why I m doing this, who I m doing it for, what I m going to get, what will happen at the end, and so on. What I believe is that it's something I love. I just do it.

I read a lot of spiritual books. From Osho I picked up the thought that doubting yourself is a kind of ego. If I have so many questions about myself then it can create some feeling of ego, as it makes it about me.

  • That reminds me of Ustad Bahauddin Dagar s approach. Despite being the world s leading master of the rudra veena, a historic but endangered instrument, he told me that he has few specific musical goals when it comes to upholding and enriching his tradition. He says that if you “gather musicians who are sensitive and work hard then the music will look after itself”.

Bahauddin is one of the musicians I respect and look up to the most. I think I understand what he is saying here - improvised music is ultimately about the artist who is playing it. If I play Yaman, then Yaman looks like me. Music is best when you are directly yourself.

But this doesn t mean that you need an ego. It is a spiritual experience, where there must be relaxation, a wholeness, a oneness. When you find this, you feel it's okay to have no purpose in life.

George Howlett is a London-based musician and writer, specialising in jazz, rhythm, Indian classical, and global improvised music.

Darbar believes in the power of Indian classical music to stir, thrill, and inspire. Explore our YouTube channel, or subscribe to the Darbar Concert Hall to watch extended festival performances, talk and documentaries in pristine HD and UHD quality.


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The rudra veena maestro discusses Dhrupad's curious modern context following his landmark solo performance at the... Read More

New to indian Classical Music?

The beginner's guide to Indian classical music. Whether you’re completely new to raga music or just need a refresher, we’ve put together this brief overview of all things raga music to help you feel at ease when visiting one of our concerts or watch our videos on our YouTube or our Darbar Concert Hall.

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