What do writing, music, photography and the law have in common? According to accomplished sitar maestro Purbayan Chatterjee, who is enamoured by each of these pursuits, quite a bit.
“The thread binding it all together is that you’re spinning a narrative arc and building layers. If I were to draw a very direct analogy of the law to music, it’s about taking a set of facts [in music, it may be the raga] and artistically controlling how you dispense that information. It’s the same with music,” says Chatterjee, alluding to the fundamental truths constituting the backbone of his art form. “There are some facts; there’s grammar that you can’t tamper with, but there’s also the idea of how you can creatively spin it.”
To him, immersion and artistic mastery—in any of these veritable art forms, but also particularly in his sitar playing—comes from, “...a control over both, and a controlled unleashing of both energies running through all of this.”
Chatterjee's craft is rooted in the Senia Maihar gharana’s blend of Dhrupad and khayal. One of the most illustrious and celebrated gharanas, it is the same lineage stellar stalwarts such as Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and Nikhil Banerjee hail from. “It’s definitely one of the most celebrated,” says Chatterjee, explaining that the gharana’s most distinctive factor is in the way it achieves harmonious synthesis between the traditional Dhrupad and lyrical khayal, as well as how versatile artists maintained the purity of tradition while building in fluidity that transcends constraints. “It is innovation with tradition, innovation that is deeply and very strongly rooted. It keeps the values alive,” he says.
In his own music, Chatterjee is driven by the desire to establish a discourse which is intelligible and enjoyable across a wide array of cultures. “Now more than ever I strive towards a universal musical language,” he says, adding that he would like his audience to make an eternal connection with him and the entire aura surrounding his music that eclipses the confines of time and space. “If you break it down, it’s all quite primal and evolutionary. With the passage of time, with COVID-19 and the war [in Ukraine], we’re beginning to realise we take ourselves too seriously. You’ve got to believe in the journey and do all these little things that bring you joy. That’s the quest.”
Recipient of the President of India Award for Best Instrumentalist of the country at 15, the Aditya Vikram Birla Award for excellence and contributions to the field and the Rasoi Award by Rotary International, the visionary artist has now released a star-studded album celebrating diversity and featuring multiple Grammy winners. In Rolling Stone India, he calls it the culmination of his love story with jazz.
Because in addition to the fidelity with which he preserves the classical catalogue, Chatterjee’s resume boasts multiple successful fusion projects, and he continues to experiment with the amalgamation of different genres. Like the elusive balance achieved by his gharana, and the thread tying together his diverse passions, his own trajectory is a constellation of dynamic nexus points.
On Indian classical music’s innate ability to enhance wellness, he believes it is achieved by virtue of the duration of the relationship. “We paint over a canvas that lasts an hour, an hour and a half. It’s not instant gratification, but a deep dive inwards. As a listener, as well as an artist, you have to have that patience. [And if you do], over that period, you witness the greatest form of communication. You see a raga unfold and blossom before your eyes, and feel included in the camaraderie between the artists on stage,” he explains. With so much of the music being improvised, it is almost like the ultimate trust fall. Just beholding that is like taking a vicarious step towards mental well-being.
But as Chatterjee says, the audience at a live concert also experiences a more visceral response, living it with the artists instead of just voyeuristically. “You make a connection with a real person [when you are] a part of that energy. The moment takes you so soothingly in its lap that you really can take an introspective journey within and become a better person. You may be healed,” he says.
The euphoria can come from any genre, he clarifies, and just from being fully present and in the moment. Some forms of music, however, may elicit a more ephemeral and immediately pronounced response, and are in fact designed to be more transient. The music in Chatterjee’s Indian classical music repertoire, however, “taps into an energy that is ancient and abstract. It’s going to stir things up and hit a note. It all depends on the association,” he says.
Still, it is the purest form of artistic communion. As Chatterjee puts it, “This isn’t a three to four minute relationship. It’s like a hug that lasts for a while.”
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