“If I play Raag Yaman in Rajasthan versus in London, there needs to be a difference. There’s a different geography, sky and natural landscape. I’m an artist and a human being, my mood changes, as does the mood of the audience, so my art needs to be perceptive and contextual enough to connect with my mind, the pervasive mood and the magic around me.”
Sarodist Rajrupa Chowdhury, who successfully carries forward the legacy of the Senia Shahjahanpur gharana, is one of India’s finest and mature sarod maestras. Having received talim from the likes of Siddhartha Roy Chowdhury, Pandit Ajay Sinha Roy and Prof. Sanjoy Bandopadhyay, she captivates audiences with her intense raga emotions and spirited presence.
She has won numerous awards and gained considerable distinction in recognition of her pursuit of Indian classical music, and has featured in solo recitals for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. She has a Masters in Instrumental Music from the Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata, and is an A grade artist of the All India Radio, as well as an empaneled artist of ICCR (the Indian Council for Cultural Relations).
While maintaining the purity of the raga, she also believes that variations to the silsila (a longer or shorter alaap section, for instance) can help contextualise the piece. “The raga has its own shades and mood,” she explains, “It depends on what the raga is demanding at that time.”
Initiated into the world of Indian classical music at the age of five, she recalls how her maternal uncle foresaw a need for female sarodists. “It’s a fretless instrument, so it’s challenging to differentiate the notes when you’re a child,” explains Chowdhury. “It’s also very robust, both in tone and sound [as well as size and weight]” she continues. A complex interplay of these factors, as well as the general perception that the likelihood of a female ‘making it’ on the sarod is lower than more popular instruments such as a sitar or more prevalent vocal training makes it a unique choice.
But Chowdhury’s emotive music carves out a strong presence and niche. Chowdhury, who divides her time between Dhaka, Bangladesh and Kolkata, India, straddles two worlds. She is a musician who can stand in front of hundreds of criss-crossing sea-like rivers in Bangladesh and play with formidable power in the always moist landscape without the roar of the water drowning out her sound. And yet, she is also the sarodist whose lilting music can bring the primordial essence of her craft to the dry hinterlands in Rajasthan. “I incorporate this atmospheric taan in my music,” she says.
She also regularly dabbles in artistic musings with her husband, an architect. “As you know, architecture is called frozen music,” she adds swiftly, referencing Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s quote about buildings as a medium to communicate. “Your art should never make you complacent,” she and her husband believe. While Chowdhury acknowledges it’s important to commemorate ones developing maturity as an artist—mastery that comes with age and knowledge—”these are just markers,” she says. “You know you’re maturing when you start not only assimilating, but generating. You’re able to pour a little bit of what you’ve learnt. Applause, festivals and concerts are wonderful, but I feel my true turning point came when I was able to see the raga in a new way. It comes when you make a canvas with your own strokes.”
And that, she says, is a joyous moment.
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