Interview of Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri

Friday, April 21, 2017

Interviewed by Doli Bambhania

Esteemed the world over for his purity of sound, depth of knowledge, rhythmic creativity, and dedication to teaching, Maestro Swapan Chaudhuri is considered one of the greatest living musicians and tabla virtuosos of our time. He continues to accompany all the eminent classical instrumental and vocal musicians of India in addition to collaborating with artists of every world music tradition and genre. His dedication to teaching tabla worldwide has brought him global recognition and defined him as a true master. He has made tabla more accessible, enabling this North Indian classical drum to take its rightful place as one of the most versatile and sought after instruments on the planet.

What was your relationship with your guruji like as a young student? How did that relationship evolve, as you became a successful preforming artist?

My guru, Acharya Santosh Krishna Biswas, was a father figure to me. You see, my mother was a very good singer, but she stopped singing outside of the house after getting married due to being in a conservative household. But her love for music was such that she would practice regularly at home, and my guru accompanied her on tabla. When I was a baby, he would put me on his lap and I would quietly listen to the music. Since I knew him from my childhood, I never thought of him as my guru; rather, I thought he was like my father.

When I grew up a bit, my guru started teaching me tabla. He taught me vigorously, training me for four hours every evening, almost seven days a week, for nineteen years. I didn’t have any breaks, unless I got sick. But even then, the household was full of doctors – my father and uncle were both doctors – so they would give me medication and I would be fine. After my guru suffered a heart attack, he couldn’t move around much, so I would go to his house for practice at least four days a week. As I grew older, my life became quite busy. He wanted me to continue to spend time with him, and even though it was difficult, I did what I could.

He was a great man and I am grateful to have had a guru like him, who showed the right path. Whatever I am now, it’s because of him! Maybe I had talent, but there are many talented people. Having the right guru makes a big difference! I will never forget his love, his discipline and his teachings.

The funny thing is, my guru never appreciated me. He never complimented me, and often criticized me. He watched me very carefully to keep my ego in check. Whenever he detected any ego entering my mind, he always squashed it. Right there, in front of everybody! It was kind of frustrating for me since everybody was praising me except for my guru. He just told me to keep working harder.

Years later, in 1994, I played in a concert in Kolkata with Ali Akbar Khan Sahib. My guru went to this concert. Without telling anybody, he bought a ticket and sat in the back of the concert hall. When I went to see him later – not knowing that he had come to the concert – I found him pacing and restless. I asked him if he was okay; he simply asked me to sit down. Ten minutes, fifteen minutes, half an hour passed, and he didn’t say anything! Then he murmured, “Yeah, I went there and I saw you there…” I couldn’t understand what he was saying so I asked him to clarify. When he said, “I went to the concert,” I froze! But then I thought that maybe he attended a different concert. Finally he said, “I went to your concert,” to which I reacted, “Why did you go? Why did you not tell me? The doctor said you’re not supposed to go out!” But he said, “I went there to see how you are doing.” I became silent. He also became quiet for a few moments. And then he said words I will never forget: “Look forward and walk forward. Do not look back. You will get to your destination. You are on the right track.” It was such a beautiful moment, a moment I will always cherish.

So that was my guru! Shortly after that conversation, he passed away in 1996 at the age of 93.

Chitresh knew him. Chitresh’s father and my guruji were contemporaries and friends.

You are among the artists who helped establish Indian classical performing arts outside of India. What did it take to do that? Can you describe what those initial years in the US were like?

Well, it was tough! Before coming to the U.S., I traveled a lot, but did not stay permanently outside of India. I went on some tours with Nikhil Banerjee, staying at hotels, for a month or two at a time. But when I moved to the U.S. in 1981 after Ali Akbar Khan Sahib invited me to teach at the Ali Akbar College of Music, it was different. It was hard!

First of all, the teaching style in the U.S. was not like the way I was taught and the way I used to teach in India. It was very different, so I had to adjust. Here, everything was written on the board and the students first took notes on what they were playing in class. But my style was not that. After a month, I finally said to the students, “I am not going to follow this system. If you want to study with me, you will have to follow what I am saying, which means no writing! You have to memorize and play. You can record it, and write it down after class.” This didn’t sit well with a lot of students. They complained to the director of the college at the time, George Ruckert, and then to Khan Sahib. When Khan Sahib asked me to explain, I was very truthful. I told him how I was taught, and that that was the way I wanted to teach! Khan Sahib understood, and encouraged me to follow my style.

That is how it started for me at the college. Eventually, over time, everyone got used to the new style of teaching. Later, students even appreciated the idea of not taking notes in class and reciting instead. To this day, I teach this way and it’s working out just fine.

Second difficulty after moving to the U.S. was related to food. Those days, I used to like only Indian food or Chinese food. At that time, one of my best friends – like a brother – was Chitresh! He used to come every day to spend time with me – every single day!

When I came in 1981, people in California had some exposure Indian classical music. Khan Sahib had already established himself. He had also brought many artists from India, who were teaching – Chitresh among them – so the atmosphere was very different here in California. But outside of California, people didn’t always understand. For example, when I was playing with Khan Sahib and he would begin with an alaap, to show the angles of the raaga, some audience members wondered why one person was playing but the other person was just sitting! And then in one concert – I think it was in Minneapolis – afterwards, everyone came to congratulate the tanpura (drone) player. They thought he was the most important person because he played continuously throughout the concert!

There are so many such stories! Another time Khan Sahib and I were playing in London. We had two tanpura players – one next to Khan Sahib and the one next to me. Now, in the middle of the concert, just before the intermission, the tanpura player next to me was kind of dozing. I noticed that and was prepared in case he fell over. And that is exactly what happened! I caught the tanpura, but he fell. I held the tanpura in my left hand, playing tabla only with my right hand. Khan Sahib’s eyes were closed at the time. All of a sudden, he opened his eyes because he could not hear my baaya (left drum). So he looked at me with, “What happened?” Seeing tanpura in my hand, he asked, “What happened to the guy?” I showed him what had happened to the tanpura player. The audience erupted into laughter! We had to immediately bring down the curtain, so the poor guy could get up.

Back then, outside of California, it was tough to establish the subject matter of Indian music – what is it, how to develop it and other aspects. To address this, we implemented regular lecture demonstrations before the concert to educate the audience. In those days, very few artists from India performed outside of India. In fact, those of us living outside of India were often criticized! But now that the road is built, many more artists are venturing outside of India. But it was very hard work for us! 

You have performed with a vast variety of Indian classical artists, from instrumentalists to vocalists to dancers, with vastly differing personalities. Can you give an example of how tabla accompaniment varies based on the artist you are accompanying?

Well, to be a good accompanist, one must be a good listener. If you don’t listen, and think only about what you will do, then you will have a hard time accompanying properly. The second thing is that the accompanist’s focus must be one hundred percent! Different artists, including dancers, have different approaches to their art. That creates a challenge for the tabla accompanist. You have to be fully focused and adjust yourself to their approach. The tabla player’s knowledge and taalim (study with guru) become very important here. After all, the performance is an unrehearsed experiment – an improvisation.

Particularly with instrumental and vocal music, I have seen that some tabla players don’t listen to the alaap section, and start calculating what they will do. But actually, music is not a calculation! It is spontaneous. If you don’t listen to what the artist is playing, then you will not get the subject matter. And if you don’t get the subject matter, when you finally start playing, it will clash with the music. So, listening to the alaap is very important!

With dance, again, you have to be very focused. I’ve played with so many dancers without any rehearsals. During the concert, the tabla accompanist must have that focus. Just listen as intently as possible and execute right at that moment!

Accompanying itself is also a part of one’s practice. As you keep playing, you improve. It’s hard to accompany so many different artists, but if you are focused from the very first note, or the very first ‘dha’, you will understand the way of the artist and can follow them accordingly. That’s what I have always done and continue to do!

Teaching has been a very integral part of your life. How do you balance teaching and performance? Given your life experience, what advice would you give aspiring artists regarding balancing priorities?

To tell you frankly, most performers don’t like teaching, because teaching is a very hard job! Teaching requires a lot of patience. And, if you are a very good performer, it’s even more difficult to teach because you have to bring yourself to the student’s level to understand their challenges. And if you think about the subject matter only from your perspective, teaching will be a tough experience. When my guru asked me to start teaching around 1969-1970, I found the experience frustrating. I told him I couldn’t do it; it was impossible. He said, “You have to do it! This is the way to learn, and to become more patient. If you want to be a good musician, you must have a lot of patience. You have to understand how to communicate with your students.”

Over the years I have learned that teaching is a great art. It requires knowing how to communicate with your students. How to make them feel good, and not get tense or scared. But, at the same time, you can be a strict disciplinarian. It was very difficult for me in the beginning, but then, slowly, I learned how to communicate with the students. Now when I teach, I see that not everyone’s standard is the same, not everyone’s talent is the same. So, I have to be very patient in dealing with each student, and personally address his or her problem in a timely way. The key to successful teaching is being patient and communicating well.

What has been the most difficult or challenging aspect of your long career? And, what is the most rewarding aspect?

It was most challenging to establish myself in the field of music. I didn’t know that I would become a musician because nobody in my family was a musician. After I finished my Masters in Economics, I somehow or other got into music and got carried away with it. At some point, when I thought that it was too late to return to do my research or a take up a job, I took on the challenge of being a tabla artist.

I’m happy that I made it! But, it took a lot of will power and my guru’s blessing. Also important was the blessing of my parents, who supported me throughout. My main reward has been that I got through and established myself, and the last words from guru that I am on the right track!

After having devoted your entire life to the tabla, what is your relationship with your tabla like today?

Oh boy! Tabla is part of my body; tabla is my soul. Without tabla, I am dead. If I don’t touch my tabla, I feel like my tabla is upset with me. If I don’t practice for a couple of days, when I first put my hand on the tabla, I feel like my tabla is rejecting me. It’s my everything! Without tabla, I am nil.

When you think about the future of tabla, what comes to your mind? Given how the transmission of knowledge from guru to disciple has changed in the recent decades, what concerns, if any, do you have with the new generation’s ability to carry the tradition forward?

In the older generations, or even in our time in India, there was no television, no computer, no smartphone, no iPad, no i-i-i things! We didn’t have any other access to our art aside from focusing, studying and practicing. Nowadays, people in the younger generation are brilliant. They have so much talent, probably more than us. They are very smart and learn fast. Everything is there, but what they are lacking is that focus, that concentration. They don’t want to accept that, so they don’t end up studying deeply. They just get stuck in one place, because they don’t want to go beyond a bend. They imitate something from here, something from there, something from the other side, and then combine it.  But with that approach, after some time, they get stuck. I see a lot of people in the younger generation coming and going, coming and going, and that’s very sad to see! Rather than focusing on their practice or their studying, many are focusing more on their smartphone, so they can connect here and there, and text this and that. You can do that, and maybe you will get a concert, but you have to prove yourself in the concert to get the next concert. This is what I am concerned about.

But I’m not saying that all are like that. There are so many upcoming musicians now, and they are so brilliant, so good! There are some very talented artists, but they are rare. Those guys are very serious, hard working and studying a lot. They want to study more, and I am very happy for them. These people will probably carry the flag one day to the next generation.

You share a long history with Pandit Chitresh Das. Can you share a favorite memory with him?

Chitresh and I grew up together in Kolkata. We were the same age – Chitresh was three months older than me. We were good friends, and spent a lot of time together when we were young. But then Chitresh vanished! I learned that he had come to the U.S. when I asked around.

When he visited India in the early 1970s, his concert was organized in Kolkata, and I was to accompany him. This was my first time playing with him. Ramnath Mishra, Ramesh Mishra’s father, was on sarangi. One of Khan Sahib’s students was on sitar, and there was a singer also. Chitresh had just returned from the U.S., so he had a little ego. And, I also had that ego! Both of us were very short-tempered. There was no rehearsal. As we were getting ready to go on stage, I said to him, “Listen man! You will be fine, but I have no idea what you’re going to do.” He replied, “Just follow my footsteps.” And that’s how the concert started. The theater was jam-packed, with high caliber artists like Nikhil Banerjee, Vilayat Khan Sahib, and Gyan Prakash Ghosh among the audience!

Chitresh and I didn’t even discuss what taal (rhythmic cycle) we are going to start with. When the curtain opened, I started with a big uthaan in teentaal (16-beat cycle). After I started, Chitresh came on stage and said, “I will start with taal dhamaar (14-beat cycle)!” Then, he switched to jhaptaal (10-beat cycle), then to rupak (7-beat cycle), then to teentaal. In between, we had a lot of arguments on stage. For example, when we were in jhaptaal, after he danced for a bit, I said, “Now I will play; you follow me! Let’s do upaj!”

It went on like this for almost four hours. And then, at the end, he said, “12 and 1/2!” Countering him, I said to the audience, “We will do 12-1/2 later. We will do a 12-beat cycle first!” At that point, Gyan Prakash Ghosh and Nikhil Banerjee came on the stage and stopped the concert, because they saw that it was going to be a fight on the stage! It was kind of a rivalry among peers. We had a nice time!

After that first concert, we performed together many, many more times. Chitresh and I were already friends, but over the years, we became really good friends, and remained so until his last days. I miss him a lot!

He was a great teacher! He taught many people during his time. He was a great composer, and his visualization was fantastic. He was a great thinker, and a great person! He was a tough teacher, but in his heart, he was a different person; he was kind!

The last time we spoke, I was in India because my father had just passed away. After hearing the news, Chitresh had called me. My father and his father were very close friends, and he knew my parents very well. In those early days, whenever Chitresh was performing, my mother would go to his concerts. Here, I was playing, but she never would go! In that last conversation, he said he needed to get in touch with me again about what was going on, be like we were in the old days, and that he needed to discuss a lot of things with me. I don’t know exactly what he had on his mind at that time, but he said a few things that I still remember. I cannot discuss that with anybody. But, I miss him – he was a great guy!

Can you tell us about your relationship with the Chitresh Das Institute? Do you have any message for CDI students?

One thing that Chitresh told me is that I should help his students. If any of Chitresh’s students – anyone who is a good student, serious and clear-minded– comes to me, I will help them. With the new institution, I will definitely help them. I pray to God to give Chitresh Das Institute a boost, and I am here with them. My best wishes are for them. Seeing those little kids that Chitresh has, it melts my heart. As long as I am here, I will try to help them and be next to them. I don’t want to see them neglected.

To be a good musician, your heart must be clean. If you are fake, your dance will be, or your music will be, fake. I say to everybody, even to my students and the younger generation, that to be a good musician, you have to be a good human being first.

The Chitresh Das Institute is thrilled that Panditji will be accompanying Artistic Director, Charlotte Moraga in the Chitresh Das Institute's inaugural performance, July 21-23 at Z Space in San Francisco.  Tickets