Musings with the Maestro: Pandit Tarun Bhattacharya
Hans Christian Andersen once said,
Where words fail, music speaks.
It is musicians like Pandit Tarun Bhattacharya who give life to this quote. A former student of the Santoor maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, Pandit Tarun Bhattacharya has established himself as one of the leading members of the Indian classical music fraternity and has contributed significantly in propagating Indian music abroad. He brings out the true beauty of Indian Classical Music using his weapon, the Santoor. Recently on a visit to NITR for a performance for Spic Macay, Team MM caught up with this talented musician before his performance for the Foundation Day Celebrations.
MM: Tell us about your early childhood and your family background.
TB: I was born in a family of music. My father was a sitar player, and we had a music academy in our house which was a home to almost 300 students and 17 teachers. So, I was always surrounded by music. In the institute, students were taught to play different kinds of instruments. Initially, my father taught me the basics of music, and then I started training under Pandit Dulal Roy.
My father always accompanied me for concerts of renowned artists like Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. These experiences sparked my interest in music. Even though my family had such a profound association with music, I was never pressurized by my parents to follow in the family heirloom. I was allowed the right to choose my career.
MM: Tell us about your musical journey. When did you realise your interest to learn music?
TB: I can say that professional music happened to me by accident. It never crossed my mind that I would be a professional musician. In fact, as a kid, I would try my level best to escape from my music lessons! However, when I gave my first concert at the age of five, my perspective towards music changed drastically. The concert was a very short one lasting for about ten or fifteen minutes but had a profound impact on me. The audience appreciated my performance and as a token of appreciation, I was rewarded with chocolates. I liked the gesture of gratitude that I received and since then developed a keen interest in music. From that day onwards, I started training sincerely and asked my father to teach me.
Professionally, I played my first concert for Grindlay’s Bank, for which I received a meager amount of Rs. 50. Since that day, there has been no looking back because I realised that this is what I wanted to do in my life.
MM: What made you stick with playing the santoor instead of the other instruments?
TB: In my father’s Institute, I was trained to play different kinds of instruments. I learned a bit of tabla to get the basic idea of taal (beat) and vocals since it is an integral part of any concert. But, the sound of the santoor attracted me the most. The sweet sound of the santoor fascinated me as a kid and my audience too. So, after consulting my father, I stuck to playing the santoor.
MM: People all over the world are often in awe with all of Bharat Ratna Ravi Shankar’s work. What was it like to train under him? How did the opportunity arise for you?
TB: I would like to share the experience of my first encounter with Guruji (Pandit Ravi Shankar). I was recording my track in Daryaganj, Delhi when all of a sudden the composers asked me to pause my recording for 15 -20 minutes because Pandit Ravi Shankar was visiting the studio for some minor editing. Being a huge fan of his, I was very keen on meeting him. However, when I finally met him, I was star struck and didn’t know what to say! But Guruji was so warm, he almost treated me like his kin by speaking to me in Bengali because he knew it was my mother-tongue. I can never forget the feeling when Guruji gave me his blessings. That encounter with Guruji gave me goosebumps.
It was during this meeting that I requested to play my santoor specially for him, to which he readily agreed. We decided on a specific date and time. Unfortunately, the very day that Guruji had to hear my musical piece, I was late by 20 minutes for the meeting. My tardiness infuriated him and he expressed his unwillingness to listen to my santoor anymore. However, after a some pleading and persuasion, I finally managed to convince him to hear my music. On that day, I played the santoor for him for almost one hour. After the session concluded, Pandit Ravi Shankar was very impressed and accepted me into his fold. Since then, I accompanied him for almost all his concerts.
MM: How does it feel to be the only Santoor maestro of the Mahair Gharana.
TB: Mahair Gharana is a school of music started by Ustad Baba Allaudin Khan. Since my Guruji is from the stream of Mahair Gharana and I learned from him, even I am a part of the Gharana. In the same way, my students can boast of being from the Gharana too.
Since the beginning, this Gharana fascinated me because here improvisation is done in a unique style (dhrupad), which happens to be my favourite style. It is truly an honour to be the only Santoor player of the Gharana.
MM: Your tryst with Indian classical music has taken you all around the globe. How would you describe the reaction of people abroad towards Indian classical music? You have represented the nation on multiple occasions. What do you recall as your most memorable experience?
TB: Spain is a very musical country. I have played all over Spain in places like Barcelona, Malaga, Toledo, Madrid, Victoria and more. They enjoy Indian Music very much. One of my favourite moments was during a concert in Barcelona in the Apollo Theater. It was a full house concert. Throughout the concert, there was pin-drop silence. No applause from the audience at all. But once the concert ended, the entire audience started chanting “Om Shanti” in unison. I was spellbound! After the concert ended, the organisers told me that the theme was “Sonido de Paz” which means “The Sound of Peace”. This was a unique and exhilarating experience.
In fact, in West Bengal, there is Santiniketan where after a good performance people will say “Sadhu” as they raise their hands and in Banaras people say “Hara Hara Mahadev”. People have various forms of appreciation. On one occasion, even after we left and went to the green room, the audience was still clapping. Along with that, there was a long queue for autographs. It was wonderful to see how much love and appreciation we were receiving in foreign countries like Spain.
MM: You have set up a unique institution Santoor Ashram, a traditional Gurukul, in a village near to Calcutta. What was your motivation behind the foundation and how do you think this venture will help encourage the younger generation to gain exposure to Indian classical music?
TB: The entire process of learning classical music is very expensive. You have to buy the instrument, cover your tuition expenses along with other expenses. Many talented children who live in rural areas are deprived of the opportunity to learn quality music owing to their financial constraints. To nurture budding talents and groom them, I have started this school in a village in Howrah where music is taught free of cost and most of the facilities are provided for too. Santoor Ashram is an NGO and a non-profit. Apart from that, we conduct many additional activities like blood donation camps on special occasions like Independence Day.
MM: There has been a gradual shift from pure classical music to a fusion of western and classical Indian music. What is your take on this transition?
TB: I would like to start by saying that any sweet sound is accepted and indeed is music. As long as the sounds are peaceful and don't hurt your ears or disturb others, I believe that it is good music, irrespective of whether it is western or fusion music. I have created a lot of music in the fusion domain. Over time I have mixed folk and western among other genres. I have played my santoor along with a saxophone and a harp as well. I like the fusion form very much. But, when I play hard core Indian Classical music, I abide by the rules of classical music. It is much like grammar, where you must follow the rules. Once you announce in a concert that you are playing semi-classical or fusion music, that is when you have the liberty to come out of the box and experiment. It should be melodious. Otherwise, the music will not touch your soul.
MM: Do you still have any unfulfilled ambitions that you want to achieve in the next few years? If yes, what are they?
TB: The Santoor is not a very popular instrument in contrast to the sitar or tabla or even other classical music art forms like Odissi and so on. My aim is to make it more popular in the years to come. I also want to bring back the age-old name of this instrument which is ‘Shatha Tantri Veena’. This is a very ancient instrument in our country. In fact, it has been mentioned in the Vedas as well. We have instruments similar to the Santoor all over the world. For example, in the USA they have ‘Hammered Dulcimer’, and in China, they have the ‘Yang Chin’. All over the world, there are instruments that belong to the Santoor family, but our Santoor is one of the oldest. I want to bring back the old and unique style of this instrument.
MM: In what other ways do you think Indian classical music can be introduced to the future generations? How do you think the reach of Indian classical music can be improved?
TB: There are many ways to reach out to the next generation. One such way is the SPIC MACAY events that are organised throughout the country. Another way is through the media; TV channels and newspapers should take the responsibility to make the future generations more aware of the Indian classical music. In newspapers, we often see sections for movies, film music, sports, and politics, but, never one for Indian classical music. The same scenario applies to TV channels. Even though there are a few channels that do play classical music like DD Bharti, their broadcast is during late night when people go to bed. I believe all channels should have particular time slots to play Indian classical music to showcase our rich culture and heritage. If we as musicians can bring dollars and pounds from international concerts, then there should be equal enthusiasm in our country.
From my experience, I have seen that students thoroughly enjoy Indian classical music. They ask the most difficult questions about the instruments, and they ask about where they can get CDs of this music as well. To encourage them, schools and colleges should make classical music courses mandatory. This will raise interest in the next generation. Music brings out the best in us. It isn’t necessary that everyone has to be a musician as the world needs doctors, engineers and everyone else but everyone at least should be a musical person.
MM: How do you balance your career in music and other social obligations?
TB: All musicians’ families tend to suffer as you can’t always stay at home with them. I will be lying if I say that I haven't faced such problems. You will have to travel constantly, so you won’t always be there for them. However, now there are many means of communication like calls and emails to help us and to remain in touch with our loved ones.
MM: On a concluding note, what would be your message for the students?
TB: Even if you cannot learn classical music, you should at least listen to this music. When you are getting ready for school, college or work make time to listen to this music. Listen to this music whenever you have time. I have students that listen to music while they do their work who often tell me that it increases their concentration. Additionally, music is also a wonderful profession. I have many students who are resorting to music as a source of income. I just want to say that music will be your companion throughout your life.
Also, there's no need for you to be a ‘musician’ but be ‘musical’. Just as music has a calming and soothing effect and leaves a lasting influence on the listener, even humans should be that way.