In 1969, the sarod maestro Ustad Ali Abkar Khan asked a 22 year old student of economics to perform alongside him in his next stage performance. The young man was shell shocked but eventually agreed. Who would let go of such an opportunity? This stage performance of Khan Saheb gave the Indian classical music scene a fresh new talent. The classical music connoisseurs were inquisitive about the new talent who had caught everyone’s attention. It was the debut of tabla player Swapan Chaudhuri.
As a young man Swapanji wanted to pursue economics and complete his PHD. This performance would change his life. He was suddenly touring the world with the stalwarts, performing at great venues, signing autographs. In this melee, the PHD got left behind.
Luckily, for the Indian classical music connoisseurs.
Coming from a family of doctors, music was secondary for Swapanji while growing up. It was his father who ensured that he gave equal time to studies and music. His father, a music lover, maybe saw himself through Swapanji and wanted him to achieve what he could not.
Swapanji’s learning began at the age of 5, under late Pandit Santosh Krishna Biswas. He learnt the tabla in tune with the compositions of the Lucknow Gharana. For 19 years he would practice and learn for 6 hours a daily, 7 days a week. Falling sick would not help as the household was full of doctors.
“When I was a kid, it was not that I was liking it. When I was in the university, I wanted to be an economist. At the same time I never stopped practicing and learning. My father was very strict but my guru was affable. They saw a spark in me and ensured I never gave up learning,” said Swapanji.
The gharana culture
Learning the ‘baaj’ or style of the Lucknow Gharana has not restricted the tabla player in Swapanji to explore other styles of other gharanas.
The gharana culture was born when the music was confined in the courts of the kings. It was created to maintain the compositions created by masters.
“You can belong to a particular gharana but you have to learn from others in order to know the subject well,” quipped the great tabla player.
The birth place of tabla is Delhi. The Delhi gharana performed a soft style of the tabla as they would be accompanying khayals, thumri or the sitar. It was when the King of Delhi sent his friends to Lucknow the tide turned. The King’s friends were overwhelmed by the louder style that was performed in Lucknow.
“That time the Lucknow Gharana was dominated by the pakhawaj and dance so the style was loud. They King’s friends could not cope up with it and changed their style of playing and even the structure. They incorporated the nuances of pakhawaj and dance into the Delhi style to make it sound louder,” explained Swapanji.
The gharanas are identified by their compositions. The Lucknow, Banaras and Farukhabad gharanas have a distinct style called the ‘Purab Baaj’. Delhi has a style of its own. The Banaras gharana originated from Lucknow but the sociological patterns of the time made it take a spiritual form.
“If you learn the Lucknow gharana style you can play the compositions of any gharana as it has the pahkawaj and also the softer side of Delhi gharana,” said Swapanji.
Performing with the two stalwarts of Indian classical music
In the late 1970’s, the now accomplished table player would happen to have a giant of Indian classical music in the audience at one of his shows. Swapanji was playing alongside the great vocalist Malabika Kanan and Pandit Ravi Shankar was in attendance. After the show, Panditji went backstage and appreciated Swapanji on his performance and offered him a chance to perform alongside. A speechless Swapanji could not mutter the word, yes. Panditji thought Swapanji was not interested. It took the intervention of his friend and Panditji’s disciple that the misunderstanding was cleared. Swapanji would then travel the lengths of the world with Panditji to perform.
“I was lucky to be witness two giants of classical music, Panditji and Khan Saheb, so closely. I had the opportunity to tour and imbibe music from both. The way they used to think, compose, explain, teach was what I have imbibed. When you are a witness you learn automatically,” asserted Swapaniji.
“Panditji was a fun loving man with interests in all fields other than music. He would talk at length on any subject. On stage he was just Pandit Ravi Shankar with his sitar. While Khan Saheb was like a saint on stage. His eyes would always be closed and he would be in a state of trance. But when he would talk about music, it was simple. When I applied their thoughts and teachings in my music I was mesmerised by the output.”
The tabla player turns teacher
Having learnt under the traditional Guru-Shishya parampara, Swapanji incorporated the same style when he took up teaching in the US. The schools there taught according to the western style of teaching with notes. He adopted the Indian method of memorising and practicing while learning. In the Guru-Shishya parampara the relation was very tight. It was not only learning music, art etc but beyond. The guru would guide in every sphere of your life. He would not force you but give option, then it is your decision. Money was not important as it was more of father-son relation.
“I received a lot of brickbats. For a week all the students were upset. After a month they started loving the Indian method,” smiled Swapanji.
Being a passionate learner, the master table player does not waste an opportunity to learn, even from young musicians. Swapaniji believes, if you like something appreciate it and never hide. If you hide it means you are insecure.
To be a good tabla player you can not only be a solo player. You have to accompany the vocals, instruments and dance. Only then can you be a complete tabla player. You have to have your own style otherwise you will not be accepted. They should identify you with your sound.
“There is no end to music. To be a good table player you have to learn a lot, when you are playing with different musicians you have to be very attentive to their music and through that you have to guess how you will accompany them and you have to do that. Music is nothing but deep meditation and focus,” stressed Swapanji.
Tabla is lajawab
The master tabla player has been performing on an average of 200 concerts a year since a decade. His career has transcended from the analogical era to the digital one. He has been receptive to the transformation the Indian classical music sphere has gone through.
Swapanji is not averse to the technological changes and also about fusion music.
“It has nothing to do with whether I approve or not as every one’s idea is different. Some are conservative and do not want to change. Some want to experiment and there is nothing wrong in it. If you have the knowledge and you want to explore its ok. It is not bad as long as you do it in the right way,” explained Swapanji.
“We are not playing fusion music. I am so happy that I am playing Indian classical music as the whole world is leaning towards us. You should be proud. Tabla is Lajawab.”