Ganga Raga, Santoor Ashram and classical for the new age: Talking music with Pandit Tarun Bhattacharya
It's a pleasure to meet santoor maestro Pandit Tarun Bhattacharya even on a sweltering afternoon. A compelling, though soft-spoken conversationalist with juicy anecdotes, the swarthy, avuncular instrumentalist is fairly on in years – he would be 60 this December – but carries those years well, so much so that apart from his gray mane and long moustache there are few tell-tale signs of his age.
He just had a show at Benaras on June 10, where he performed his latest creation, Ganga Raga, in Assi Ghat before the break of dawn, in front of a mesmerised audience, accompanied by Prodyut Mukherjee on the tabla. The second one is scheduled in ICCR Kolkata, on the evening of June 18.
Son of Sangeetacharya Rabi Bhattacharya, a young Tarun Bhattacharya, who studied commerce, could play the piano, guitar and sitar with equal ease, but was never drawn to music. Besides encouragement from his father and guidance from guru Dulal Roy, it was a chance encounter with Pandit Ravi Shankar that changed his life. He became the sole santoor-playing student of the sitar legend.
Wearing a bespoke, beige kurta, this candid raconteur opens up about music, his tampering with the santoor, future plans and his guru, the late Pandit Ravi Shankar. Excerpts from the chat:
It has been a busy year for you, with whirlwind tours leaving you no time for a live performance of the Ganga Raga, released last September in the presence of the late Girija Devi.
Yes, I was in the UK for two and a half months and performed at Queen Elizabeth Hall on April 21, on the occasion of the Queen’s birthday. Then we toured The Netherlands and Italy.
Most instrumentalists and classical musicians prefer playing abroad. Is it the audience, or the money, or both?
Money is important, but I would say appreciation of the music we play is different in India and abroad. In India, since the ears are tuned to classical dulcet, we get applause at every nuance and there are a few spontaneous ‘Kya baat’ and ‘Aha’ interspersing the performances. But in other countries they listen to it with rapt attention, appreciating each note and at the end of a rendition, we get standing ovations.
In countries such as Spain, where I have been playing over 20 years, the audience is extremely appreciative. Once it so happened that we went back to the green room after performing, but the applause continued for so long that we had to return and perform for a few more minutes bowing to popular demand.
You have been under the tutelage of Pandit Ravi Shankar for long. Tell us what you learnt from him?
He is one of the greatest showmen that I have ever seen. He taught us to surrender and be humble in order to be a good musician. We learnt how to present music from Panditji. He always said, keep the ragas short and play to the gallery, learn how to read the pulse of the audience. Music is not only about entertaining those who are initiated, but it’s also about reaching out to the masses. He also stressed on keeping the attire simple, so that the attention doesn’t deviate to your costumes instead of the music. Once, I remember, two female tanpura players, who were to accompany Panditji at a concert, were too gaudily dressed. He made them change their attire and wear something simple. He had such an eye for detail.
You, too, are accessible to your students and more of a guide and friend to them. Tell us about the Santoor Ashram that you have built?
I always wanted to build a school, where I would impart music training to the keen but poor students free of cost. That dream is gradually coming true. The Ashram, which is located in Howrah’s Domjur, is set on 28 cottahs of land. Now, a few students, who are needy, stay there and there are also a lot of students from abroad, such as the US and Europe, who come here for short courses on music. I am slowly trying to make cottages inside the ashram with all facilities, so that the number of paid students from abroad increase. It is this money that will sustain our free training for Indian students.
How are you trying to grow interest among the next generation in santoor?
The best way to encourage a santoor student is by facilitating a platform for them to showcase their talents. We regularly arrange shows and programmes for the students. There is no system of placement in music. But I try my best to place the talented students in various music schools, here and abroad.
Tell us about your latest composition Ganga Raga?
Making a raga is not very difficult, but giving it a unique essence is extremely tough. The Indian classical music genre is vast, there are Hindustani and Carnatic gharanas, each with their own set of raag raginis. So, after I finished composing Ganga raga, I had to ensure whether this raga has any remote similarity with the existing ones. It was a humungous task and took me six months, since our music is not streamlined and dates back to ages. But it was fulfilling to make a composition on Ganges, I have grown up seeing the river and wanted to do something with music to appeal to the Indians not to pollute it mindlessly.
What would be your next composition?
I haven’t started working on something yet, but I am planning to do something on nature this time. I intend to divide and break raga pahari to make this new raga and will complete it by the end of Pujas this year.