The formidable legacy of Devabrata Chaudhuri: Sitar maestro and teacher whose generosity was second to none

Through his hard work and sincerity, Pt Chaudhuri, fondly remembered as Debu da, carved out a unique niche for himself in Delhi and was the beacon of hope for several lesser-placed younger musicians.

Shailaja Khanna May 02, 2021 14:33:39 IST
The formidable legacy of Devabrata Chaudhuri: Sitar maestro and teacher whose generosity was second to none

Pt Devabrata Chaudhuri. Photo via Avinash Pasricha

Delhi, and indeed the entire music world mourns the passing of Padma Bhushan Pt Devabrata Chaudhuri, universally known as Debu da. Born in 1935 in Bangladesh, Debu da had made Delhi his home for decades, moulding the music department at Delhi University since its inception and was virtually an institution unto himself. Extremely affable, helpful, and kind, Debu da was a much-loved figure in the world of music.

His musicianship was revered; the most prominent disciple of the rare Senia gharana musician Ustaad Mushtaq Ali Khan(1911-1989), Debu da faithfully and without compromise kept alive an unusual sitar playing style. Derived from the ‘beenkar’ (veena ) tradition, Ustaad Mushtaq Ali Khan used to play the sitar in the surbahar style, using mizrabs (plectrums) on both fingers, with vigorous stroke work combined with incredibly sweet meends.

Always humble, Debu da used to attribute every aspect of his distinctive playing solely to his guru; he set up a memorial institution in his name in 2010 and truly kept his name and music alive. Indeed, it is rare in today’s times to find such a fine example of guru bhakti.

Ever a traditionalist, he stuck to playing the traditional sitar of only 17 frets, resisting the temptation to adopt the more modern, easier to play, 19 fret sitar. As leading sitarist of our generation, Kolkata-based Pt Kushal Das of the Maihar Senia gharana said, “He had his own style and identity as a sitar player, he was so melodious. This is really the deepest shock for all of us in the field of classical music, I convey my heartfelt pranaam at his lotus feet.” Mumbai based Purbayan Chatterji of the same gharana concurred, saying “he was the torchbearer of Ustaad Mushtaq Ali Khan’s unique style.”

A scholar as well, Debu da wrote eruditely yet simply on music. His books are reference points for all students of music and he virtually shaped the music department at Delhi University from the early 1960s onwards. A much-loved figure at the University even today, Debu da would regularly grace the annual Saraswati Puja function, despite his failing eyesight. Veteran musicians such as Vidushi Krishna Bisht of the Delhi gharana have studied under him; sitarist academician Dr Anupam Mahajan, currently at Delhi University, is another of his proteges. Arguably the most popular sitarist of his generation, Niladri Kumar said, “May his legacy, style and teachings continue through his son Prateek Chaudhuri, and other disciples. Praying for the onward peaceful journey of his soul, I bow down to seek his blessings."

He was truly a self-made man — through his hard work and sincerity he carved out a unique niche for himself in Delhi and was the beacon of hope for several lesser-placed younger musicians. Indeed this was another, really admirable aspect of his personality — his helpfulness and total commitment to the cause of musicians.

Founder of the Indian Music Society, a prominent figure in the world of the arts, and a long time friend, Anita Singh recalls his untiring, indefatigable efforts to help musicians in distress: “He would personally take the trouble to go himself to the official or politician on behalf of the needy musician, even when he was not personally involved. He was really such a fine person, apart from being such a fine, upright musician, we will all really miss him.”

The formidable legacy of Devabrata Chaudhuri Sitar maestro and teacher whose generosity was second to none

Debu Da. Photo via Avinash Pasricha

Creative as a musician, he created new ragas too, each with the stamp of his sweet melodiousness.

The younger generation of sitarists admired and venerated him — young star, eighth-generation sitarist of the Imdadkhani gharana, Pune-based Shakir Khan recalls with nostalgia his most memorable interaction with the virtuoso: “I can never forget his graciousness; it was around 1999 when I had applied for a CCRT scholarship whilst still in school, and had gone to Bhopal by train for the audition. Debu uncle was one of the judges. These were secret auditions, where the name of the guru of the applicant was withheld. But within 3-4 minutes of my playing, he stopped me, signalling the audition was over. Later, he blessed me and said 'tum khaandaani ho, aise hee bajate raho.' It meant so much to me!”

Delhi-based Dhruv Bedi, also from the Imdadkhani tradition said, “The sitar maestro has been a legend, he has been an inspiration to us and will continue to inspire the generation to come. He has been pivotal in the evolution and popularisation of the sitar. I am personally in deep grief at his demise”.

Truly, Pt Debu Chaudhuri will be sorely missed in the world of music. Purbayan Chatterji said: “It's an irreparable loss to our world of sitar players. My shock and grief have no words; he was one of the musical gems of our country.”

The unparalleled sitariya of our times, Ustaad Shujaat Khan, totally devastated, said: “Another great loss to the music world. Our respects and prayers go out to the family. So many, many memories...”

Shailaja Khanna writes on music, musicians and matters of music.

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