Grace in an era of immoderation: A conversation with sitarist Budhaditya Mukherjee

On Sunday, 29 October 2017, Pandit Budhaditya Mukherjee, one of the greatest sitar players of our times, will present a surbahar recital in Mumbai, followed by compositions on the sitar. This master musician has been visiting the city since 1976, and has been actively playing the surbahar since 1981. When asked why he has kept Mumbaikars waiting this long to experience his magic on the difficult, but delightful surbahar, Mukherjee, 62, has a short, crisp answer. “No one asked me. That’s why”. The maestro is clearly pleased that an organiser has finally decided to present him in concert with his beloved surbahar. “I am very happy to mention that First Edition Arts of Mumbai has changed things by arranging to host my first surbahar recital in Mumbai on 29 October, along with my sitar recital," he says, with a hint of satisfaction.

The name Budhaditya Mukherjee conjures up unbelievable speed, precision and technical complexity in the mind of an average concert goer. But his music has much more to offer than just the these aspects. Asked what he thinks of being perceived first as a virtuoso capable of lightning speed, Mukherjee says that his lifelong endeavour has been to play with clarity and precision, and speed is merely a byproduct of the practise that has gone into achieving the desired articulation. He has precious wisdom to offer young sitar players. “If one’s effort, however complex, is devoid of musicality, then I wonder why it is being attempted at all. Speed in sitar music is an incidental decoration, not the core on which aesthetics of sitar music stands, and should be treated as such. This concept needs to be inculcated right at the initial stages, though one must not use this statement as an excuse to practice less,” opines Budhaditya, himself a pupil of his father, Acharya Bimalendu Mukherjee.

Grace in an era of immoderation: A conversation with sitarist Budhaditya Mukherjee

Pandit Budhaditya Mukherjee. Photo courtesy First Edition Arts

Coming back to the surbahar, it is practically unknown to Indians today, and even regular listeners of Hindustani music would be hard pressed to name more than two or three surbahar players. In the West, it has gained some traction in recent years in a niche subculture among aficionados of Indian music who view Dhrupad as the ultimate form of raga music. However, the surbahar is a very apt vehicle for a form of music of which ownership is claimed by exponents of both Dhrupad and Khayal, namely, ālāp. For decades now, the uninitiated have been misled into believing that ālāp is somehow an “introduction to the raga”, but it is, in fact, an independent musical form where melodic development can be undertaken via exploration of the embedded combinatorial logic of a raga’s melodic material. The voice is naturally the most pliable of instruments, and most capable of intricate pitch bends and long, sustained sounds. However, among Indian instruments, the veena (or been), sursringar and surbahar are possessed of the kind of sustain that makes ālāp performance possible, on par with vocal music.

The surbahar is a large “bass sitar” of sorts, with a much wider soundboard, longer strings and wider frets that enable the player to bend up to a whole octave on one fret. What is great about this instrument is that it can be played by a capable sitar player who wants to explore vocalised ālāp in depth. This instrument has quite a rich history in both the Dhrupad and Khayal traditions, and is associated both with the Seniya clan of Rampur and the Imdadkhani school, the latter being the one which was represented by Ustad Vilayat Khan. The two most famous surbahar players of the 20th century are the great masters Annapurna Devi and Imrat Khan. Among contemporary musicians, the instrument finds three well-known proponents, Budhaditya Mukherjee, Irshad Khan, Pushparaj Koshti and Santosh Banerjee.

In 1997, Ustad Imrat Khan presented an extended surbahar ālāp at Tata Theatre, followed by compositions on the sitar — a format traditionally followed by sitar players who wished to present a “complete” concert. That, in my memory of Mumbai’s music scene, was the last enjoyable surbahar concert. Of course, enjoyment is subjective and I must confess my inherent bias towards two streams of surbahar playing, namely, the Imdadkhani and (now extinct) Jaipur-Seniya schools. In terms of instrumental control, Budhaditya Mukherjee is second to none on both the surbahar and sitar. At 62, the maestro is not as visible on the concert stage as one would expect a musician of such fame and ability to be. Asked why this is the case, he responds with his view that he finds satisfaction in a few well-curated concerts organised by promoters who truly value his art, rather than hundreds of performances at venues where his basic needs as a performer are not respected.

I have heard several “experts” comment that surbahar players of the Imdadkhani style essentially “play sitar on the surbahar” and decided to quiz Maestro Mukherjee on this. On the issue of musicologists and critics defining the baaj or idiom of the surbahar in narrow terms, Mukherjee has a progressive viewpoint. “Do their varied opinions change reality in either way? If someone visualises the idiom of an instrument as a limited, static quantity, the actual possibilities of the instrument may speak otherwise, only perhaps yet unexplored. Often when someone dares explore such unexplored paths, many are instantly dismissive about such efforts. But if you have adequate belief in yourself, The Almighty always lights up the way," he says.

Surbahar. Photo courtesy

Surbahar. Photo courtesy

However, he delivers this liberal perspective with a stark expression of distaste for the use of rare instruments as a tool for self-promotion by musicians: “It is equally true that it is certainly the artist’s responsibility to see that the possibilities of the instrument speak through the artist, and not the artist promoting themselves through the instrument. When confusion occurs between these two, enough opportunity arises for formation of myriad opinions as varied as the number of persons who have them.”

Mukherjee has owned his current surbahar since 1980 and it was the second such instrument built for him. Unlike his journey with the sitar, the course of which was dotted with dissatisfaction with the first nine instruments he played on (leading him to undertake 15 years of self-funded research that led to what he considers a significant upgrade in sitar technology), he has found the ideal mix of tonal depth and playability on this instrument, built by Gopal Mullick of Habra, West Bengal.

Asked what he thinks of the increasingly crass nature of the nation’s public discourse and its impact on the performing arts, Budhaditya Mukherjee signs off on an optimistic note. “It is a matter of one’s choice,” he says. “In the context here, a classical musician may well remain immersed in a highly refined pursuit, in spite of all the surrounding odds. Survival in the profession may pose a more difficult proposition for such an artist, but it for that artist to maintain his work consistently at the highest possible level and thereby slowly break the apparent barriers that contemporary crudeness may manufacture. I hope that this interviewee isn’t too poor an example of the above.”

Maestro Budhaditya Mukherjee will present a two-part surbahar and sitar recital as a part of Crossroads Festival at the St. Andrews College auditorium, Bandra, on Sunday, 29 October 2017.

The writer is an accomplished performer on the sarod and occasionally writes about music

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Updated Date: Nov 03, 2017 14:27:42 IST

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