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Arnab Chakrabarty

Interview by Usha Akella (2014)

Trained by the late Prof Kalyan Mukherji, a disciple of PT Radika Mohan Maitra, the legendary custodian of the Shahjahanpur tradition of sarod music, Arnab is described by his teacher as “the best representative today, of the musical values inherited from Pt Maitra”. Arnab performed in Austin in 2014.


"structure is a prerequisite for creativity"


Usha Akella: What prompted you to begin the concert with Raga Poorvi? 


Arnab Chakrabarty: ICMCA secretary Abhishek Singh, with whom I have had a sustained correspondence and several discussions on music, suggested that I commence the concert with a twilight raga, even though the concert was scheduled for 4 pm. Abhishek personally suggested Shri, Marwa, Poorvi or Puriya Dhanashri. While I love playing the Rraga Shri, it has become a rite of passage for every other sarode player to showcase their competence by playing the same, overdone, hackneyed passages in this raga. This is why, unless I am really convinced that it is the right occasion, I avoid playing Shri.


Marwa is another raga that is very close to my heart, but I have played it on several occasions, and elicited several kinds of reactions from people who do not know the music intimately. Most of the respondents have reported that it causes them to experience a very intense melancholic feeling. This is another raga I avoid playing, therefore, in auditoria, reserving it exclusively for house concerts.

Betweenm Poorvi and Puriya Dhanashree, it was a no-brainer. I love Poorvi much more, and it allows me to be fairly autobiographical in expression, whereas, for me Puriya Dhanashree necessarily means I adopt borrowed idioms.

UA: As I was listening to you play, the music seemed to tell a story. A story in its unfoldment via ascent and descent, via placement of notes and emotion it strives to evoke. Comment?

AC: For me, music is an act of story-telling. Stories cannot be told in a dull monotone. The rise and fall of the voice, pauses, points of emphasis, and way phrases are timed, are all integral aspects of both story-telling and 'improvised' music. I use the quotation marks because I am sure some of my readers know that Hindustani music isn't improvised in the sense of it being free-form, but rather, created on the spot using prescribed ingredients. The defining feature of Hindustani music is that it is a process-driven art form, where the final musical outcome is not defined until the end of the performance. I think the storyline gets highlighted because in the hands of an able practitioner, a raga will reveal aspects of itself that might have remained relatively less explored before that particular performance. Moreover, there is no score that you can follow, to predict what the performer will do next, especially in the alap and jod. So in that sense, an artist with a good sense of phrase timing (just like it is in the case of a good comedian) engages you more.

UA: Was it unusual to begin the concert at 4 pm in the afternoon? How did the time affect your choice of repertoire? How premeditated is repertoire?

AC: Statistically speaking, about 80% of my concerts begin either at 7 pm or 8 pm. However, 4 pm in Austin felt exactly like 8 pm in Bombay – that's how dark it was! The decision to play Poorvi as the opening raga was premeditated, but the rest of the repertoire was decided entirely on the spot.

UA: Illuminate us about ragas specifically compatible to the sarod?

AC: There are several ways of approaching this question. I think most ragas sound good on the sarod when played right. However, there are some ragas, such as Marwa, Shri, Bihag, Malkauns, Darbari and Bhairav, especially, to my mind, sound like they are made for the sarod. All of this, of course, is very subjective, and a matter of opinion.

What I can say objectively is that there are some ragas that are easier to play on the sarod than others. Because we have an open Pa string, two open Sas and an open Ma, any raga that has a prominent P n/N S g/G M or d/D n/N S g/G M movement is convenient to play on the sarod. When the primary goal of a musician is to demonstrate their instrumental virtuosity, ragas of this nature, such as Malkauns, Chandrakauns, Kaunsi Kanada (Malkauns-ang), Bageshri, Rageshri, Bhimpalasi, etc., will be chosen. 

It is perhaps partly due to the choice of the above ragas that the early recordings of Ustad Amjad Ali Kahn saheb exemplify an unusually high degree of physical virtuosity on the sarod.

UA: How symbiotic is the equation between performance and audience? You’ve performed in the US and the UK, and of course in India. Has your playing varied from country to country?

AC: The audience definitely impacts the performance, whether or not it wants to. It is, of course, a great thing to see an audience member responding to a phrase at the right time – that impels me to attempt further manipulations of timing, to try and attack a phrase from different angles. That said, lacking this kind of very informed listener, my performances tend to be structured how I want them to be. I do not try to customize my repertoire to suit what I perceive to be the taste of a particular audience. And I most certainly do not deploy speed to overwhelm. It has its place in my performances, where needed to serve an aesthetic purpose. 

I'd like to think that there is no overt gimmickry in my music. My music is as sincere as everything I say.


UA: I am intrigued about the evolution of the instrument in relationship to the music associated with it. Related to this is your work with the sarod as an instrument designer. I’d like to go deeply into this highlighted by your personal journey.


AC: The sarod itself came into being as a result of idiomatic shortcomings of its ancestor, the rabab. The rabab is a Persian/Afghan instrument which is structurally quite similar to the sarod, but features a wooden fingerboard, three frets, and gut or nylon strings. To play the flowing glides of Hindustani vocal music on such an instrument was practically impossible. It was in the second or third decade of the 19th century that the Afghan rabab was Indianized, and onto it, musicians fitted a fretless steel fingerboard as on the sursringar (itself an early 19th century creation) and replaced the gut string with metal. I can only imagine the ease of music making the nascent sarod must have yielded to those early players!

For most of the 19th century, various acoustic and ergonomic experiments were made on the sarod, and encouraged by several patrons, such as the nawabs of Rampur and Dhaka, and the Maharaja of Darbhanga. Later on, in the 20th century, Ustad Allauddin Khan made some fundamental changes by enlarging the skin-covered radiator of the sarod, making the body itself considerably heavier, and adding a large number of supporting strings.

As it is, members of my gharana were divided on the issue of sarod design. The patriarch of our gharana, Pandit Radhika Mohan Maitra stuck to the traditional design, which was based largely on a historic instrument built in Darbhanga, apparently for Ustad Abdullah Khan, the guru of Radhu Babu's guru, Ustad Mohammad Amir Khan. That sarod,  incidentally, was willed by Radhu Babu to his favourite disciple, my guru, Prof Kalyan Mukherjea. By way of Prof. Mukherjea, that sarod, which has served as the template for the sarodes used by Radhika Babu, Kalyanda himself, and another distinguished disciple. Sri Samarendra Nath Sikdar, has come to be in my possession.

As my music started taking a recognizably individual form, I decided to abandon the one change Radhika Babu had made to the design of his sarod – the introduction, influenced by Baba Allauddin Khan, of 15 sympathetic strings instead of 9. While chromatic tuning of the 15 sympathetic strings allow for quicker transition between ragas in a performance, I find (and have been able to empirically verify) that those notes that are alien to a raga, yet present on sympathetic strings, pose unwanted interference to slid notes (meends) in performance. Notes foreign to a raga, when amplified by sympathetic string, cause the main string to vibrate more strongly through the duration of a meend, causing energy to be lost more quickly by the string, and thereby reducing the sustain of the slid note.


My music is definitely more reliant on slides than any other musical ornament or device, and a clear, interference-free tone is of paramount importance to it. Going back to the traditional configuration of 4 or 5 main strings, 3 or 4 drone strings and 9 sympathetic strings suits my music. The shape of the radiator has a huge impact on the  sustain of the sarod sound, as found experimentally by my friend, Professor Ronojoy Adhikari of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. The older, ellipsoid-shaped radiator lent itself much better to long, sustained slides, whereas the circular, banjo-like radiator as designed by Allauddin Khan sahib, lends itself better to louder articulation.

Why Baba Allauddin chose this trade-off on sustain is understandable. In his time, musicians were just beginning to perform for large audiences, and a loud instrument was the need of the time, in order to address unprecedented audience sizes. In this era of quality sound reinforcement, it is possible to arrive at a sarod design that incorporates some features of the pre-Allaudin sarod, his Maihar design, and further refinements, particularly to the sensitive skin radiator, the bridge and to the tuning pegs, to churn out a truly 21st century sarod.

I have made reasonable strides in this direction, studying, firstly, the acoustic properties of the existing sarod designs in collaboration with Prof. Adhikari, and then taking on the challenge of designing the “lute sarod” which, for all practical purposes, is a traditional sarod, but much easier to play and maintain. This instrument has been built by Czech-based luthier and musician, Edward Powell. This new design has a skin top that one can tune using hex keys, and a body that is less than half the weight of a traditional sarod.

None of this is rocket science, but progress has been held up for several reasons. First of all, Indian musicians are reluctant to experiment with designs that don't look traditional, for they are aware that their appeal in the (non-diaspora) Western markets is limited largely to the “exotica” section. The first concern, therefore, is that the instrument has to look its part. This, I suppose, is understandable. Another reason, simply put, is the lack of funds going into research. On a global scale, Hindustani music is a fringe art form and while there might be big money in “entertainment” in India today, this is not an art form that generates revenue for investors. Furthermore, whatever meagre resources there are available for this music are sucked up by a small number of cabals of well networked oligarch-musicians, few of whom really care for artistic or technological progress.

So, in light of all this, instrument development is a huge challenge.

UA: Why the sarod? Early influences?

AC: I started singing when I was about 3. My parents took much pride in recording my reproductions of Pandit D V Paluskar's 78 rpm recordings, and playing them back to me and to their friends. I also started learning how to play the tabla around that age. When I was about seven, my parents had decided that I had to learn a plucked string instrument. My father favoured the sitar, and my mother preferred the sarod. In the end, my mother being the more musical of the two, prevailed.


UA: The role your family has played in your journey? You mentioned in a conversation that your mother was occupied with Hindustani music for thirty years.


AC: My mother was never a professional musician. She was a physics teacher, but she had learnt from a number of rather well-known Hindustani vocalists. While she never dared call herself a professional musician, I think that given the state of today's music scene, she could very well have held her own among the professionals!

I would never have become a professional musician, had it not been for my parents' support and encouragement. I have had ups and downs in my career – and frankly, more downs than ups, which not many know of. I am not an 'operator' in the sense that you need to be these days in order to impress musically uninformed organizers and get concert opportunities. I am also incapable of paying obeisance to powerful people in the hope that they might support my music. Unfortunately in India, musicians are not empowered to carve their own futures. There are too many godfathers and middlemen involved. So there are pains and frustrations in the path I have chosen for myself, but in the end, one has to teach oneself how to remain unaffected by the worst possible outcome in a professional situation. My parents understand me and have supported my journey without a hint of reservation.


UA: It is quite clear that the ‘note’ is so dominant in your performance; . tThe exploration of the note in itself and in relation to other notes. Comment?


AC: I would like to think of myself as a “phrase compiler” and not a note-obsessed musician, but I do like to feel the expansiveness of the sarod's sound, and the joy of hitting a note in the intended sweet-spot. That might come across to some as a note-fetish, but I tell you, in all honesty that it is the second part of your observation that is closer to the truth. I play with tonal shapes, because it is how notes relate to each other that give us the colour that is a raga.


UA: Indian music- monologue or dialogue? Comment?


AC: Most certainly, it is a multilateral conversation in spite of the small number of performers and listeners! Even while playing alap, the decision-making is impacted by how an audience member may react to a particular phrase, expressing some sort of informed anticipation. It would be criminal on my part not to respond to such an invitation or challenge.


UA: Repetition and Reverberation come to mind with the sarod. Comment?


AC: "I am not sure if 'repetition' is a word I would like to associate with sarod music in particular. The thing that repeats frequently in every Hindustani music performance is the main line of the gat or bandish that serves as the basis of raga elaboration. But this is not specific to sarod music. The other aspect that might come across as somewhat repetitive, although it really shouldn't – is the fact that Hindustani musicians tend to approach and attack a phrase from different angles, trying to state and reiterate an idea in more than one way. Again, this is not specific to sarod music. However, there is much truth to the second 'R'. The sarod is a naturally reverberant instrument with a very rich sound."
If repetition comes to mind, you haven't heard enough of my music. I cannot make an informed comment on general trends in sarod playing, but I have noticed some repetition. I am glad you did not mention 'Loudness' as a defining feature of the sarod! However, there is much truth to the second 'R'. The sarod is a naturally reverberant instrument with a very rich sound.


UA: Simply, what does it take to be a musician? And what does it take to be a musician in this time period in history. WOn the one hand we move more and more into globalization, consumerism and technology affecting every sphere. How does one adhere to Indian classical arts in this milieu? Do you see the Indian classical arts sustaining over time?


AC: To be a musician, as is the case with pursuing any other vocation with integrity, it takes hard work and the ability to keep telling oneself that there is much improvement yet to be made. The strange feature of being a musician in this period in human history is that there is too much music that is already available via recordings for people to listen to. Yes, I say “too much” music because this abundance of music somehow makes people value it less. The purpose of live concerts has also changed due to this availability of music. I hear people say that they'd rather stay home and listen to a record if a performer isn't visually and theatrically exciting. CThe fact that consumers of music impact music itself as they have a say have this agency in how the music is packaged, and what attributes of a live performance are found appealing, have overall implications for music itself.

“Indian classical arts” - that is a very loaded term. I see Raga music sustaining easily for another 100 years or more, but the number of really discerning listeners will be small, and let's face it – it is always the case for any art form that demands involved participation. The day you drag such an art form into the mass-market, you begin writing a requiem for it. At the moment, we lump all the people who play sitar, sarod, bansuri, santoor, sarangi, etc.., into this one nebulous category caledcalled “Indian classical music”. The question here is, how many are actually playing raga? I think that economic feasibility of raga music sans the gimmicks and raga-killing pyrotechnics we have now got used to, is very low. 


The number of people who go to Indian classical concerts today is possibly increasing. That said,  I am not of the opinion that “one need not know classical music to appreciate it.” That is cheap sales talk. Try and understand how Bhoopali, Deshkar and Shuddha Kalyan are related yet different from each other before you call yourself a connoisseur. The art of tabla is likely going to branch out into other genres of music and I already see tabla players earning a better living doing things other than accompanying raga musicians. What can possibly be an incentive for tabla players to accompany, rather than play an unrelated, parallel solo in the taal in which the “main” soloists's composition is set?


UA: Structure, form, freedom. Comment? Does form free up creativity?


AC: In my thought process, structure is a prerequisite for creativity. After all, creativity in raga music is measured by the musician's ability to find interesting phrases or interesting samvaad between phrases without violating the grammatical integrity of a raga. For me, there is beauty in that grammar, and in needing to possess a certain grasp of it before I can get adventurous with it.

I find my freedom in structure.


UA: Where do you see yourself in the ‘music canon’ and where would you like to go?


AC: I have, by somewhat devious means, managed to convince my contemporaries to play gats composed by me, by attributing some of them to the “tradition”. So since some of my creations have surreptitiously acquired the status of a puraani cheez, I am pleased.

On a serious note, I would like to practice a lot more than I am currently able to, and I see myself as an able teacher with the will and the musical capital to share openly with all those who wish to learn. 

I will be that guy who is pleased when his students better him and all existing benchmarks. I see myself as the open-source sarod resource.


UA: I found your website interestingly poised-  your teaching guidelines seem to state a mid-path between surrender to the guru and yet recognize the need for rigor, discipline, and criticism. I may not be wrong in assuming that this fluidity is necessary to the times you teach in.


AC: I do not demand surrender. I demand focus when I am teaching, and the openness in a student to allow me to transfer my creative tools to them. Sometimes, this requires a modicum of allowing me to get into their minds. Disciplined work habits are definitely a necessity, as is the optimization of time spent on practice. 


UA: The issues of purity, innovation, tradition… what is your personal equation?


AC: Purity is not an absolute notion. All the same purity is to me the ability to make a methodologically rigorous justification for the wildest, most wayward phrase one plays. If it does not destroy the spirit of the raga, it is admissible.

Tradition is perhaps a means of passing on information that may be hard to find in the public domain. Apart from this utility, it has no meaning for me.

Innovation – it happens every day. Being in a state of strategy, whether it is to gnaw at an artistic problem, or to solve a math problem, or simply to procure food, leads to innovation. There's no need to turn it into a marketing catch-phrase.


UA: ‘Geometry’ comes up as a term when you speak of music. Comment?


AC: For me, melodic and rhythmic phrasing is all about shapes and matrices.


UA: Have you been engaged in cross-cultural fusion? Experimentation?


AC: Here and there, but that is not where my heart is. Given an opportunity, I like working with Turkish and Arab musicians since their Maqam system is quite similar to Raga music although their perception of tonality is markedly different.

I practice arpeggios and modulation, not for the purpose of playing harmony, but to get to know the capabilities of my instrument better.


UA: Composition for films? How has that experience been?


AC: I have never composed for films barring this one time when I was in college, when I had to compose a background score for a documentary on Afghanistan under the Taliban. 

I have been a recording artist and have worked with many composers in India and the US, most notably with John McDowell on the soundtrack of Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Children.

Being a studio musician teaches you the importance of brevity in music.

UA: You’ve mentioned your disavowal to branding kids as prodigies convinced it is detrimental…


AC: I assume that being told one is a prodigy would put a lot of pressure on someone. I was never one, so I would not know.


UA: It would be inappropriate to end an interview without paying homage to one’s teachers and their influence.


AC: As a child, I had some basic training on the sarod from Pt. Brij Narayan. Looking back, I realize that I learnt quite a bit more, subconsciously, back then, than I thought I had learnt. Pandit Buddhadev Dasgupta played a very important role in getting my technique to a good level. He taught me generously. Prof. Kalyan Mukherjea imparted to me the value of being a lifelong student, and helped refine my music and thought process a great deal. If it wasn't for him, I would not be thinking about music the way I do now.

Pandit Yeshwantbua Joshi's singing and teaching has had a transformative effect on my timing and sense of drama in music. 

A decade-long collaboration with sitarist Vinayak Chittar has helped keep me grounded and committed to what I do, while adding new dimensions to my music.


Last, but not the least, my parents and my wife Tiksha have had a role to play in my musical and personal growth.

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