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Monday, September 13, 2010

Pandit Subhen Chatterji created magic with tabla at Birmingham Museum of Art

Subhen ChatterjiOne of India's best-known tabla players Pandit Subhen Chatterji accompanied Grammy award winner Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt with his “Mohan Veena”, creating a magical evening at Birmingham Museum of Art on September 5. Entire auditorium full with over four hundred people was clapping and singing with him towards the end.

Pandit Chatterjee has performed with a host of classical Indian instrumentalists, and performs for Peter Gabriel's World Organization of Music and Dance. Like Bhatt, he has delved into fusion, forming his own band, Karma, in 1985. In the classical arena, he credits tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain with bringing his dual percussion instruments from an accompaniment role into the limelight in recent years.

Pravasi Herald was honored to speak with Pt. Chatterji. Birmingham's classical and Hindustani musical talents Vikash Achutharamaiah and Ravi Singh spoke to Pt. Bhatt on Pravasi's behalf.


PH: How did your association with music begin?

Pt Chatterjee: In Bengal, art and culture are a big part of every family.  There were no professional musicians in my family, but they catered good music. When I was in elementary school, I started taking tabla lessons from Pandit Swapan Choudhry.

PH: What is the importance of formal training in Indian classical music?

Pt Chatterjee: A good guru teaches you to appreciate the beauty of sound and the musical intricacies.  I also learned a lot by listening to different styles of music. I have been playing tabla for 40 years, and I am still learning.

PH: Can you tell us about your background in music?

Pt Chatterjee: I consider Pandit Swapan Choudhry to be my father in music. I have always been inspired by other tabla masters like Ustaad Zakir Hussein, Pandit Kishen Maharaj, and Shanta Prasad Ji to name a few. The Benaras gharana (Banaras style) is my favorite and I try to base my style on the Lucknow gharana.

Maintaining individuality is very crucial for any professional musician. You don’t want to just copy different styles. You have to be able to adapt to different styles of music and create your own style.

PH: What was your family’s reaction like when you decided to pursue music professionally?

Pt Chatterjee: I was a reasonably good student at college. After graduating college, late Pandit V.G Jog, an accomplished violinist, took me to Paris for a show. The stage experience and audience’s reaction was mesmerizing, and I did not want to give it up for an office job. Upon returning to India, I expressed my passion for tablato my family, and they fully supported my decision.

PH: Many people tend to perceive tabla as an accompanying instrument or just a timekeeper. What is your response to that opinion?

Pt Chatterjee: Tabla is a solo instrument first. When you perform tabla as a solo entity, it is the primary instrument that drives the performance. But, let’s say when there is a sitar recital, then sitar drives the performance, and tabla accompanies. A good accompanist should never overshadow the main artist. The key is to be able to adjust to the main artist’s style, and put on good show that the audience will enjoy.

PH: Which is your favorite facet of tabla playing?

Pt Chatterjee: My favorite facet is definitely playing solo tabla. But, I also love accompanying other solo musicians. These musicians give me lot of scope to improvise on stage and it’s a very enriching experience every time. Over the years, I have been blessed to accompany the finest musicians like Pandit Manilal Nag and Ustad Ali Ahmed Hussein in their prime days. That’s where I learned how to accompany different styles of music and musicians.

PH: You travel and play with different musicians all the time. How do you prepare for the on-stage chemistry?

Pt Chatterjee: Ideally, I like to practice with the musicians beforehand to understand each other’s styles and expectations on-stage. By constantly jamming with different musicians, you get better at adjusting to their different styles.

To become a good accompanist, you should not only be a good tabla player, but also a psychologist. You should be able to grasp the psychology of the music, the artists and most importantly, the audience. Different audiences have different moods, likes, and dislikes. This is very important for artists touring different continents. Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Allah Rakha Khan were considered the best duo because not only were they good friends, they also had a spiritual connection.

PH: Indian classical music has strict rules and high standards. How should we incorporate these standards in fusion music?

Pt Chatterjee: First of all you should understand the very definition of fusion music. It’s a very serious business, which calls for great attention to detail, and comprehending the different facets of music. Nowadays, many confuse random jamming on stage with fusion music. People with no classical music background pursue music as a pastime and name it fusion music. That’s creating ‘confusion’ and not ‘fusion.’

In order to create good fusion music, you should know what you are doing, what are you trying to create. Fusion music should have authentic elements and intricacies. The musician’s thoughts should be clear and focused on what you want to deliver to the audience. You should also be aware of the sounds of the world. For example, you should first know how a koto sounds if you plan on playing Oriental music.

You should not try to play what you are not able to play in classical music. Instead, you should try to play the best of it. If I play tabla in fusion music, I am not going to play a tabla solo. Instead, I will try to compliment other musician’s styles.

Unfortunately, the orthodox and purists of Indian classical music are very biased and have not had much exposure to other forms of music.

PH: Can you tell us about your fusion band Karma?

Pt Chatterjee: While I was in college, I was still a classical musician and only catered to a classical audience. I wanted a platform to experiment and reach out to a bigger audience. Hence, I decided to form a fusion music band named Karma.

PH: What is the future of Indian classical music?

Pt Chatterjee: It is very bright. Indians are concerned about it becoming extinct. Classical music has always been for connoisseurs, not for the masses. Today, Indian media is flooded with hundreds of channels feeding trash to the audiences. Especially in major metropolitan cities, classical music is becoming less popular. But there are many other places where classical music has dedicated audiences. So I am hopeful that the next generation will carry on this beautiful tradition.

PH: Any words of inspiration for aspiring musicians?

Pt Chatterjee: Music calls for lots and lots of patience. You should try to find a good teacher and learn music in a proper manner. There is no shortcut to success. Hard work and dedication finally pays off. You should listen to accomplished musicians and learn the standards. If you are playing fusion music, you should have concrete ideas before you start. Never take your audience for granted!

PH: What did you think of the Birmingham audience?

Pt Chatterjee: Absolutely incredible! They enjoyed the performance and it was an enriching experience. I would love to perform here again.

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