World Strings on Purbayan Chatterjee’s Sitar
In a fast-shrinking world where amalgamation of different cultures no longer raises many puritans' eyebrows, sitar player Purbayan Chatterjee.
In a fast-shrinking world where amalgamation of different cultures no longer raises many puritans’ eyebrows, sitar player Purbayan Chatterjee, who for many years was an ardent practitioner of Indian classical music, and in his formative years, even somewhat resistant to other forms of music gradually realised that music was like literary expression — very universal.
“It was just a case of one person responding to the emotion of the other in that moment of time, and that is when I realised the need to empathize with other musical cultures and to bring in their elements into my own musical mode of expression in order to keep it not only relevant, but also true to the kind of person I am — someone who travels the world extensively. Precisely how my latest album ‘Unbounded Abaad’ — where diverse musical cultures together with improvisation as a common tether was conceived.”
For someone who believes that the sitar is an extension of his body and facilitates him to express his varied emotions, the artist asserts that it effortlessly fits into multiple milieu — be it a romantic ballad, progressive rock or metal.
“Yes, I associate various shades of emotion with the sitar. But having said that, the relationship is almost an indescribable one. It is like a best friend. It is like a philosopher, like somebody who always has my back.”
Interestingly, Chatterjee’s journey started when he accompanied his father to a concert in Switzerland at the age of five. To keep him busy, the child was given a sitar. There was no looking back.
Starting straight up on a full-size set and never a small one, the sitar player, who was much interested in vocals too, feels lucky that he got a chance to study in pure guru Shishya Parampara with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan , staying with him in his Gurukul in California.
“Well, he even fed and clothed me. I think this process continues even to this day when I try to learn different forms of music. Even when I was working on this album, I would sit with Bela Fleck on Zoom and he gave me multiple insights on how I could approach a certain phrase and so on and so forth. So the process of learning continues to this day.”
Stressing that it is amazing to observe how Jazz and Indian classical music come together as they are extremely similar at some points while dissimilar at others, he says that the one common binding factor between the two is improvisation.
“The improvisation in Jazz follows a complete third, a parallel universe, which is the universe of harmony. When you improvise in Jazz, say 32 bars of a song, it has to be done within a particular harmonic cycle and you have to go through these chords… This really doesn’t exist in Indian music, at least not at a very obvious level because our music is predominantly modal and it is based on ragas. However, the amazing thing is, in Jazz, you have the head melody, there is a bridge and a coda and so forth. In our music too, we have a Sthayi, Antara, Sanchari and Abhog, while the rest is improvised. There’s a difference in energy when you have two performers of diverse genres come together. It is tough not to feel the confluence of two different energies, and for me that’s the beauty of it.”
The artist, who was recently part of HCL’s hundredth digital concert, feels that the company has done a commendable job coming up with the concept of digital concerts.
HCL’s Rohit Kaul adds, “These concerts have streamed over 8,000 minutes of specially curated performances, with the viewership of 80 million from 62 countries, including India. We will continue with our model of physical live concerts and digital live concerts when things open up.”
Talk to the artist about the fact that only a handful of names in classical music get all the attention from sponsors and the media, making it tough for emerging talent to breakthrough, and he says, “Unfortunately, in this country there is a great deal of focus on mediocrity. People are extremely resistant to anything that is new and of course it is much more convenient to have the same pinups and idols throughout your life. Keep telling yourself that what you have seen is the best and there’s nothing better out there. But this is precisely the kind of stuff which leads to stunted growth.”