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Buddhadev Das Gupta

A 1997 interview with sarod maestro Buddhadev Das Gupta conducted by a group of college students from Bombay. This is a first of my series of artist interviews (and a variety of interviews with Das Gupta on various musical topics).

IMG: What are your preoccupations apart from music?

Buddhadev: I have actually been a practising engineer for 32 years . Coming from a middle class family, I dared not take classical music as my profession because in my younger days classical musicians mostly lived on the verge of starvation . My father was a government servant and my grandfather a hardcore advocate to whom music was like a red rag to a bull. So my father couldn't really learn music and when the question mark of my learning music arose, my father remembered his childhood and did not say "No" to me.

IMG: So when exactly did you take interest in music?

Buddhadev: Let me give you one or two interesting anecdotes of my life . My first tryst with music was at the age of three and a half . One of the most famous vocalists of bygone days was performing on the stage . My parents took their 3 1/ 2 year old in the hope that by listening to the great maestro "Sa
Re Ga Ma" may germinate in his mind. But the result was totally unexpected. The little boy stood up and asked the maestro to promptly ‘Shut up’. "Aap itna shor kya machate ho. Chup ho jaa (Tr: Why do you make so much noise. Please shut up)." Nobody took any notice of me and the maestro continued
singing. But I was not to be put off so easily. I stood up on my chair and repeated my advice with renewed vigour until I was whisked away from the hall. That is my musical background. Music was not in my blood as is the case with most fortunate musicians.

The next incident was equally amusing and occured when I was five. His uncle,   (pointing to Nayan Ghosh who was standing near the door) the great Pannalal Ghosh, who was at that time 21 and Nikhil (Ghosh) Kaka was just 19. My father was transferred to Barisal, now in Bangladesh, and being a music lover he always patronised the local musicians. So Pannababu and Nikhilkaka became very friendly with us and would come over every Saturday evening for an Adda (informal chat) and would also play some music. Seeing Pannakaka play the flute, I wanted a flute too. My mother believed in those days that playing the flute would cause tuberculosis so there was no question mark of getting a flute. To top it all he had 12 flutes and so I smarting under a sense of injustice couldn’t resist. One day my mother overheard me asking Pannakaka for a flute and gave me corporal punishment. The worst punishment for me was to be locked in the bathroom and the light switched off. In total darkness, the room became as fearful as a jungle full of tigers and lions. After an hour or two I secured my release. Pannakaka had already gone away. While parting he had left a gift for me. He had also asked my mother not to beat
me. As who knows,"He may be a musician some day". I never met Pannakaka again although he went on to become the flute legend and was aware of the fact that I had started to play some sarod.

IMG: Do you have an interest in any other forms of music like Western classical music?

Buddhadev: Yes. Very much. In my childhood I have heard some lighter compositions like waltzes and then I slowly came to like Classical compositions. The orchestra has always captured my imagination and going through them I found that some of them contain musical lines very akin to some of our Ragas. My interest grew and it has now become a subject of my lecture demonstrations. Western music composers have not learnt our Indian Ragas and put them into their music, neither have our forefathers been inspired by their music while composing Ragas, but there are startling resemblances in certain lines/pieces. This is a very interesting area in which I often take a dive. That is my relation with Western music and I have also been researching with Bandishes (compositions) of Rabindra sangeet. Tagore was a man very well acquainted with Classical music.

In addition, to composing lighter variety of songs, he composed some Raga based songs. Some of these songs provide very good material as the lifeline of an instrumental Bandish. So I have developed nearly 25 of them and probably a record will be released in the market in the near future (LP: "Lilting Melodies of India"  - Buddhadev Dasgupta and Mahapurush Mishra: Mishra Piloo; Buddhadev Dasgupta and Suchitra Mitra: Bandishes of Tagore).

IMG: The Western Classical form of music is based on harmony and orchestration whereas ours is based on melody...

Buddhadev: Very true. That is the 1st point from which I always start when I give Lecture- demonstrations. Even in the most grand harmonised passages there is a main melodic line. If you ask a Westerner to hum/whistle a Western tune (s)he cannot produce the entire orchestra, neither can (s)he produce all the different lines that go together simultaenously. (S)He remembers andreproduces the main melodic music "da....da". That is the Blue Danube. It is hidden in different harmonies but this tune is its lifeline. This is the channel through which we enter their music and fall in love with it.

IMG: There is a lot of fusion music being composed today. What is your response to the combining of these "pure" forms of music?

Buddhadev: So long as there are good interfaces, when some particular line of Western music comes close to a Raga, our instrumentalists or singers can take up from that and develop it on their own lines and come back to the original tune. But my experimentation with Western music merely consists of finding out those beautiful lines which already conform to some of our Ragas, and their orchestration. And as a second thought, I really do not think there is anything you can call "pure" music as opposed to something else although there is a very distinct difference between the terms "traditional" (another
realm of controversy) and "pure".

IMG: Like what Pandit Ravi Shankar has done?

Buddhadev: Raviji is a pioneer. Not much has surpassed him till now. But there are many other grounds to cover. In Western music, there is some main theme and melodic line which is developed, but in developing it, the composers may not limit themselves to the notes of a particular "Raga-like structure" only but may use whatever sequences of notes come to their minds to enrich the music. But you can do that only with Indian Raga notes and yet have a semblance of a full- blooded symphony orchestra.

IMG: What kind of music have you composed?

Buddhadev: I have not composed any ‘Gats’ from Western music but I have composed the following piece based on the theme song of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Limelight’.(He plays his composition on the Sarod) The first line, as is evident is Raga Zilha. I get immense pleasure in unearthing these treasures and comparing notes with them. There are some raga based orchestral pieces which I have composed, which are however too experimental for our Indian sponsors. I wish to produce music only in a symphonic form which though excluding Tablas would include the Sarod, Sitar, bowed instruments and other Western instruments. In a symphony no single instrument gives the beat, the entire orchestra keeps the beat, if there is one at all. That is my endeavour and I don’t know how far I will succeed in it.

IMG: As an artist when you play a Raga- a sequence of notes, at what stage does the mood come in and at what stage do you start "improvising"?

Buddhadev: For what we call "improvisation" (in hindustani music) it is not necessary to have the right mood. Improvisation is often mechanical. But it is when the sentiment of the Raga really pervades the notes you are playing and you can feel it, then the Raga really comes alive. It is a totally different kind of sensation and experience. If you are in tha state your mind opens up to newer avenues of approach.

IMG: When do you get that experience? Is it at every live performance?

Buddhadev: No, the same Raga can be either totally shallow or overpowering under different circumstances. It is definitely not at the same level of realisation and feeling.

IMG: At what stage during a performance do you begin to vibe with the percussionists?

Buddhadev: There are two things-One is particularly while playing ‘Gats’. You can present some particular patterns and the percussionist, if (s)he is competent enough can echo them on his/her instrument and vice-versa. In the second case- there are some instrument and vice-versa. In the second
case-there are some instrumentalists who take the cue from a particular percussion pattern and develop it. There are certain passages where in the percussionist and the instrumentalist/vocalist are locked in a mock-battle together. Unless each one reads the thoughts of the other, they cannot really synthesise their respective tunes.

IMG: There is a feeling that the quality of audiences has been deteriorating over the years. What is your opinion?

Buddhadev: There are a number of people who listen to classical music simply because it is regarded as being fashionable. The total number has increased to a fearfully large extent. However any good form of art, for proper appreciation requires a minimum quantum of education. I doubt if each and every one of the millions of listeners who throng the concert halls are equipped to do that. So often beautiful and memorable renderings go a clean six miles above their heads and one is greeted with a stony silence.
Sometimes a less musically challenging piece evokes a thunderous applause. Falling for this applause, the artistes are forced to go down to the audiences level rather than lifting the audience to our (artist’s) level of thinking.

IMG: So as an artist what do you expect from your audiences while you are playing?

Buddhadev: I certainly don’t expect complete silence. Our music is a two way communication. For our music to be appreciated even in large crowds we have to reach out to each and every member of the audience. However in these halls the first row is almost a hundered metres away from the artistes. They put harsh lights on us which makes the hall seem like a wall of darkenss. So, until and unless I am sure that my very humble and meagre efforts have reached the audience and stirred them to some extent I am really crying to a stone wall.

IMG: In today’s fast changing world what kind of future do you forsee for Indian classical music?

Buddhadev: It is probably going to some extent be dished out in shorter forms or durations. At one point of time people used to listem to two to three hours of alap and enjoyed it. Now far less being able to do a two-three hour alap myself, I find it difficult to sit through a two-three hour concert if somebody performs it. That patience is lost and we don’t have the time for it.

IMG: This institution (Sangeet Mahnharati) seems to be based on the guru_shishya parampara. Do you think only that can salvage Indian classical music today?

Buddhadev: The guru-shishya parampara is important not only in our music but also in Western music. Certain things connot be imbibed from the paper or notations. In a sequence of notes, some notes are emphasised while others are tread upon lilghtly. Between any two notes there are differing gaps which are learnt through the guru-shishya parampara. Otherwise, it would have been very easy to learn our music from cassettes, recordings and notations. Unfortunately today shishyas are unable to live with their gurus. There are however some institutions like the Sangeet Research Academy which choose boys and girls of the right bent of mind, talent and age to live with their gurus while they are given intensive instruction.

IMG: Nowadays many famous (classical) musicians often venture into experimental music using electronic instruments with mediocre results. What is your reaction to this?

Buddhadev: The results vary from musician to musician, depending on their talents and capabilities. Our ragas are not exactly in the same form as they were when they were born. Ragas initially existed in the form of of dhrupads. Sometimes they have a line or track which has undergone a change in form in the course of time. These additions and subtractions are a result of the thinking and research of the hundreds of musicians who have used the raga. Indian classical music has 12 notes and their permutations can give us thousands of ragas.

IMG: What is your response to many musicians who claim to compose new ragas?

Buddhadev: When a new raga is born musicians play with it, toy with it and if even then it is still found unappealing it is ofgen relegated to the waste paper basket. 50-100 years later some other musician may claim to have made a new discovery. These however, are universally accepted only if they survive
for another 300 years like our old Kedar, Kamod, Bagashree, Jayjayanti, Desh, Lalit. With the passage of time they have been growing stronger. They show no signs of ageing. If a new found raga survives like these then I am prepared to call it a raga.

Newsgroups: rec.music.indian.classical
Subject: Buddhadev Dasgupta interview
Date: Sun, 25 Apr 1999 18:37:06 GMT
Organization: Sarodya Society

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