Following is an article written by Jan Haag (an edited version of this article was printed in a recent edition of the `India Currents' magazine published from San Jose, CA). Reproduced with permission from the author.


by Jan Haag

Swapan Chaudhuri, one of the world's greatest classical tabla players, celebrates his fiftieth birthday this year. From India to America, England to Mexico, Canada to Nepal, Australia to the United Arab Emirates, in France, Germany, Italy, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia-wherever North India classical music is played, he is in demand as a soloist and as an accompanist. Over the last decade, he has given an average of 200 concerts a year. Chaudhuri's touring schedule is the kind of which aspiring musicians dream, but it is also a demanding, health-defying way of life. During a typical week not long ago, Pandit (the Indian title given to a distinguished and learned man) Chaudhuri taught a dozen classes at the Ali Akbar College of Music on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then flew, on Thursday, to Los Angeles to teach, from noon to seven, at the nearby California Institute of the Arts. Friday, he gave a concert in West Virginia. Saturday, he did two recording sessions in New York City. Then, on Sunday night, he performed at a commemorative event at Lincoln Center to celebrate Gandhi's 125th birthday, the guest list of which included, Dr. Venkatraman, India's former President. "It's not the concerts that are difficult," he says, "but the traveling, the constant traveling. And trying new things. At times dangerous things," he laughs, his eyes sparkling, then adds: "Tabla is limitless. I never want to stop." In India, a number of years ago, he gave eight performances in less than twenty-four hours. "They were all major concerts. I started first with Pandit Ravi Shankar at 7:00 P.M. From there, all over Calcutta, I played with Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, Ustad Amjad Ali, Pandit Jasraj, then a solo, then two dance concerts with Pandit Chitresh Das, then with Pandit Bhimsen Joshi..." his voice trails off. "How can you even get around Calcutta that fast?" "At night it is not so crowded." "Do you eat between concerts?" "Before a concert I don't like to eat. I drink just tea. You don't need food, the energy just comes. When you enjoy something, you forget about yourself. Some kind of special power generates in your body, you don't get tired."

Under the auspices of his mentor, the great sarod maestro, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, as Director of Percussion, has taught for fourteen years at the Ali Akbar College of Music (AACM) in San Rafael, California. At this school, which Ustad Khan founded twenty-six years ago, these two incomparable musicians share their gifts and hospitality with everyone from untutored beginner to the very finest musicians in the world, both Eastern and Western. Swapanji and Khansahib, as they are known to their students, have dedicated their lives to their art and to teaching appreciation for one of the oldest and most complex musical systems in the world. "Come visit the classes," is an invitation extended to all at each AACM concert. In the small, green-carpeted room, abundant with growing plants, where Swapanji teaches, he is asked: "How do you feel about turning fifty?" "I like it," he smiles. "I look forward to getting on with the second half." His expression becomes serious as he continues, "It is also very frustrating. There is so much to learn. So much to know." Seated behind his drums while he teaches, Swapanji's whole being seems to participate in the multiple rhythms as he keeps the beat, shows the pattern, recites the bols (the words of the drum compositions). His hands not only play the tabla with lightning speed, but frequently dance in the air to indicate the movement, to show how the liquid resonance moves back and forth between the two drums that, together, share the single name tabla. He claps his hands or snaps his fingers, or points in a series of elaborate designs to remind the students of the laya, the chand (the tempo, the pattern). Or, metal against metal, he taps his wedding ring against the chromed body of the left-hand drum, which is also referred to as the baya. His dark eyes, as large as a Coptic saint's, fix a student: "Play that first line again." A nod or a hint of a smile may follow if each note is clear and precise. Though always gentle in manner, he is exacting. Even when speaking with a visitor or composing the next composition, not a single missed beat nor a misplaced stroke from among his students will elude his vigilant ear. His hearing, his sense of rhythm is so developed that even the lack of a microbeat gap will be remarked upon and immediately corrected. In every lesson, he expects his students to stretch their capabilities. Nor does he ever touch the tabla, his or anyone else's, without respect and a kind of radiant energy, a delight in what he is doing. This energy is almost palpable, almost visible as his hands move or rest on the drum heads. During the briefest demonstration for a student or at any time during a concert, it is almost as if his fingers emit light. This gift of energy, this love, plus infinite patience, and an inconceivably large memory bank may be what constitute the genius of a great tabla player.

The tabla, one drum of wood and one of metal, appears deceptively simple, but to play it in the classical manner, with the artistry of a Swapan Chaudhuri, requires some twenty to thirty years of training and constant practice. It takes great dexterity, superb control, stamina and physical strength. He once played solo at the AACM for four hours. "The first part," he noted, "was pure Lucknow Gharana (his main school or style). The second half was from the other five gharanas." The right hand drum (singly called the tabla, but also known as the daya, which means right), is usually carved of rosewood. It is the higher pitched drum, and carries most of the intricately patterned finger strokes called bols. The baya (which means left), is a bass drum. Chaudhuri can coax the baya to murmur, whisper, sigh, swoon, laugh, cry, or fill a concert hall with the sound of pattering rain and rumbling thunder. Most children are challenged, at one time or another, to try rubbing their head and patting their stomach at the same time. A master tabla player multiplies this kind of feat exponentially. For instance, the right hand plays one pattern of strokes, the left another, a foot or knee keeps the beat of the tal (the chosen rhythm cycle). Then, while drumming two or three separate rhythms and intersecting patterns (which are, themselves, made up of variable rhythms and patterns), the tabla player may be calculating the mathematically precise pattern of yet another rhythm. He may also be memorizing at lightning speed (while continuing to play) the pattern recited by a dancer, or given by a vocalist or instrumentalist, adhering, always, to the strict rules of one of the traditional gharanas, their stroking patterns, their intonations, their bols. In addition, (while continuing to play) he will tune the tabla with a small hammer from time to time. All the while, he will be intently listening to the instrumentalist who may change tals without warning, and who will, during the sawal-jawab sangat, pose musical questions, issue challenges, indulge in witty repartee and, at times, even trickery. The list goes on and on and on... all this is what a tabla player keeps "at his finger tips," so to speak, as he improvises each performance. There are no written scores used in performances of Indian music. There are no rehearsals. The music itself is the language of communication, not only between performer and audience but between the musicians, themselves. The "dialogue" of each concert, partly traditional, partly composed impromptu within specific rules, is all manifested under the watchful eyes and within the acute hearing of discerning audiences, many members of which know the ragas, know the tals, keep the beat. It is from this kind of flowing complexity that Swapanji also draws each lesson when he teaches. After forty-five years of practice, experience, aesthetic musing, each composition he offers is newly composed or recomposed within the intricate rules and sacred traditions of the music that in India is known as the "Language of God."

For a musician, Swapan Chaudhuri comes from an unusual background. A Bengali, he grew up in Calcutta in an upper middle class family of doctors, a joint family of about sixty people which included aunts, uncles, brothers, cousins, thirteen of whom were children (twelve boys, one girl)and all of whom disapproved of music as a career. For music was, in their society, an unsuitable profession for the eldest son of a respected Brahmin doctor. "It was a closed society," Chaudhuri says. "Nonetheless my father was fond of music and studied the flute, the esraj and vocal music. My mother sang. I was born with that. Our house was filled with music, mostly my mother singing." When he was five years old, Swapan's tabla training began with Pandit Santosh Krishna Biswas, an eminent exponent of the Lucknow Gharana, a tabla teacher of genius, a friend of Dr. Chaudhuri's banker. For Pandit Biswas, as with many great Indian musicians who are not from the families of the hereditary gharanas, played the tabla as a private art, a form of meditation and spiritual discipline. He practiced for his own pleasure, and performed only for his friends. "On Goddess Saraswati's puja day, a child's wrist is held by his parents and moved to form the letters: 'This is "au," he is told, 'and this is "a"....' That same puja day," Swapanji says with quiet reverence, "I tied thread to my guru Pandit Biswas. From then on my father, a strict disciplinarian, made me practice tabla. I had no choice. I was scared of him, really scared. In those days as a child in India, you did what you were told." Because he was still too young to write, Swapanji's mother, of whom he was very fond, took him to his lessons and wrote out the bols. Swapan Chaudhuri's family lived in the same block as the great musical family of Ali Akbar Khan. Ali Akbar Khan is the son of Allauddin Khan, who was, perhaps, the most influential force in North Indian classical music in this century. In addition to his son and grandsons, Baba Allauddin trained generations of great musicians, including his daughter, Annapurna Devi, his son-in-law, Ravi Shankar, Nikhil Banerjee, Sharan Rani, Indranil Battacharya, Pannalal Ghosh--the list is long. While growing up, since Ali Akbar Khan was his neighbor, Swapan used to go to Khan's house to practice with his oldest sons, Aashish and Dhyanesh. All became outstanding in their fields. Swapan's special companion, indeed, one might say his "older brother," was Dhyanesh. Dhyanesh, until his untimely death in 1991, was an exceptional sarod player and an excellent teacher. By the time Swapan was ten, Ali Akbar Khan was inviting him to the Ali Akbar College which he had recently opened in Calcutta, precursor to the college he would open in the United States fourteen years later. At the Calcutta college, Swapan played theka for the instrumental and vocal classes. Theka in North Indian classical music means, in this context, playing the regular rhythmic cycle of the tal on the tabla throughout the lessons which might last for many hours. Hour after hour, the young Swapan would play and listen to the melodic and rhythmic paths of elaborate beauty weave in and out as he absorbed knowledge of the music that, to this day, is passed on only via guru-shishya-parampara, the guru-disciple-relationship, To Western ears, Indian music may sound repetitive, but within it are variations as multitudinous, as intricately varied, as related and divergent as the strands of DNA that compose the human body. Like DNA, it is composed of two elements: melody and rhythm, spiraling around each other. This marriage, this intertwining takes place within a tonal environment created by a drone, usually a four or five string tambura. Endless permutations of these basic elements go on hypnotically, building on one another. The melodic line and rhythm within the raga, kept by the instrumentalist, may at times digress to a point of extreme tension from the rhythm, tala, kept by the tabla player, but they will come together again, often dramatically, and resolve precisely on sam (pronounced "sum")the first beat of a tal cycle. Throughout his childhood and as a young man, Swapan Chaudhuri continued his practice on the tabla. "But, I never thought of becoming a professional tabla player. In fact," he admits, "as I was growing up, I was told not to think of that, I was told just to concentrate on learning and practicing." Swapanji laughs ruefully, "Even on the day of my final exams at the University, my father insisted I practice." As a college student, with his family's approval and, indeed, his own enthusiasm, he studied economics. When he graduated from Jadavpur University, his plan was to attend either the London School of Economics or Harvard. He looked forward to the day when he would become a professional economist. However, Saraswati, Goddess not only of learning, but of all the arts invoked, as she had been on her puja day, had a different idea.

continued on next page

Raga-204 (Misra Kafi)
Raga-207 (Purabi Kalyan)