Look at this instrument. It looks like a cross between a sitar and a guitar. And indeed it is. It’s actually an electric sitar. It is the creation of one of the top young-generation sitar players in the country: Purbayan Chatterjee.
Purbayan flirts easily between the electric sitar and the regular sitar. He uses the electric sitar for world music and fusion. But he switches to the traditional sitar for Hindustani classical music, which is the core of his musicianship.
Q. Purbayan, you are one of the best young sitar players in the country today. How did you get into the sitar?
A. Actually, it’s an interesting story. I was in Switzerland with my dad, Pandit Parthopratim Chatterjee, from whom I learned the sitar. We were touring there and I guess I was being a naughty little boy. And there happened to be a small sitar, which belonged to the son of one of his students. So I think the logic was that - get him started on something so that he stops being naughty! So that’s how it all started, unconsciously, and the choice was made for me.
Q. Your father was your first guru and your father’s guru was the great Pandit Nikhil Banerjee of Maihar gharana. He was one of the three legends of the sitar of the 20th century, along with Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Vilayat Khan. You carry a great legacy forward.
A. Pandit Nikhil Banerjee was unique. He had a meteoric rise when Pandit Ravi Shankar ji was at his peak and also Ustad Vilayat Khan Saheb. So they were like three pillars.
Q. Pandit Nikhil Banerjee was known for his great technical virtuosity on the sitar. But more importantly he had a very poetic, meditative approach to the sitar. How do you approach your music?
A. I think all great art starts with imitation and deep down inside we are all great thieves. That’s how I started as well.
Q. In the beginning, you were very much in the frame of Pandit Nikhil Banerjee.
A. Yes. I was also following Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Vilayat Khan Saheb - taking little bits of this and that. But then I started listening to a lot of flute and santoor - Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. And I realized that there are folk elements in these instruments which I wanted to be a part of my story as well. Then I started listening to great guitar players like John McLaughlin, Pat Metheny, Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits and I realised that I wanted to tell a much bigger story, which would be my own story.
Q. You wanted to bring more diversity to your sitar.
A. Indeed. And even within the parameters of classical music, I wanted to tell a story which would grip my audience and which would come simple and straight from the heart.
Q. And a story has different twists and turns. It can be soft, it can be dramatic. It’s all part of a good story.
A. Yes. Take a composition in raga Jhinjhoti, for example, which will tell the story of a couple meeting for the first time. There is a very subtle exchange between them. Not even words, may be just glances. And then there is flirtation with notes and beats...
Q. The soft lyrical bit coming in here!
A. The soft lyrical bit where you are very careful because you are just beginning to push the limits and then how it develops into a bonding between the couple. Then it leads to a more interactive mode, where there is a bigger rise and fall, fights, arguments and all of that. And finally harmony is achieved. This is what the audience can imagine, when they listen to his piece, this story.
Q. Purbayan, before we get back to the sitar, I must point out that you sing very well as well!
A. Thank you very much. I take it as a very good compliment.
Q. You learned vocal music from your father as well, when you were young.
A. I learned from my father very much throughout the process. But I was also learning singing from Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty and I learned a lot of things about vocal music from him.
Q. The founder of your Maihar gharana, Baba Allaudin Khan, has created a beautiful composition on Goddess Saraswati.
A. Yes, it is a very interesting composition of Ustad Allaudin Khan Saheb. And I have learned it from his son, Ali Akbar Khan Saheb. It’s also been part of a well known Bollywood film. It’s a Saraswati Vandana, an invocation to Goddess Saraswati, who blesses us for this music to happen.
Q. You could make a living out of singing as well!
A. [Laughs] I remember I had the great fortune of playing in a concert with Ustad Zakir Hussain Saheb. I had sung a little bit in the concert as well. So after the concert he said - you are pretty good. Have you ever considered taking this up as a living? And he added, I was talking about the sitar, but also talking about your singing.
Q. Purbayan, in the beginning of your career, you were very much focussed on Hindustani classical music. Later, you were introduced to world music and fusion as well. What happened?
A. I was actually very resistive to experimental forms of music because my whole musical upbringing was about the purity of ragas, respecting ragas. So somehow at the back of my mind anything that was experimental was at cross purposes for me. But then came this moment of realisation that music is just music. It’s like food is food. I mean, anything which tastes good, anything which satisfies the palate is good food. Similarly, anything that satisfies the ear is good music. So gradually I began to shift from resistivity to actually wanting to do it. I am at the point now where I love playing with different musical genres.
Q. You have also started a band, String Struck, and developed a music concept, Classicool.
A. I started String Struck in 2008-9, and that was my first foray into experimental sound. And I was very fortunate that great artistes like Shankar Mahadevan, Taufiq Qureshi, Bickram Ghosh and my very close friend and collaborator in many of my projects, Rakesh Chaurasia - they all came on board.
Q. What about Classicool?
A. Classicool is essentially a concept, rather than a band. It’s an umbrella where classical music is presented, but differently. You could have rupak taal or teen taal on drums instead of a tabla. And raga Shree or raga Bihag is played on an electric sitar instead of an acoustic sitar.
Q. You have shot a video as well with Classicool, which is based on Raga Shree.
A. Raga Shree is a very dark kind of raga and I wanted to treat it almost like a dark heavy metal piece to give that kind of grungy feel.
Q. Purbayan, we have seen how you use an electric, rather than a traditional sitar, when you play world music or fusion. How have you created this electric sitar?
A. Well, I called the first prototype of my electric sitar - Dwo. It’s a fusion between the English word ‘two’ and the hindi word ‘do’, which also means two. So, it’s like the doppelganger of the sitar. I took the sitar’s neck because that’s the playing technique that I know, and I used the electric guitar’s kind of body and fused the two or ‘Dwo’.
Q. And you have also now created a new electric sitar. And you’ve got it right here!
Q. Look at this sitar! A transparent sitar!
A. Very transparent because I am so transparent as a person and I want people to see through this sitar into my heart! And it not only plays wonderfully, but it also does all sorts of things with lights.
Q. It’s got lights as well! This is getting more interesting.
A. All sorts of electrical and visual elements to it.
Q. What are you calling this instrument?
A. So far, I have stuck to calling it ‘Seetar’, because you can see through the sitar! There is a piece I am writing on this, which is in development. I am thinking of calling it The Dark Side of the Moon. It is again inspired by the other side of moon. It’s a dark kind of piece - nice and ambient.
Art Talk with Jujhar Singh is on Saturdays 9:55 pm, Sundays 1:25 pm & 10:25 pm on NewsX channel. This weekend, the show features one of the great Tabla maestros of India, Pandit Anindo Chatterjee, and his very accomplished son, Anubrata Chatterjee.