Buddhadev Das Gupta was born in Bagalpur, Bihar in 1933. At the age of 11 his father, a civil servant and music lover, was transferred to Rajshahi in what is now Bangladesh, where the celebrated sarodist Radhika Mohan Maitre lived. Unusually, for a musician, he was also a zamindar. Buddhadev Das Gupta’s father developed a friendship with Radhika Mohan Maitre (Radhu Babu as he was known) and Radhu Babu would often come over and play his sarod. In Rajshahi, Radhu Babu organized festivals giving the young Buddhadev a chance to see legends such as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Keserbai Kerkar, Hafiz Ali Khan, and a young Ali Akbar Khan. After partition Radhu Babu lost his lands and came to Calcutta, where Buddhadev’s family had settled.
Radhu Babu would visit their home two or three times a week and during semester breaks from school Buddhadev would go and live with his teacher, in the traditional guru-shishya tradition. In 1949 after only five years of training, Buddhadev Das Gupta started performing on All India Radio at age 16 and 1961 at the age of 28 he gave his first National Program from Delhi. His training with Radhu Babu continued more or less uninterrupted for 38 years from 1947 until 1981 when Radhu Babu passed away. Radhu Babu was renowned for his vast repertoire of ragas and compositions which he passed on to Buddhadev Das Gupta.
Coming from a middle class family, the idea of taking up music professionally was not considered an option, so Buddhadev Das Gupta simultaneously pursued his training in Engineering. He graduated from Bengal Engineering College in 1954 with honors and then went to England for three years for his post-graduate training. During his three years abroad he performed on BBC and played some small concerts, but there was not much enthusiasm for Indian music abroad at that time. Returning to India he took a job in the Calcutta Electrical Supply Co. where he remained until he retired in 1988 at the age of 55. During this time his work disallowed him from touring extensively and his name was known to the public only through national radio programs.
The demands of his job placed a strain on him, not allowing him to gain popular recognition. On the other hand, his insulation from competition and public pressure of professional musical life allowed him to cultivate a deep, demanding style that answered only to his musical imagination.
Buddhadev came of age musically in the mid 20th century, a crucial juncture in Hindustani music. Musical and social forces were radically reshaping Indian music. It was a time of great innovation in Indian music. Vocal music was taken to new technical and musical heights by artists such as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Amir Khan, but instrumental music remained in its shadow. Khyal was king, its melodic expressiveness and flexibility had made it the ascendant form of Hindustani music. It was the response of instrumentalists to the challenge of khyal that ushered in the modern era of instrumental music.
The foundations were laid by artists such as Inayat Khan, Radhika Mohan Maitre, Alauddin Khan, and Hafiz Ali Khan.
Important changes were made to the basic design of the sitar and sarod increasing the sustenance and sweetness of tone of the instruments. The aesthetic value of “sweetness” was a result of increased emphasis on “sweet voice culture” as exemplified by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Free-flowing melodic movements and fast note runs were also introduced. Microphones were becoming increasingly widespread, allowing subtle details to be heard. But it wasn’t until the next generation of musicians that the real revolution occurred. Vilayat Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar and Buddhadev Das Gupta were the architects of this revolution, each responding uniquely to the challenge.
Buddhadev’s response was a complex one. Recognizing the sarod’s potential to express both percussive and melodic ideas in a unified way that neither the voice nor other instruments could, he extended traditional percussive sarod techniques and incorporated new khyal based techniques in order to exploit the sarod’s musical potential. At the same time he adopted a newer instrument with a large round drum replacing the older elliptical drum. This gave the instrument a richer tone and better sustain.
The traditional sarod, limited by the sustain of the older instrument, focused on staccato runs of notes that were given shape and direction by the plucking patterns of the right hand, which were called bols. Through Radhu Babu’s training, Buddhadev cultivated an unparalleled right hand technique that allowed him to master the traditional sarod bols. His emphasis on the clarity and balance of each stroke allowed him to create rhythmically driving phrases, often with surprising accent patterns. He extended the rhythmic possibilities by introducing new bol patterns which added to the rhythmic interest of his playing. He has also developed further the idea of using bol as a way of creating different textures, the density of which could be varied by using different bol patterns. This textural element offered him another means for building and relaxing musical tension.
Buddhadev Das Gupta has increased the range and color of the sarod. He has created modes of expression that make
ragas live. Behind these innovations and extensions is a profound sense of structure, an architectural sense of form. The systematic manipulation of musical tension is at the core of his sense of large-scale form. Each section, by systematically developing melodic and rhythmic ideas, by gradually increasing in complexity and density brings us deep into a raga. From this obsessive development, we see brilliant and unexpected insights into that raga and resolution when it comes is profoundly satisfying. , in which the left hand fingers a different note for each stroke in the right hand, are essential to playing the fast melodic runs typical of khyal. Although others, such as Radhu Babu had tried ekhara taans, Buddhadev Das Gupta was the first to systematically develop ekhara technique and apply it to his performances. It allowed him to play entirely new kinds of fast compositions that were based on vocal compositions and opened up the melodic range during improvisations. It created a whole new sense of fluidity and movement that had been missing on the sarod. This contribution inspired a generation of sarod players including Amjad Ali Khan. had an important influence on Buddhadev Das Gupta’s alap and treatment of the fast section. In the alap section he naturally began to reproduce the subtle graces and ornaments typical of khyal. This was process that had already begun in the playing of his guru Radhu Babu, but the increased sustain of his sarod, and increased emphasis on training the left hand to play long phrases without the aid of additional right hand strokes allowed him to execute khyal phrases with greater accuracy. Another trend which was originated by Radhu Babu and perfected by Buddhadev was the use of full phrases in the presentation of alap. Rather than unfold the raga note by note (swar vistar) as was often done in Dhrupad, full phrases were used (raag vistar).