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Tabla magic in the midwest

Appleton, Wisconsin-based Sutanu Sur is a prominent tabla artist and has been featured in a number of performances with Western classical orchestras. He has worked closely with Indian American composer and Los Angeles, California-based, Reena Esmail. In this exclusive interview, he talks to India Currents about his collaborations with Western orchestras choirs, balancing music with his work as a software engineer, and how Indian music is thriving in the U.S. midwest.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

IC: Explain to our readers how Indian music thrives in the Midwest region of the U.S.

SS: Indian music has been thriving as one of the top music traditions for thousands of years. There is a great depth of exploration required to be able to understand the various nuances of Indian classical music, which foundationally relies on two elements – the raag and the taal. All Indian classical instruments and vocal singing have these in common. Unlike the Western orchestra that relies on sheet music, Indian classical music is more about improvisation within the boundaries of the raag (melodic framework) and taal (rhythmic framework). So to combine them, we need to compose music scores for the Western orchestra along with the Indian classical presentation.  Such compositions have been gaining popularity with Western audiences. It brings something new to them in terms of compositions and instruments.

IC: You are working closely with composer Reena Esmail. Tell our readers more about this collaboration.

SS: Reena Esmail is an Indian American composer of this generation who has explored blending the two musical genres and creating unique compositions. She has included the tabla in these compositions as one of the primary instruments driving the Indian classical part, not only through rhythm but also melody. As a tabla artist, I have tried to understand the role tabla plays in such compositions. With so many Western instruments being played at the same time, the freedom to improvise can be limited. But subtle adjustments in playing the tabla can enhance the Indian classical flavor of the performance. Reena Esmail has created some compositions that feature the tabla as the only instrument playing with the choral group. We will be performing one such composition at the Green Lake Festival of Music in June. This will be my third concert playing in a Reena Esmail composition.

IC: Tell us about some of your collaborations with the Western Orchestra over the years.

YouTube video

Sutanu Sur playing the tabla with Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra. (Video credit: Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra)

SS: Last year, the season-opening night concert of Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra had a special significance since the audience returned to the venue for the first time after two years of the pandemic. We performed a Reena Esmail piece, which included the tabla as a featured instrument along with the full symphony orchestra of string, wind, brass, and other percussion instruments. I was the guest tabla artist at the concert and demonstrated my instrument to the audience at the pre-concert talk as well. We received amazing feedback from the audience at the post-concert meet and on social channels. 

In April this year, I was invited as a guest artist to perform another Reena Esmail piece, “This Love between Us”, with the Lawrence Symphony Orchestra and the choirs. It was an incredible musical experience collaborating with over  200 musicians and the choir on stage, including sitarist Shreekant Shah. The entire team put in a lot of hard work since all musicians were playing out of their comfort zones with unfamiliar instruments. The result was an amazing experience for the audience who gave a standing ovation after the performance. Many in the audience commented that they had never heard anything like this before in this region. 

There were multiple other events like Rhythms of the World, Doctors in Recital, India Association of North-East Wisconsin, and Bengali Cultural Society of Milwaukee. IndUS of Fox Valley also organized events in which I have collaborated with vocalist Dr. Dilip Tannan, flute player of Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra, Penny Wilson, clarinet of Dr. Bruce Danz, and other musicians.

IC: You come from a music-loving family. Tell us about your earliest musical influences and teachers.

SS: I was born into a music-loving Bengali family in the suburbs of Kolkata. My family was into the Indian classical genre. My uncle was a tabla player and a vocalist. He spent years studying and analyzing Indian classical music in depth, which made him a great music critic. He and my father were both engaged in organizing various concerts in the region with legendary artists. I attended these concerts from an early age and was influenced by Indian classical music, with the tabla being my favorite. I received formal training from my guru late Pandit Sukumar Moitra for 12 years.  During my childhood, I won many tabla competitions, including one conducted by the  West Bengal State Music Academy in 1998, and the Nehru Talent Search Contest in 1999.

IC: How do you balance your music with your as a software engineer?

SS:  I hardly focused on my studies until after my 10th-grade board examinations. Most of my time until then was spent either playing the tabla or listening to it. In my 11th grade, I started getting attracted towards mathematics, and it soon became my favorite subject. I realized how the mathematics world relates to the rhythmic world. For me tabla and math became inseparable. I studied engineering at Jadavpur University in Kolkata and moved to the U.S. for work in 2012. I continued my music through my performances and workshops. My music energizes me. 

IC: What are you working on next?

SS: I am currently coaching the percussion team to play tabla at the Fox Valley Sinfonia concert in early June. This year’s theme is an exciting one – Sinfonia Travels the World – and we will represent Indian music. I will work on another collaboration with the Western Choirs at the Green Lake Festival of Music in Ripon, WI. Reena Esmail will be the composer in residence at the event and I will be the featured tabla artist.

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She has worked for over a decade in print, television, and online media. Her diverse interests in the culture beat include books, music, travel, films,...