The list of great Indian musicians who have made their home in the San Fran-cisco Bay Area is long and impressive. There is, however, one more name that belongs on that list which is rarely mentioned. Sisirkana Dhar Chowdhury is admired as a musician and scholar by those who are familiar with her work. She is emeritus dean of music at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata. Her writings on the life and music of Allaudin Khan are cited by musicologists all over the world. And she has received India’s prestigious Sangeet Natak Academy award for her contribution to the field of Hindustani classical violin. But her renown does not come remotely close to matching her amazing gifts and accomplishments. When I do Web research on an Indian classical musician, I always find hundreds, and usually thousands, of Web pages. For Dhar Chowdhury, I found 18 pages.
Although she has performed frequently on All India Radio and on television, her recent concerts have been relatively few, and mostly in the Bay Area. These concerts, which I never miss unless I am absolutely forced to honor some other commitment, have been among the most memorable musical experiences in my life. But my attempts to interview her have been cut short by her insistence that she has more important things to do than promote herself. The bulk of her time is spent teaching at the Ali Akbar College of Music (where she lives with yogic simplicity in a room adjoining the main teaching area), and preserving and transcribing the Allaudin Khan Archives. This is important work that she does extremely well. Her students speak enthusiastically of the challenging exercises she designs for them, and the patient and careful attention she gives to each student.
And her knowledge of Allaudin Khan’s music certainly ensures that whatever transcriptions she makes will be accurate. But these faithful hours of teaching and study have given birth to another great blessing within her, whose loss would be every bit as tragic as the loss of an Allaudin Khan manuscript. For she is one of the greatest Hindustani violinists I have ever heard, but there is not a single recording of her music commercially available anywhere.
With some reluctance, I inserted the phrase “one of” to that last sentence in my final draft. I did this partly to avoid brickbats from the fans of other violinists, and partly because such ranking really is meaningless when applied to artists of a certain level of excellence. As the great American guitarist Danny Gatton once said: “When you get to the top of the tree, there are a lot of leaves up there.” But sometimes we word-valas resort to comparing and contrasting in an attempt to enhance informed appreciation. So if I were brash enough to give top rank to the violinist who is my personal favorite, these are the arguments I would give in defense of that claim.
The two other obvious contenders for the top rank in Hindustani violin are V.G. Jog and N. Rajam. Jog was Dhar Chowdhury’s teacher, and because she was a careful student, she has mastered essentially every nuance of his style. Both student and teacher play carefully fingered fast passages of great melodic complexity, artfully ornamented with tight vibrato-like sruti. N. Rajam, whose father and brother are great Karnatik violinists, has adapted the wide vocal slides and gamaka from Karnatik violin and vocals, giving her a sound that slides more often than it steps. Dhar Chowdhury has also mastered these techniques, and by combining both styles has extended Hindustani violin into a host of new directions. And this brief comparison only begins to describe the influences she has combined and the innovations she has made.
She plays both violin and viola, and has added a fifth melody string, and several resonating strings, to each. In concert she often plays the alap on the viola, then switches to the violin to play the gat and variations on a different but closely related raga. And as she develops a raga, she evokes every rasa that the raga is capable of expressing.
Every musical tradition that has adopted the violin has developed a different standard for how the instrument is “supposed” to sound: the even steady tone of European classical music, the wide slippery vibrato of French gypsy violin, the wheezy sawing sound of Cajun and “old timey” fiddle. Dhar Chaudhauri has found a place for every one of these tone colors in her aesthetic universe, and plays them off against each other to create a profound musical experience.
Her opening alaps have a sweet lyrical tone, which unfolds slowly and patiently, without any concessions to commercialism. But once the appropriate statements have been made in this mood, an edge starts to creep into her playing as her formidable technique begins to assert itself in the fast passages and complex rhythms. She often switches bows in the middle of a raga to enhance this feeling of growing intensity. Her phenomenal use of dynamics creates a sense of Romantic grandeur reminiscent of Beethoven or Paganini, particularly as she shifts into the dramatic climax of the jhala.
As her bow flies wildly across the strings, and strands of her carefully tied-back hair tumble into her face, she seems paradoxically like some sort of Dionysian librarian, pouring a lifetime of study and servitude into a single perfect moment.
Admittedly, those of us who can only appreciate such moments have no real business giving advice to those who can create them. Perhaps her humility is an essential part of her greatness. But it would be a great tragedy if this humility caused this music to live on only in the memories of the few of us who have been fortunate enough to hear it in live concerts.
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.