One of India’s foremost classical musicians, Rajeev Taranath is a master of the sarod. His career spanning over four decades, has drawn accolades from critics and audiences throughout the world.

A distinguished disciple of the late legendary maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, he also received guidance from the great sitarists Ravi Shankar and Shrimati Annapurna Devi . Rajeev Taranath is the recipient of many honors including India’s highest government award in the arts, the esteemed Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 2000.  He has received critical acclaim for his deep introspective style that melds imagination and emotional range combined with technical skill, and a highly disciplined approach to the development of a raga. “Rajeev Taranath’s sarod improvisations mixed the spiritual and the spirited…the raga began with introspective meditation and proceeded into an exuberant rhythmic celebration.” said critic Edward Rothstein of The New York Times   A noted linguist, he speaks eight languages fluently. From 1995 to 2005, Taranath served on the music faculty of the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles. Currently living in Mysore, India, Rajeev Taranath travels worldwide teaching and performing.  Given below is an interview with this esteemed musician. 

Did you grow up in a musical family?

My father was deeply interested in music. He used to sing and play the tabla. Although he was not a professional musician, I grew up with a lot of music around me. He started teaching me very easy songs. When I was around 3 years old, he made me listen to a lot of classical and vocal records and performances. I soon started singing and gave my first public performance at 10.

So, how did you leave singing for the sarod?

The most vivid moment in music I remember is the first experience of hearing Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, it was electrifying. I was and am a great admirer of Ravi Shankar’s music, so I used to attend every performance of his when he came to Bangalore, the city in which I lived. That particular time, he came with Ali Akbar Khan, who said that he would play the sarod along with him. Before that, I had heard very little of the sarod being played and definitely I had not heard Ali Akbar Khan play. It was a life-changing experience when he played his first movement on the sarod. That was my moment of epiphany, a moment of total grace.  As I was listening, my life changed. Music moved to the centre of the universe.  I was hooked and never looked back.

 Can you explain why it spoke to you so much?

Well, you know, it’s like falling in love. How can you explain it?

So, one performance changed your life?

My life changed direction after that point. After I heard Ustad Ali Akbar Khan for the first time, it was a year and a half or more before I got introduced to him. I was just past 20 when I went to him and he soon accepted me as a disciple.

Please describe the training.

It was daily, sometimes twice a day, but then there would be periods with no lessons for a month or more, because he would be away, performing. By the time I went to him, the demand for his public performances was very high. I started practicing one hour, two hours. Then, for some time, it went on for up to 12 hours a day.

How do you work when you’re practicing music for 12 hours a day?

At that point, I was a beggar. I couldn’t find a job, but there was a benefactor Mr. P.K. Das of Kolkata. This man had nothing to do with music, but he gave me a room, and not very much later, he and his wife insisted I should have my meals with them. I had some sort of job afterward to keep me going, but they took care of me for six more years. That gave me an opportunity for which I am profoundly grateful, to practice many, many hours a day.

You had a very successful career as a vocalist when you were young. You were even described as a child prodigy. I have heard that you were and are profoundly moved when listening to the great vocalist Abdul Karim Khan. Why did you decide to switch to sarod? Many people say that the voice is the ultimate instrument for Indian music.

There is no doubt that vocals are at the center of our music. But Ali Akbar Khan is for me the paradigmatic example of excellence. I would say that in his sarod playing there is a kind of vocalism. He has a flexibility and versatility to his imagination, all of which have vocal sources. It’s not that he actually plays vocal bandishes. There are sarod players that do that, but he is not one of them. Vocalism is for him an abstract, silent, but immediate storehouse for the movements of the raga. It’s the thing that makes a raga more than a scale. I can almost say that given two very good instrumentalists, the person who is the better vocalist—in this special metaphorical sense—is the one whose music will have more “juice.” He might not be the fastest, but that’s because he would have no need to be the fastest.

Has Hindustani music changed over the years?

To answer that question, I think it’s helpful to compare music to both language and physics. If you compare the English of Shakespeare’s time to modern English, you can see that it’s essentially the same. There are noticeable differences, but we can still understand Shakespeare. The physics of Shakespeare’s time, however, has been completely replaced by modern science. Throughout the history of Hindustani music, there’s been the same kind of growth and change that you can see in a language. But you don’t have the new completely replacing the old, as is the norm with scientific progress. For example, Ali Akbar Khan made profound changes in the sarod. Before him, the instrument sounded quick and staccato, with lots of trills. Khansahib still uses those trills, but his innovative playing gives the instrument a new profundity and depth.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in playing Hindustani music?

First, of course, you must practice and study diligently. If you do that, you will become either a competent or an incompetent player, and you will get to know which very soon. But once you have crossed the bar of competence, in about three or four years, what do you do then? You know how to play the raga correctly, but then what? At that point, playing the raga is rather like spreading butter on bread. You’ve got to see how well you can spread it, and how widely you can spread it. You must push at the frontiers of the raga, and yet see that it doesn’t break. If the raga breaks, you are in a kind of melodic anonymity, which ultimately breaks you as a musician.

Have you managed to stretch the borders of any of the ragas you play?

I try. When I play Patdeep, it’s difficult to make it long. You can feel very comfortable playing Yaman long, because
it’s quite spacious and flexible. So is Bhairavi. But Patdeep is very brittle, and can’t be stretched easily. The rules for Patdeep are very strict, which is why it makes such an immediate effect. Once you’ve heard the identifying phrases, you know exactly what it is. But that’s a double-edged sword, because the audience is immediately “Patdeeped,” and it seems to be near closing time right away. Then you’re left with the challenge of where to go from there. For Patdeep, I try to unfold the scale of the raga a little bit at a time, so you can hear every nuance. You have to hold the raga back, stop it from exploding through you. That enables me to stay inside the raga, and not let the raga go, even when I’m playing for a long period of time.


Last month I did a concert in which I played Patdeep for the alap-jor-jhala, and then switched to Madhuvanti for the gat. Madhuvanti has almost the same notes as Patdeep, and many of the same note arrangements. But Madhuvanti has tivra ma (raised fourth) and Patdeep doesn’t. Even though the notes are similar, the mood is very different, and these differences have to be kept. I wanted to create a natural change in mood, while still maintaining a sense of unity in the performance.

When you play two ragas together, how do you decide which ragas to combine?

There’s a kind of dialectic involved between a technical closeness, and yet the need and challenge to keep the moods different while playing in very similar scales. There are also other factors not as capable of tidy articulation. You might combine a raga that has a certain kind of gravitas with something that is not quite so serious—moods that are contrasting, yet still very close.

Can you speak about your approach to developing a raga throughout the many years of riyaz?  

There’s a kind of patience that you learn to take with you to the raga. If you’re patient, the raga will speak to you eventually.

Can you discuss the ideas you have regarding teaching Indian classical music?

 When it comes to teaching of music, there is a trio – a teacher, a learner and an instrument. The teacher demonstrates how he has put the instrument to use and what he has been able to achieve. The attempt here is a give and take of such experience. This exploration of possibilities, initially in the form of bits and pieces, as alankaras or tabla bols or whatever, later on turns into an exercise in bringing together these little experiences to construct a creative whole. Further on, it is a kind of invitation to the learner to live with the teacher in the common world of music and in this journey together, the learner may even reach beyond. Each one’s style of playing is guided by one’s own possibilities, difficulties and impossibilities.

What is special about your gharana?

Unlike other gharanas which for many years remained closed-door, teaching freely with openness is a major preoccupation with the Maihar. Allauddin Khan, the Paramahamsa-like saint-musician took to vigorous teaching. This can perhaps be traced to the difficulty he encountered in learning and the fact that Allauddin was compelled to choose the sarod in a veena-dominated tradition which confined its veena–teaching to its kin alone. But his ingenuity incorporated the possibilities of veena into the sarod, remodelling it for the purpose. Several nuances of the veena came into sarod-baaj and later years saw the promotion of sitar, sur-bahar and sur-singar.

The Maihar-Senia gharana, which traces its lineage to Tansen in the 16th century, was one of the few schools that taught women music and we find historically the presence of many distinguished women instrumental performers within it from Saraswati, Tansen’s daughter, to Annapurna Devi, the daughter of the legendary Allauddin Khan.

In the context of our guru-sishya parampara and the oral/aural tradition, you once mentioned the ‘mediation of the eye’ in western classical music. Don’t you think a guru’s role is equally vital there in guiding….?

Mediation of the eye is important in Western classical music because of the reliance on the system of notation. The journey is from note to note but nothing as much may happens between the gaps. It is in the movement between notes that one’s culture operates. Mimesis is the basis of our music-teaching. Our music fills up with meends, gamaks, bols and these cannot be written down. We clutch the guru’s imagination, his mind that is so private. A guru gives good active seeds… but can one teach creativity?’ The artist or maestro, as T.S. Eliot says, lives at a conscious point where past and future are gathered. He has all the richness of the past, waiting to pass it on to the future, for his students to gather it all.  So I try to teach, but a problem which I have repeatedly faced is this: I can transfer musical information but I don’t know yet, how to transfer the sense of relish. This is important in the kind of music we play and teach because the given is so tenuous.    

Can you explain the artist’s process or desire for mastery?

To make better music– there is a desire, which is a life-long process- to create a match – to bring the thought and performance nearer and nearer.  Actually it is the desire to translate what is happening in your mind into your fingers – even without that gap. The finger itself becomes imagination.  But curiously the more you master, the more your imagination becomes active. Because what strikes you or me is seriously limited by what we can execute in singing or playing.  And as that capacity improves, your imagination improves. The more you go toward mastery the more you see, the more you climb, the more you see. So there is no end to that – they feed on each other.  Because you see, you want to climb more. Because you climb more you see much more. And so it goes on.  And that act itself is a matter of very profound satisfaction – a  fullness, which I suppose is why you are really after this exploration of mastery.   In music it is more obvious perhaps, but it is there in everything.

In the education of a performing art, there is the finding of greater and greater satisfaction in the possession of the knowledge you are seeking. The same art can be treated as a discipline or can be treated more casually, mechanically as a subject.  When music becomes a discipline, that’s your life, when music is a minor subject, it’s very different.  If anything becomes a discipline, you seek a fuller kind of satisfaction.  Simply being well- trained in something is not enough.  Often many are well-trained for a purpose which quite often lies outside the central subject.  Their own interests are elsewhere.    When something becomes a discipline, that becomes a center of interest.  If it isn’t, it shows.  And in some artists it becomes obsessive.  And when it isn’t obsessive or the central interest you can make out at some stage.  

How would you describe mastery in this art form?

If given more time, I will go more and more toward radiant simplicities. Those simplicities are the product of a lifetime. Any durable experience has to arrive into a state of simplicity. Courtship is complex, a durable marriage is simple.

This article was compiled from several interviews by Leslie Schneider and is reprinted with permission from the Canadian South Asian magazine, “AAJ” (Oct 2016).   

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