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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

The Ashavari Music Festival will take place over the Memorial Day Weekend, May 25-27, in honor of Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri’s 75th Birthday. The Festival is an epic Indian classical event featuring some of the greatest legends and rising stars, including Ustad Zakir Hussain, Kaushiki Chakraborty, Alam Khan, Mahesh Kale, and Rajendra Gangani.

Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri is a legendary tabla player whose purity and depth of music had greatly impacted the art form. He has helped preserve the legacy of the great Maestro Ali Akbar Khan and is a central part of the Ali Akbar College of Music. A great supporter of the legacy of Pandit Chitresh Das, Pandit Chaudhury has trained thousands of students, many of whom have gone on to be professional tabla players and teachers throughout the world.

In an exclusive interview with India Currents. Pandit Swapan Chaudhury spoke to Anuj Chakrapani about his contribution to music and the upcoming celebration.

The picture sows a famous tabla player Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri
Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri (image courtesy: Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri )

Anuj Chakrapani: Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri-ji … thanks for speaking to us on the eve of your 75th birthday and the celebration of your contribution to music.

Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri: Thank you for speaking to me.

AC: Pandit-ji, you were born in India, learned tabla from an early age, and gained your Master’s degrees in Economics there. When did you move to the US and how was the experience for you?

PSC: It was Maestro Ali Akbar Khan who invited me to join his college (Ali Akbar College Of Music) at San Rafael, California in 1981. The first few months were difficult, because it took me some time to get used to the system and also the social environment. But everybody was very supportive, helpful, and nice to me.

AC: Indian classical music may not have been a thriving space when you moved here to the US. What were the challenges and how did you overcome them?

PSC: It was a difficult time. My love and interest in Indian music were just starting to grow. Lots of students were studying Indian Music at the Ali Akbar College of Music, and it was a big challenge for me. But I got inspired by Maestro Khan, and also Pandit Ravi Shankar’s teaching and their performances. So slowly I overcame all the challenges. Also, my Guru Acharya Santosh Krishna Biswas back in Kolkata helped me a lot. I used to call him regularly and seek his blessings.

I got the opportunity to accompany both of them. But I did not change my style of teaching, like the way I used to teach in India. So the students over here adopted that style. 

AC: You are famous for your compositions for marimba and those that include vocal taranas. Can you tell us what were the challenges for you in this unique exploration?

PSC: When I was a little kid, I also studied Indian Classical vocal music. I love vocal music. Tarana always fascinated me from childhood. So when I joined the California Institute of Performing Arts (CalArts) in Los Angeles to teach tabla in 1991, I was asked to compose some music for our World Music Festival. I composed two Marimba pieces, along with other percussion instruments. Everybody enjoyed it very much. Students of CalArts still play my compositions. The most difficult part was to transcribe it into Western notation. I got some help on that front, and the result was very satisfying.

AC: Could you tell us what drew you to Maestro Ali Akbar-ji, his musical legacy, and his college of music?

PSC: Maestro Khan knew me since when I was a 10-year-old. In 1955, Khan-saheb settled in Kolkata from Mumbai. It happened to be in my neighborhood, and I used to practice music with his kids. So, Khan-saheb always looked at me like his kid. In fact, my first major concert where I played with him was in Kolkata in 1969, which changed my whole career. I was very fortunate to get that opportunity. I learned a lot from him. To me, he is like my father, my mentor, my friend, my Guru. That was the reason when I joined his college, I told him I will never leave him, and I am still teaching there.

AC: Most artists settle to teach music privately or through their own schools. In addition to teaching Tabla through Ali Akbar College of Music, you have also held Director/chairperson positions at highly acclaimed art institutions. Could you tell us what inspired you to do that?

PSC: You know, I never thought that I would have my own school. Khan-saheb was like my father. He lovingly asked me to join his school and I did. It is our Indian culture; you obey your father. Yes, I could have had my own school, but I never did that. I wanted to be close to him. I have no regrets. Then, when I joined CalArts in 1991, it was Khan-saheb who asked me to join that great institution. I am very happy to be a faculty member at CalArts. I was the ex-Chairperson of the World Music Program. I am still teaching there.

AC: You are one of the few people living outside of India to have been awarded the Padma Shri. Could you describe your feelings when you heard the news?

PSC: Yes I am happy to receive the Padma Shri award and this year 2023, the Sangit Natak Academy fellow award and Doctor of Letters from Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata. In my opinion, the best award for a musician is his or her audience. If I get the love and respect from my audience that will be my best award.

AC: In your opinion, can you tell us your most fulfilling achievement (i) as a musician, and (ii) as a patron/teacher?

PSC: In my opinion, I am still a student and want to be a student, so I can learn more. It will be my audience and students, who will judge whether I am a good musician and a teacher.

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Anuj Chakrapani

Anuj Chakrapani loves music and cinema among all art forms. He believes their beauty lies in their interpretation, and that the parts is more than the sum. Anuj lives in the SF Bay Area and works for a...