Tied to His Strings

Page 1 of 1
As he turns 75, sitar player Pandit Debu Chaudhuri traces the evolution of his music.

Ace Indian sitarist and Padma Bhushan awardee Pandit Debu Chaudhuri clocked his 75th birthday last week. More than being the greatest exponent of the Senia Gharana, the Pandit stands tall as an academic, a broadcaster, an author, a teacher and a musical ambassador from India. A guru-shishya parampara follower, Panditji recalls his life with his late guru, Ustad Mushtaque Ali Khan, the struggles of his early musical career, and how a deep sorrow led to the maturing of his music. Excerpts:


“Learning under Ustad Mushtaque Ali Khan was an insurmountable task. When I joined him, he wanted to test my genuineness. So he asked me to play the sargam notes for six months, and I did. He asked me to play a single raga for a complete year, and I did that too. A strict and stubborn guru, he never smiled. He expected us to maintain the purity of raga and never use a note that was detrimental to a particular raga. I still follow this golden rule. As a musician, guruji could play the surbahar with three plectrums instead of just one.”

“After rigorous training, in 1953, I accompanied guruji to Delhi, where he was performing at the first All India Radio National Programme. Guruji played the raga puriya. Afterwards, he requested the station authorities to take a recording of mine, and that was my first AIR concert, for a remuneration of Rs 25!”

“In fact, 1953 was a glorious year otherwise too. I won the first prize at the Inter-University All-India Festival of Music, a great recognition. I had played the raga patdeep and still recall music critic Prakesh Wadhera’s one-liner: ‘Listening to him, it appears he has not wasted his days’, acknowledging that I had practised for the performance.”


“However, it was difficult for newcomers like me to penetrate the performance set-up. I was frustrated no doubt, but had the tenacity and a burning desire to prove myself. From Calcutta, I headed to Delhi, chasing a newspaper clipping advertising a lecturer’s job at Delhi University. At the interview, the then Vice-Chancellor, Dr VKRV Rao, asked why I had left cultural Calcutta for ‘dry’ Delhi. My reply was that I was trying to escape ‘politics’ in music. Rao’s prompt repartee was that I had landed in the hotbed of politics.”

“The lecturer’s job brought in a salary of Rs 200. Shared accommodation and food from a catering service cost me Rs 95. The very sickly fare of rotten fish fried crisp invariably made me sick. It was the radio that came to my rescue, as programmes brought in additional income.”


“The first-ever lecture demonstration offer from the US came as a silver lining. In those days, American universities had concerts and lectures as part of their student activities. Concert tours followed, and in Paris, my most memorable performance was the maiden one, when people came up to say that my music had charged them emotionally. In Sweden, I was to witness a near-miracle when a man with a stiff neck removed his collar and turned his neck around before hundreds of spectators in the audience. Even more enduring was my trip to Trinidad. They liked my folk number so much that Trinidad Radio made it their signature tune for 20 years.”


“As concert schedules grew, I set aside thoughts of marriage. In the faculty where I taught, the first girls’ group arrived and among them was Manju, who later became my wife. A sudden attack of herpes hastened things. Manju’s parents looked after me, an attachment took root and when my mother came to know, she dispatched my brother to finalise the marriage. On the wedding day, to my surprise, I found classical vocalist Ustad Amir Khan standing at the gate. He prompted me, the dumbfounded groom, into following all the rituals. Later, Manju was detected with cancer. This setback has made my music more mature. It is like entering the depths of the ocean. So long was I on the shoreline of my music; I could jump, talk and frolic. Now, the music is unfathomable.”