The Sitar and the life
Dr Chandrakant Sardeshmukh, disciple of Pandit Ravishankar and Annapurnadevi, tells Chuck Wesley how he grew up with the sitar
It was really a blessing to be able to get in touch with Dr Chandrakant Sardeshmukh for this interview. The way he handled an interview request from a person he has never met before speaks volumes about his personality. This interview serves as a further example of his passion and love for the sitar and music in general.
How did you learn to play the sitar?
At the age of four. Let me tell you the whole story. I started playing at the age of four, which is too early an age to play a difficult instrument like the sitar. But my father was a spiritual person and a visionary. He wanted to bring up that ability in me. Hence he created a musical atmosphere in our house by initiating my elder brothers and sister to take music lessons. I used to accompany them. When I came home, I used to practice the tunes on the tanpura, an instrument providing a drone tone for singing, by plucking it and stretching it. My father keenly observed this. Then once I plucked so strongly that the strings came off, and I still went on plucking the string by taking the tuner hook of the string in one hand and plucking with the other hand. This was also seen by an elderly person, one of my father's followers who was a sitar maker. He then made a small 1.5 feet tiny sitar for me to be able to pluck with strength. He taught me my first do-re-mi on sitar. We still have the sitar. I still write his name as my first guru, Ustad Shabuddin Khan, second is Ustad Khurshid Mirajkar, third is Pandit Ravi Shankar and fourth is his then wife Annapurnadevi in his absence.
How long did it take before you started feeling very comfortable with the sitar?
As I mentioned before, I started at the age of four, and before knowing anything I was playing the sitar, so needless to say I was immediately comfortable, I had no difficulty in sitting, or placing hands, and since that age my body has adapted to the sitting position. For a beginner, normally it solely depends on the students' capacity of grasping and their dedication for practice.
Did you ever feel like giving up?
I have overcome many moments of grief as a youth when I started my struggle in the world of great maestros. To tell you the truth, I was very famous as a 'wonder boy' in my childhood. My schedule was full and tight. Dignitaries and eminent personalities from all over India and even abroad came to see me playing in my childhood. I never realized who they were, because my role was only to follow my father. When he called me and said 'play the sitar' I used to play. Then after I finished, the sitar was packed and I would leave the place to play marbles with my friends. In fact this is the way Pandit Ravi Shankar first heard me in 1963. He contacted one very senior singer, Hirabai Badodekar, and asked to arrange my recital in her residence especially for him. Then when he heard me he expressed a desire to accept me as a disciple. He then gave a certificate mentioning that 'this child prodigy will become a great Sitaria by grace of God'. He had a big show the same night in my city Pune. I was accompanying him on stage as his disciple that very night. Later in his house in Bombay, there was a formal traditional 'thread ceremony' tying him and me with the same knot of Ustad Allaudin Baba gharana. With his certificate and his acceptance my popularity increased. I never had any trouble during childhood. It was praise all the way. The difficult part followed later. The artistic career struggle was in my youth after I completed 14 years of continuous training with him and his then wife Annapurnadevi, who is the daughter of Ustad Allaudin Baba and sister of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. But by grace of god and my gurus, I am still performing, I have created my own audience and I am now sure to go on playing for the rest of my life with no thoughts of giving it up.
What sitar players did you look up to when you starting playing?
Naturally my gurus, as we call in the Indian tradition. This means that my first role models in the performing of sitar were Pandit Ravi Shankar and his wife and great artist Annapurnadevi. I have always attempted to pick up the best from both and give it to my audience.
Do most players need the help of a guru to become fluid on the sitar or can they teach themselves?
According to Indian culture and tradition, there is no real knowledge without a guru. Guru means one who shows the direction, and teaches how to walk on the path of knowledge. His or her words out of long experience are valuable to a student and easier to grasp than any book or other means of learning.
What different kinds of artists have you collaborated with and what has been the result of these collaborations?
For an artist there are no boundaries of any nation, because music is a universal language. When I grew up and started my professional career in Indian music in India in 1976, I found that my guru, Pandit Ravi Shankar, had taken the sitar to the West and popularized Indian music and culture there. Australia and Japan were the two countries I noticed with a lack of popularity of Indian music and culture. Hence when I had an opportunity to visit these two countries in the '90s, I decided to put all my musical ability and talent into making Indian music and culture popular in these two countries. Consequently, I have collaborated with artists in these two countries. I gave a show with Japanese drums in Nagano in 1997. In the millennium year I have jointly performed with Japanese drums (taiko), shakuhachi (flute), koto and shamisen (string instruments) and given several concerts nationwide. All the concerts were highly successful. In Australia I have performed with Australian artists on the guitar, saxophone, didjreedoo (wind instrument) and the violin. These concerts were with all my original compositions. They were loved by the people in Australia when we toured. Some of these compositions are already there on the site www.mp3.com/darshanam. In all, the Japanese and Australian joint concerts were highly appreciated by audience, critics and fans alike.
What new sitar players are coming up that we should watch out for?
Actually in India now many young people are interested in picking up the sitar as a profession. Especially as there is currently a tradition of second-generation sitar players from music families. They are looking for more exposure and promotion. I can give some examples such as Purbayan Chatterjee, Subrata De, Prateek Chaudhary (son of Debu Chaudhari, sitar player), Neeladri Kumar (son of Kartik Kumar, sitar player), son of Budhaditya Mukherjee (sitar player) and of course Anoushka Shankar (daughter of Ravi Shankar). These are some upcoming names but there are several more equal to them.
How do you feel about the influence the sitar has had on popular western music?
I think it is very good that a traditional instrument has influenced popular Western music, because due to sitar many Western people have realized the difference between Eastern and Western instrument structures. This has bridged the gap between two cultures. If I may, I better call the sitar India's cultural ambassador!
Has this influence been good for eastern music?
Yes, of course, because the taste of the new generation is developed and creativity of great composers is challenged. Indian culture is very flexible and has accepted and adopted the best of the world. In India, in the late '50s, we accepted Western music and great composers have experimented with various compositions. In fact I feel that in Western countries the sitar is not used very much in orchestration. It is popularly known for individual performance. Whereas in India, India's famous composers in the film industry have used the sitar along with the Western instruments in orchestras and they have given some golden hit songs which have been popular for all ages since the '50s. I wish Western composers would use the sitar in the same way or do some collaborations to that effect.
What does music mean to you?
Music is my breath and my life. I am always in the world of music. I hear the music of nature, of things around me, and I feel music specific to a person when I see somebody. In fact that is how I am able to do healing sessions using music for many people in Japan and Australia. I am going to experiment with this on the disabled and the handicapped to give them happiness. I love the sound of the sitar, and since I have been playing it continuously for so many years, plucking the sitar is very natural, enjoyable and effortless for me. It is my childhood toy. I forget the world when I get a sitar in my hand.
(The interviewer is a senior at SUNY at Fredonia, in New York where he majors in English with a minor in Music. In his free time, he enjoys creating music with friends. He is an instrumentalist in guitar, bass, piano, drum kit and djembe. He is also program director for Project Mayhem, a local radio show with a radical political/modern rock format)
Visit Dr Sardeshpande's website
Published on 18 November 2002
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