Purbayan Chatterjee is considered one of the finest sitar players of his generation. One of the last disciples of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, he was the recipient of the President of India Award for best instrumentalist of the country at age 15. Purbayan has gone on to transcend the Indian classical audience and performed in world music festivals and created a fan base among the younger generation. On his return to the Bengal Classical Music Festival after a three-year hiatus, he spoke to The Daily Star about his musical ideology, the sitar as an instrument, and more.
You have collaborated with musicians of various genres and styles from around the world. Through that, is there something you have found about your musicality that you think maybe those who exclusively perform classical may not have found?
Purbayan: When I musically interact with someone of a different genre, I learn to have a conversation with him through music. It’s like teaching children how to interact. Little children who stay at home and don’t mingle with other kids, grow up to be loner and stubborn. They say kids who sit at home on the internet all day develop behavioral problems. The tendency to be stuck in your own little bubble is dangerous. Music is about living in the moment: How beautiful is this moment and how can I make it more special? Forget what happened in the previous moment, and don’t think about the upcoming. And for that you need an open mind. If you have the habit of interacting with other musicians, you form a connection instantly. Someone is playing a chord, and you know what phrase will sound good with it. You hear a rhythm and you think what you can play on that. And at this age of the internet, you can’t help it.
I have often felt that in the West, sitar is probably more closely associated with Indian Classical music than other instruments. You have performed at music festivals all over the world; do you think there’s something to it?
Purbayan: Sitar is kind of iconic. Whenever people think of Indian classical music, they picture a sitar and tabla. Maybe it’s because of the efforts of Pandit Ravi Shankar. Somehow, sitar captured the imagination of the people. But nowadays the flute, santoor are becoming more popular; people are playing the slide guitar. Sitar is also a very versatile instrument. It has a certain Indian-ness to it … it gives that ethnic flavor and vibe.
You have also innovated with your instrument and sound at times. You designed something called a Dwo. Tell us about that.
Purbayan: I do that sometimes. I made the Dwo a while back; it was essentially putting the neck of a sitar on an electric guitar. I recently made a new one. I was thinking of adding a visual element; so I designed a transparent sitar that has lights inside. Sometimes in live shows, say at a dramatic moment, all the lights will go out with only the sitar illuminated with the light. It adds a theatrical element. All this is for fun.
Many people don’t know this, but you are also a gifted vocalist. Do you miss singing?
(Tabla player Anubbrata Chatterjee, sitting next to Purbayan, quips “If he starts singing, other vocalists’ shows will decline).
Purbayan: I do it only sporadically. Maybe at a classical show I’d sing two lines of a bandish; I like to indulge myself. But many great vocalists are out there; that’s their art. Sometimes in my fusion projects I sing a little.
You can listen to the entire interview here: