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President's Message and Mission Statement

From Michael Robbins:

The Sarodya Society was formed as a non-profit to help promote and aid the cause of North Indian Classical Music.

Why should an art, that many people regard as one of the highest artistic achievements in the history of humanity, need any help at all? First of all, in today's marketplace all forms of art compete against one another for survival. Forms that have popular appeal naturally have a great advantage. The Classical Music of North India requires that the listeners be knowledgeable. They must have studied the ragas so that they may follow the notes and patterns displayed by the artist in order to understand what is being done. And knowledgeability, in its traditional form, cannot be gained in the library.

Western classical music can be studied and learned through books and recordings gleaned from the library. And you don't need to practice the art of music to hear and appreciate the sometimes amorphic mysticism of Furtwangler's Beethoven as different from Toscanini's orderly rhythmic precision etc. And western classical music is taught in schools (both as performance art and for "appreciation"). Additionally, it is subsidized both privately and by the government.

The Classical Music of North India cannot be learned from books, CD's or the library. India has used the oral tradition of literature to preserve its highest achievements. That means, in order to learn and understand the music, even if only to listen properly - and certainly to try to do it, requires going to someone knowledgeable and persuading that person to teach it. Most knowledgeable people are not very interested in teaching strangers.

Incidentally, knowledge is acquired through two simultaneous methods. Talim (literally, lesson), the teaching, is given by the master. Riaz is the practice of the talim that is done by the student. Learning is created by the reception of good talim balanced by rigorous riaz. One or the other alone will not work.

The music was created through musical lineages called gharana's (Hindi- ghar =house). Traditionally, the family members of the gharanas were not much interested in giving good talim to outsiders. Gharana menbers were supported through the patronage of wealthy afficionados. After partition (the separating of India into India and Pakistan at the time of independance from Great Britain), patronage began to dry up and the musicians had to turn to the unknowledgeable public to earn a living. Because this public, ordinary Indian people, was more or less excluded from even listening to classical music (wealthy patrons had provided concerts for themselves), most Indians as well as westerners were, and still are, not knowledgeable. This situation provides a dilemma for the musician. Should the music be given in its pure form, or should some adjustment be made in order to cater to the tastes of those unfamiliar with the classical forms?

After partition the role of the tabla began to change. What had been rhythmic assistance given to the vocalist or instrumentalist became more of a partnership, a sharing of musical time, and it was a great boost to the tabla player. Purely speaking, the music suffered. but the audiance, now not so knowledgeable, was drawn in by the dramatic exposition of percussion. It is easier for the novice listener to grasp percussion excellence than the esoteric changes of melodic importance that distinguish one raga from another.

In today's life, some musicians have further upset the classical applecart opting for some popularity rather than classical purity. One gentleman, a leading sitarist who is excellent at high level classical sitar has been touring with young ladies singing chants (Gregorian?) behind his sitaring. Underscoring the range of thought about such a spectacle. I recieved two phone calls about his performance. One came to me from an outstanding classical sarodist who lamented the "deplorable exhibition and the rueful circumstances" that led the sitarist to indulge the unknowledgeable listener. The other call was from a nonmusical friend who owns an art gallery. He described a wonderful new art form he found desirable. My point is, there is no reason to diminish the wonderful achievements forged by geniuses of the past only because musicians must put bread on the table for their families.

The Sarodya Society can be a vehicle to provide sustainance to rising classical masters by inviting them to perform here and helping to bring them here. Also, students here can recieve scholarships to ease the financial burden of tuition and the time consumption of long hours of riaz, And we will have recordings of masters who are unknown here because they are not part of the great media machine.

My own place in all this has been steered by the great good fortune gifted to me in India. I went there to continue my studies of tabla under the dynamic Calcutta master, Kanai Dutta. After some time I became acquainted with the legendary sarodya, Pundit Radhika Mohan Maitra (we called him Radhu Babu). He took me as a sarod disciple and unstintingly gave me great talim and became my musical progenitor.

He advised that I leave Kanai Dutta and his disciple Timir Baran Gupta (not to be mistaken with sarodiya Timir Baran Bhattacharyya), from whom I had been taking talim, and join up with Kanai Dutta's teacher, the legendary Pundit Jnan Prakash Ghosh (Jnan Babu), who was Radhu Babu's best friend. Jnan Babu was a genius in many areas, but he had no rival at all as a teacher of tabla. Nobody in the history of tabla has taught more great and top notch disciples than Jnan Babu. To name just a few of his disciples is to observe a pantheon of great late 20th century tabaliyas --- Kanai Dutta, Shankar Ghosh, Nikhil Ghosh, Shyamal Bose, Govinda Bosu, Anindo Chatterjee, Sanjoy Mukherjee, Debashis Sarkar, Bikram Ghosh, etc.etc.

His disciples have become great gurus and one reason is Jnan Babus incredible attention to the minute details of technique. To Jnan Babu, the fingering system was the basis for producing the wizardry of high class tabla. He understood the fingering so well, that when a student was having a problem overcoming a difficult fingering situation, JnanBabu would compose a bol (tabla composition) that could not be played without learning the correct technique. Many of his wonderful compositions were made just for the tabla player, not so much for the listening audience, but they are crowd pleasers nontheless. A word about Jnan Babu's tabla playing is appropriate here. He was a wonderful accompanyist, never overwhelming the musician with gratuitious bravura, or drawing undue attention to himself. His sangat (accompanyment) was subtley helpful to the music. His theka could be a bit devious however, and no one could take him lightly without being in danger of missing the rhythm. Radhu Babu, who, as a prodigy achieved renown before Jnan Babu, told me of his first meeting with Jnan Babu. He said he had heard about this fellow with a devious theka, but Radhu Babu was very strong in laya and had a fearless attitude towards tabaliyas. Radhu Babu did not take Jnan Babu lightly, instead he played a sthayee over and over again, without improvising, all the while listening to Jnan Babu's theka. After 15 minutes or so of listening, Radhu Babu understood Jnan Babu's theka and they played comfortably together for the next 50 years. Other players, perhaps lacking the humility to listen carefully, were thrown off by Jnan Babu's unique approach to describing the rhythm in theka. Jnan Babu was perhaps better known for achievements other than tabla. History has not known a better player of harmonium. Indeed, the instrument was invented by his grandfather, Dwarkinath Ghosh (in its present form, as an adaptation of the Bavarian reed). Because of tabla his fingers were very quick. And because he was a master vocalist his knowledge of raga was matchless. Whether as a soloist, accompanist (of vocal music) or in jugalbandi (with V. G. Jog's violin e.g.) nobody could equal or surpass him. Amongst non musicians, his renown may have been greatest as a composer. He excelled in light music as well as classical. His compositions of kheyal were outstandingly unusal because his great literacy in poetry coincided with his keen artistic sense of melody. The words and music together reflected a unity that older compositions lacked because many of history's great musician composers were not as literate with words as they were with music. Finally, but not least, are his achievements as a teacher of classical vocal. Ajoy Chakraborty, a magnificent master, was carefully trained by Jnan Babu, as well as many other excellent singers such as Prosun Banerjee, and Arun Bhaduri.

Returning to Radhu Babu, his story is a tale of medieval majesty mixed into modern life. His grandfather was a wealthy Zamindar with a huge estate in Rajsahi, then in India, now part of Bangladesh. He was a patron of the arts, especially music, as he himself was a drummer. To enhance his drumming opportunities, he had, living at his court, a man who was arguably the finest sarodist in India, Ustad Mohammed Amir Khan Bangash of Shahjahanpur. Amir Khan's great grandfather, Gulam Ali Khan Bangash , who was an Afghan rabab player, had invented the sarod by altering a rabab, replacing gut strings with metal and installing a metal fingerboard instead of wood. Gulam Ali's son, Ustad Murad Ali Khan was the founder of the gharana and his brother Ustad Nanne Khan started another line of the gharana. Nanne Khan's son was Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan , father of the present day Ustad, Amjad Ali Khan .

Radhu Babu grew up in luxury as a prince and as a young boy he became fond of Amir Khan, the favorite musician at his grandfather's court. He described to me remembering as a tot, sitting on the shoulders of Amir Khan while the master played sarod. He developed a deep love of sarod and it turned out he had enormous talent. When he reached the age of 11 Amir Khan took him as a serious student. Radhu Babu was not allowed to play rough sports or be away from his guru. Amazingly, he was able to learn the technique and the entire literature of sarod, i.e. all the compositions of the gharana. In 1934 when Radhu Babu was 17 his guru died. At that young age Radhu Babu had become an unbelievable rarity in India, a member of the patronage class who had mastered the art of the musician's class to perfection. He was known as a prodigy, but he didn't stop there. He knew that knowledge of classical music was incomplete without a mastery of the gharana descending from Tansen, the court musician of Akbar the Great. For the next 16 years Radhu Babu studied with Ustad Dabir Khan , a direct descendant of Tansen. Dabir Khan had no heir and many musicians of Radhu Babu's generation learned the Senia line from him. Radhu Babu told me Dabir Khan was a man with no vices!

Partition was a terrible blow to the Maitra family. They were Hindu rulers but the estate was in Muslim East Pakistan. Their lands were lost and the family moved to Calcutta. Until now, music had been the hobby of a gifted prince. In Calcutta it would become his profession. With partition much patronage had dried up. The musicians needed to try to develope other means of support. Public concerts in front of general audiences was the next step. Radhu Babu, along with Jnan Babu, sitarist Mustaq Ali Khan , and musicologist D. T. Joshi were the forces behind a yearly series of public concerts called Jhankar . The programs lasted several days and included many of the greatest masters of the era. Incidentally, Buddhadev Das Gupta told me the first Jhankar concert was at his father's house and the players were Vilayat Khan , sitar, with Jnan Babu on tabla. Radhu Babu's sarod playing was matchless, but as a pedagogue he really excelled. He taught individually, not classes. Along the way he developed a system for teaching ragas that reduced the difficulty of learning sufficiently that even a klutz like me could pick it up. Of course many of his students, far from being klutzes, are highly gifted artists. Buddhadev Das Gupta has elevated sarod playing to a level previously unknown. Sanjoy Bandopadhyaya is a master sitarist and professor of sitat a the Indira Kala Sangeet University, Khairagarh. Also at Khairagarh is Professor Joydeep Ghosh, sarodist. Other outstanding disciples include Kalyan Mukherjea, who was also a professor of mathematics at UCLA, Sandhya Ghosh, who was chancellor of the medical university in Calcutta, Himadri Bagchi, sitarist, Sugato Nag, sitarist, and many others I am unforgiveably omitting.

It is all of us and our students who now represent the Seniya-Shahjahanpur gharana of Murad Ali Khan. Md. Amir Khan had no heir, Radhu Babu had no heir: the gharana must be carried forward by disiples rather than family. It means that if we do not perform and teach to others the great compositions of our gharana they will totally die out. The compositions are not written down and are not in the library. They are living and breathing only if we make it so. The goal of the Sarodya Society is the continuing life of the old masterpieces as well as creating the environment necessary for the creation of new masterpieces.