At the age of two and a half, somewhere in Calcutta, Samir Chatterjee approached a tabla. An observer noticed and told his parents to give him the opportunity to learn it. He found his first teacher at age 11; he was allowed to perform alone for the first time at 15. (There’s a story about a student who started learning at 13, and performed alone for the first time at 39. Usually it’s somewhere in between the two extremes.)What happened since is likely a product of daily practice, of loving that practice. Maybe that’s how he’s kept a childlike love of what he does. He has become one of the most famous performers of Indian classical music or, to be precise, of North Indian or Hindustani classical music. He’s played with all the leading Indian classical musicians—yes, including Ravi Shankar—with orchestras and Peter Gabriel. He travels around the world to meet his selected group of 35 students. He has been referred to with the honorary title of Pandit, “scholar and teacher,” though he doesn’t use it.

VAN: Which is your oldest tabla?

Samir Chatterjee: I really don’t know. But we do change the heads. If you’re talking about the shell itself, I think I have one which is about 25 to 30 years old. This right hand drum was made three years ago. And I toured with it in India—I’ve played this drum intermittently for the last three years. But it’s almost clean. Not much powder.

Do you have one maker that you always go to?

One. I tried several. He’s been working with me for the last, again, 25 years—when I was in India, before moving to the U.S. We are very closely connected, from soul to soul. If anything happens to him, his family life included, he shares it with me. Sometimes he’ll just shut down everything and we’ll talk. In fact, in one of my CDs, “Contemporary Past,” I just featured a picture of him: with the knowledge that this is the person who gives me my voice.

It has happened several times that I have had a concert on the day I’m arriving in Calcutta. I call him three months in advance that I’m planning that concert. He takes the information, he thinks, and finally he says, “At the concert your tabla will be there.” So I meet him in the green room, and believe it or not, the tabla is perfectly in tune: absolutely ready for the concert.

One time, I was going out on tour, so he said, “The tabla is ready, please come pick it up.” He wanted me to come and sit in the shop while he was doing the finishing. So I go there at 6 p.m. He’s still working on the drum, mainly on the syahi. Then after working for about an hour, he gives me the dayan. I play and I’m already very happy; he hears me making the strokes and gives it back to me. He makes another touch. Then he gives it back to me again, and I say, It’s sounding a little choked. Let’s open it up a little more. It [goes back and forth] like this from 7:30 to 11. 11:30—12:00—1:00 a.m. He’s sitting by the street—so there’s dust, street noise. It’s not in isolation. Finally he says, “I’m feeling confused. You go home. Let me go home too; I will take a shower, eat something, and work on it. I will bring it to you at 6 a.m.” And he did. That level of seriousness, and meticulousness, is not easy to find. Many people are efficient but make compromises.

Since 1993, Chatterjee’s organization Chhandayan has organized as series of annual all-night concerts in Manhattan.

You’ve worked mainly with jazz or Indian folk musicians. Are there points of connection with Western classical music that you see, or ways you could reach the typical orchestra concert audience?

There are many connecting points. In all types of music, we are dealing with the same bandwidth of the range of frequencies. Only the breakdown is different. Accordingly, our auditory perceptions, our ability to appreciate the differences, vary. That is one of the big challenges: when Indian music is presented to someone who is used to listening to equal temperament, they will find some frequencies very odd. The same thing happens to Indians listening to Western opera. Why are you laughing?

Just because it’s not hard to imagine!

All differences can melt down very easily. We are always making a choice to look at the similarities or the differences. And the more you focus on the differences, the more problems there will be, in human civilization. There are many of those problems today. Not just music, or culture, or language, or religion—breaking down, fragmentation, is all hypothetical, it doesn’t make any sense. But still that’s what we prefer. It gets us into trouble, while the other side of it is so glorious. What we have labeled as Indian: the moment you label it, an isolation happens. People who are living in India may claim it as their own. But they didn’t create it, from my perspective it’s one group of human beings living in that particular geographic location who came up with it. It’s a gift for the entire human civilization, wherever they live and belong, to nourish and cherish.

From the interview, Chatterjee on listening to Sibelius while hungry.

I’ll give you one example. Rhythmically—to put it in simple terms—we use a cyclical pattern. And in Western music it is a linear pattern, it moves measure by measure. At a slightly higher level, none of these things make any sense. Because if we accept the fact that everything repeats, then there’s nothing linear. At the same time, if we talk about cyclical patterns—going from one to 16 and back to one—are we coming back to the same one? That’s gone. These are just conceptual ideas that we are holding on to, to make things a little tangible. And that is the beginning of all the trouble.

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Does it seem strange to you that Western orchestras play their Mozart Symphonies note by note, year after year, without changing anything?

You have no idea how popular Mozart’s Symphony in G Minor has become in India. [He sings the opening motive.] One of the greatest composers of Indian film music, Salil Chowdhury, he put everything on the beat. And even villagers are singing it! He did the interludes with Western orchestras. And people have no problem. Villagers I’m talking about, common people! Miraculous.

If you go to villages, and you asked people if they’ve listened to Mozart’s Symphony in G minor, they’ll say, “What is that? Are you talking about music or food?” And if you’ll sing it, they’ll say, “Yeah, we all sing it!”

Classical music venues sometimes feel like they’re losing the connection to the meditative, transcendental experience—people come and listen, and then they just go home. They’ve started moving to smaller venues…

…so chamber music?

Yes, mostly. Is there a similar phenomenon happening in Indian classical music?

Yes. A disconnection from the audience. Because this was also meant to be chamber music, that’s how it originated. Today, it is becoming more and more popular. Some people are there because it’s a hip thing. If 5,000 people are listening to a concert of Indian classical music, they can’t all be knowledgeable, appreciative, and understanding of the music. They might be there for a different reason. It’s part of the evolutionary process: we lose some, we gain some.

Is knowledge a prerequisite to appreciating the music, in your view?

Classical music, by definition and in the Western sense, is associated with Classicism. But it also has several elements which go together with that. One is that it has to be challenging. Both to the performer and to the listener. It has its own sound, in Western music and in Indian music. In Indian music the tanpura will be the back drone, then comes the tabla, mridangam, lanjira, percussion instruments, then the violin, the harmonium, the sarangi. The sound emblem, the moment you hear it, you identify it as classical.

Ear training is a requirement, to be able to relate to that sound. To be able to penetrate through all of the nuances. How do you go along with the performer through the development of the piece? Sometimes you are able to, sometimes you lose track: you think, In this concert I got 10 percent, maybe in the next concert I’ll get 13 percent.

When you work with an artist like Pauline Oliveros, do you make some decisions in advance, or do you just play together and adapt?

[Laughs] She found me. And we were in a huge Broadway theater, in Kingston, upstate New York. I got there with my tabla and she’s setting herself up, Ned Rothenberg was also there. And there’s no sheet music. I’m given pedals. You just listen to each other, and you add. You start and someone else adds. It’s like painting with sound, with no specific object that you’re trying to draw. And something will come out.

That was the beginning of my work with Pauline, and the last concert I remember was in Philadelphia. Roscoe Mitchell was there. Pauline was all set to play from the computer, and I’m just sitting with my tabla, we do the sound check. Then we’re having coffee or tea in the green room, and when we come back to the stage, there’s absolute silence: Pauline’s computer is not working. And I’m laughing to myself, thinking, Will I not get to hear her accordion? And then she gets up and picks up her accordion.

Sometimes, working on a Western piece, like Svara-Yantra [by Shirish Korde], working with the Polish National Orchestra, Boston Philharmonic, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s—you need to be open. You can’t expect that if five or 10 measures are in 10-beat cycles, that that’s how it will be everywhere. Sometimes Indian tabla players get upset about that, saying that the pieces aren’t tabla friendly. That’s absolutely fine for me. When I’m playing jazz, I don’t hesitate to change hands: I become a drummer, not a tabla player.

Are there musical authorities in India that would disapprove of that kind of adaptation?

Well, to be frank, when Ravi Shankar started collaborating with orchestras and his LPs were coming out, he had big trouble performing in India, to a conservative audience. “You are diluting, you are watering down our music.” There was one occasion where we were going to start with a piece that he had recently published, and the audience, which was very literate, got up and said, “That’s a folk melody. You made it into a 20-minute piece. We will listen to that, but at the very end. We will start with something serious.” This can still happen, but the people keep quite these days. In the past, members of the audience would come up and shout at you.

Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin in conversation. 

Increasingly, it seems, Western classical musicians have started suffering from burnout. Do you know this feeling?

Yes. The audience that is coming to listen to your concert is going home with all the benefits, and you as a performer are suffering. This happens to all musicians.

How is your project in Afghanistan going?

It’s going well. Not trouble free, not absolutely secure, but from where we started and where we are today, it’s amazing. Our dream was to form an orchestra that would come to the U.S. and perform in Carnegie Hall, and that already happened, two years ago.

How important is the routine of practicing to you?

There’s a remarkable difference between playing and practicing. In the Indian musical context there’s no rehearsal. Practicing is a vital phase—being able to create a practice schedule. It’s all part of meditation. Those are the ways you can set yourself up for a higher goal. Honesty, the ability to break down, zoom in, find the flaws and work towards perfection. Those are the basic qualities of sustainability. You are happy being never happy. How’s that? [laughs] We are not looking for a superficial happiness.

The concept of practice is a gift to human life. The connectivity to the supreme can come as a byproduct of practice. The entire process of zooming in can take you somewhere; it has many elements and qualities.

We have these 40 days of confinement, with no daylight, and you play as long as you are awake. Getting into that room, the first five days, what you go through—and if you are able to stay it through the entire 40 days, the transformative effect that will happen, whether you are aware of it or not, whether that was part of your ambition or not—it will automatically place you somewhere else. That’s the power of music. The frequencies, vibrations, will stimulate certain aspects of your being. At a physical, spiritual and neurological level. They say insight comes from involvement. So if you stay totally involved in something, then insight grows within you. You can’t put that as a target; you just have to wish and wait.

This is exactly what they’re talking about in one of the main scriptures we have, the Bhagavad Gita, when they talk about Karmic Yoga—it’s the same thing. Do your best; do not expect any reward. We cling to the reward factor to draw motivation from. And here it’s saying there’s no reward, but still do your best.

In our philosophy, you can’t be a musician until you’re 50. There has to be a certain amount of detachment. That comes with maturity. If you are lucky enough to have a near death experience by then, and survive it, your priorities get shifted. You are able to see life from an altitude. A simple thing like vertigo, which is benign, can give you an experience that you would not normally get. An out-of-body experience, like surviving being struck by lightning. There’s an episode mentioned like that in Oliver Sack’s book Musicophilia. He was looking at himself lying dead. There was no pain. He was a doctor, and when he “came back,” he became totally into music.

Detachment is invaluable, if it is achievable. The Upanishaden says that perpetual happiness is attainable only through detachment. How you maintain that: one track of your mind is detached, the other is involved, engaged. It’s like driving on two different lanes. There’s no conflict. You’re totally involved with your family, and another track of your mind is always remembering: This is only transient.

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