Sisir Kona Dhar Chowdhury, premier violinist in the North Indian Classical Music tradition and one of the greatest living exponents of classical violin music based in dhrupad style, has played in concerts throughout India and around the world. She has appeared on All India Radio and National TV. Her career was launched in 1953 when she won First Place in the All India Tansen- Vishnu Digambar Competition where she received the Vishnu Digambar Award and Gold Medals. Her concerts and recordings have included performances accompanied by such master tabla players as Shankar Ghosh, Mahapurush Misra, Zakir Hussain, and Swapan Chaudhuri.
She joined the faculty of the Rabindra Bharati University in Calcutta in 1971, and, for over twenty years, has been a distinguished teacher and leading force among her colleagues at the University. Formerly Head of the Department of Vocal Music, she now serves as Allauddin Khan Professor and Head of the Department of Instrumental Music and Dean of the Faculty of Fine-Arts.
Chowdhury's magical command of the violin is praised by tabla master, Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, a lifetime friend and colleague: "If a person is extraordinary, how can you explain? You have to hear her," he said. "Her music is just like meditation, it is very deep. She is a great performer and a great teacher." He went on to say that she learned intense focus and concentration from her guru, sarode master, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and renowned violinist, Pandit V.G. Jog. "She has a unique style of playing" Chaudhuri said, "in which she uses certain sarod techniques of plucking the strings. She combines gayaki, a vocal style, with an instrumental style, blending it in a way that is very rare."
Professor George Ruckert of MIT, violinist, musical scholar and co-author of "The Classical Music of North India, The Music of the Baba Allauddin Gharana as taught by Ali Akbar Khan," who studied with Sisir Kona Dhar Chowdhury in Calcutta, said she is one of the finest violinists in India. He noted that she uses a five string violin and tunes the strings alternately to the tonic and the fifth. The Western violin normally has four strings and is tuned to a particular scale; however it can, if one chooses, be tuned down to capture the distinctive sound of the Eastern violin more accurately. The fifth string, which is fairly common in India, is often used as a drone, giving the instrument somewhat more resonance, as do the drone strings on a sarode or sitar. It can be plucked, bowed, or used simply as a resonating string. The basics of Sisir Kona Dhar Chowdhury's wonderful technique can be taught to musicians of all levels and is applicable to all bowed instruments, both Eastern and Western.
Chowdhury is particularly noted for her long, traditional and vibrantly beautiful alaps. She has been praised in the Indian press for her rendering of Raga Maru Bihag, the opening of which was termed: "slow, purposeful and delicately expressive of the raga's lyrical peculiarities. It gave proof of imaginative balance and an extremely refined sense of melody." Another review, following a concert in Delhi where she played Alahiya Bilawal, Purya Dhanashri and Mishra Kafi, stated that her playing "...with its unfailing charm of diversity, its recurring emotional contrasts of vivacity and repose, and with its general sensuous appeal conformed to a high artistic ideal . . . inspired moments when the player seemed to enter, as it were into profound communion with the instrument which in turn gracefully yielded its most delicate shades of colouring."
Sisir Kona Dhar Chowdhury also plays the viola and may be the first musician to choose to play it as a concert instrument in the North Indian Classical tradition. With its deep sonorous tone, she finds it especially suitable for the rendering of the beautifully solemn alap in dhrupad style.
Originally from Assam, Mrs. Chowdhury has lived in Calcutta for many years with her husband. She reared one daughter, who now, also, has a daughter. Though today it is not unusual for women to study violin and become performers, Sisir Kona Dhar Chowdhury, born in 1937, was a pioneer for her generation of women in becoming both an internationally acclaimed performing artist and a high ranking teacher. She began her studies at the age of seven with Ustad Moti Mian. Her many notable accomplishments do honor to her illustrious teachers, Ustad Khan and Pandit Jog, as well as to scholar-musician Acharya T. L. Rana, as she carries on the tradition of great versatility associated with the Baba Allauddin Gharana and fulfills her academic duties with distinction.
Though the violin is usually thought of as a European instrument, there is much archaeological evidence to suggest that stringed instruments are indigenous to almost all cultures. A twelfth century sculpture in the Nataraja temple at Chidambaram shows an instrument that is almost identical to our modern violin. The great Baba Allauddin Khan, himself, father of Ali Akbar Khan, noted for his virtuosity on the violin,held his violin in the Western manner. He was, in fact, well known for his fine performances on many Western instruments and played some two hundred instruments, both Eastern and Western, with great accomplishment. Interestingly, he played both string instruments and bowed with his left hand.
In North India, the violin, rather than being held under the chin, is usually held as Chowdhury holds hers, against the shoulder with the finger board and pegs pointing downward. In South India, where use of the violin is dated with certainty back to Ramaswami Dikshitar in the 1780s, and where it remains the only bowed instrument in the classical tradition, it is cradled on the lower arm against the upper arm and held parallel to the lap. A European picture dating from several centuries ago shows a man holding a violin in this South Indian manner. Indeed, since the very first mention of the a violin in Europe was in reference to it being played in Italy in 1548, one is led to speculate whether the violin is one of the proto-typical instruments of the world, or if there may have been, before modern times, more contact than is usually thought between Eastern and Western music and musicians.
SISIR KONA DHAR CHOWDHURY was first publised in India Currents Magazine. Other articles by Jan Haag about North Indian Classical Music include THE GOLDEN DRUMMING OF SWAPAN CHAUDHURI, ALI AKBAR KHAN, An Appreciation,and LAXMI GANESH TEWARI.
Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org