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Swapan Chaudhuri, one of the world's greatest tabla players, celebrates his fiftieth birthday this year (1995). From Calcutta to Bombay, Delhi to Madras, India to America, England to Mexico, Canada to Nepal, Australia to the United Arab Emirates, in France, Germany, Italy, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia -- wherever North Indian Classical music is played -- he is in demand as a soloist and as an accompanist. Over the last decade, he has given an average of 200 concerts a year.

Chaudhuri's touring schedule is the kind of which aspiring musicians dream, but it is also a demanding, health-defying way of life. During a typical week not long ago, Pandit (the Indian title given to a distinguished and learned man) Chaudhuri taught a dozen classes at the Ali Akbar College of Music on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then flew, on Thursday, to Los Angeles to teach, from noon to seven, at the nearby California Institute of the Arts. Friday, he gave a concert in West Virginia. Saturday, he did two recording sessions in New York City. Then, on Sunday night, he performed at a commemorative event at Lincoln Center to celebrate Gandhi's birthday, the guest list of which included, Dr. Venkatraman, India's former President.

"It's not the concerts that are difficult," Chaudhuri says, "but the traveling, the constant traveling. And trying new things. At times dangerous things," he laughs, his eyes sparkling, then adds: "Tabla is limitless. I never want to stop."

In India, a number of years ago, he gave eight performances in less than twenty-four hours. "They were all major concerts. I started first with Pandit Ravi Shankar at 7:00 P.M. From there, all over Calcutta, I played with Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, Ustad Amjad Ali, Pandit Jasraj, then a solo, then two dance concerts with Pandit Chitresh Das, then with Pandit Bhimsen Joshi..." his voice trails off.

"How can you even get around Calcutta that fast?"

"At night it is not so crowded."

"Do you eat between concerts?"

"Before a concert I don't like to eat. I drink just tea. You don't need food, the energy just comes. When you enjoy something, you forget about yourself. Some kind of special power generates in your body, you don't get tired."

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Under the auspices of his mentor, the great sarode maestro, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, as Director of Percussion, has taught for fourteen years at the Ali Akbar College of Music (AACM) in San Rafael, California. At this school, which Ustad Khan founded twenty-six years ago, these two incomparable musicians share their gifts and hospitality with everyone -- from untutored beginner to the very finest musicians in the world, both Eastern and Western.

Swapanji and Khansahib, as they are known to their students, have dedicated their lives to their art and to teaching appreciation for one of the oldest and most complex musical systems in the world. "Come visit the classes," is an invitation extended to all at each AACM concert.

Swapanji teaches in a small, green-carpeted room, abundant with growing plants. Seated behind his drums, his whole being seems to participate in the multiple rhythms as he keeps the beat, shows the pattern, recites the bols (the words of the drum compositions). His hands not only play the tabla with lightning speed, but frequently dance in the air to indicate the movement, to show how the liquid resonance moves back and forth between the two drums that, together, share the single name tabla. He claps his hands or snaps his fingers, or points in a series of elaborate designs to remind the students of the laya, the chand (the tempo, the pattern). Or, metal against metal, he taps his wedding ring against the chromed body of the left-hand drum, which is also referred to as the baya.

His dark eyes, as large as a Coptic saint's, fix a student: "Play that first line again."

A nod or a hint of a smile may follow if each note is clear and precise. Though always gentle in manner, Swapanji is exacting. Even when speaking with a visitor or composing the next composition, not a single missed beat nor a misplaced stroke from among his students will elude his vigilant ear. His hearing, his sense of rhythm is so developed that even the lack of a microbeat gap will be remarked upon and immediately corrected. In every lesson, he expects his students to stretch their capabilities.

Nor does he ever touch the tabla, his or anyone else's, without respect and a kind of radiant energy, a delight in what he is doing. This energy is almost palpable, almost visible as his hands move or rest on the drums. During the briefest demonstration for a student or at any time during a concert, it is almost as if his fingers emit light. This gift of energy, this love plus infinite patience and an inconceivably large memory bank may be what constitute the genius of a great tabla player.

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The tabla, one drum of wood and one of metal, appears deceptively simple, but to play it in the classical manner, with the artistry of a Swapan Chaudhuri, requires some twenty to thirty years of training and constant practice. It takes great dexterity, superb control, stamina and physical strength. He once played solo at the AACM for four hours. "The first part," he noted, "was pure Lucknow Gharana (his main school or style). The second half was from the other five gharanas."

The right hand drum (singly called the tabla, but also known as the daya, which means right), is usually carved of rosewood. It is the higher pitched drum, and carries most of the intricately patterned finger strokes called bols. The baya (which means left), is a bass drum. Chaudhuri can coax the baya to murmur, whisper, sigh, swoon, laugh, cry, or fill a concert hall with the sound of pattering rain and rumbling thunder.

Most children are challenged, at one time or another, to try rubbing their head and patting their stomach at the same time. A master tabla player multiplies this kind of feat exponentially. For instance, the right hand plays one pattern of strokes, the left another, a foot or knee keeps the beat of the tal (the chosen rhythm cycle). Then, while drumming two or three separate rhythms and intersecting patterns (which are, themselves, made up of variable rhythms and patterns), the tabla player may be calculating the mathematically precise pattern of yet another rhythm. He may also be memorizing at lightning speed (while continuing to play) the pattern recited by a dancer, or given by a vocalist or instrumentalist, adhering, always, to the strict rules of one of the traditional gharanas, their stroking patterns, their intonations, their bols. In addition, (while continuing to play) he will tune the tabla with a small hammer from time to time. All the while, he will be intently listening to the instrumentalist who may change tals without warning, and who will, during the sawal-jawab sangat, pose musical questions, issue challenges, indulge in witty repartee and, at times, even trickery. The list goes on and on and on... all this is what a tabla player keeps "at his finger tips," so to speak, as he improvises each performance.

There are no written scores used in performances of Indian music. There are no rehearsals. The music itself is the language of communication, not only between performer and audience but between the musicians, themselves. The "dialogue" of each concert, partly traditional, partly composed impromptu within specific rules, is all manifested under the watchful eyes and within the acute hearing of discerning audiences, many members of which know the ragas, know the talas, keep the beat.

It is from this kind of flowing complexity that Swapanji also draws each lesson when he teaches. After forty-five years of practice, experience, aesthetic musing, each composition he offers is newly composed or recomposed within the intricate rules and sacred traditions of the music that in India is known as Nada Brahma, the "Language of God."

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For a musician, Swapan Chaudhuri comes from an unusual background. A Bengali, he grew up in Calcutta in an upper middle class family of doctors, a joint family of about sixty people which included aunts, uncles, brothers, cousins -- thirteen of whom were children (twelve boys, one girl) -- and all of whom disapproved of music as a career. For music was, in their society, an unsuitable profession for the eldest son of a respected Brahmin doctor.

"It was a closed society," Chaudhuri says. "Nonetheless my father was fond of music and studied the flute, the esraj and vocal music. My mother sang. I was born with that. Our house was filled with music, mostly my mother singing."

When he was five years old, Swapan's tabla training began with Pandit Santosh Krishna Biswas, an eminent exponent of the Lucknow Gharana, a tabla teacher of genius, a friend of Dr. Chaudhuri's -- a banker. For Pandit Biswas, as with many great Indian musicians who are not from the families of the hereditary gharanas, played the tabla as a private art, a form of meditation and spiritual discipline. He practiced for his own pleasure and performed only for his friends.

"On Goddess Saraswati's puja day, a child's wrist is held by his parents and moved to form the letters: 'This is "au," he is told, 'and this is "a"....' That same puja day, when I was five years old," Swapanji says with quiet reverence, "I tied thread to my guru Pandit Biswas. From then on my father, a strict disciplinarian, made me practice tabla. I had no choice. I was scared of him, really scared. In those days as a child in India, you did what you were told." Because he was still too young to write, Swapanji's mother, of whom he was very fond, took him to his lessons and wrote out the bols.

Swapan Chaudhuri's family lived in the same block as the great musical family of Ali Akbar Khan. Ali Akbar Khan is the son of Allauddin Khan who was, perhaps, the most influential force in North Indian Classical music in this century. In addition to his son and grandsons, Baba Allauddin trained generations of great musicians, including his daughter, Annapurna Devi, his son-in-law, Ravi Shankar, Nikhil Banerjee, Sharan Rani, Indranil Battacharya, Pannalal Ghosh -- the list is long.

While growing up, Swapan used to go to Khan's house to practice with sarodists, Aashish and Dhyanesh, Khan's oldest sons. All became outstanding in their fields. Swapan's special companion, indeed, one might say his "older brother," was Dhyanesh. Dhyanesh, until his untimely death in 1991, was not only an exceptional sarode player but an excellent teacher.

By the time Swapan was ten, Ali Akbar Khan was inviting him to the Ali Akbar College which he had recently opened in Calcutta -- a precursor to the college he would open in the United States fourteen years later. At the Calcutta college, Swapan played theka for the instrumental and vocal classes. Theka in North Indian classical music means, in this context, playing the regular rhythmic cycle of the tal on the tabla throughout the lessons which might last for many hours. Hour after hour, the young Swapan would play and listen to the melodic and rhythmic paths of elaborate beauty weave in and out as he absorbed knowledge of the music that, to this day, is passed on only via guru-shishya-parampara, the guru-disciple-relationship.

To Western ears, Indian music may sound repetitive, but within it are variations as multitudinous, as intricately varied, as related and divergent as the strands of DNA that compose the human body. Like DNA, it is composed of two elements -- melody and rhythm -- spiraling around each other. This marriage, this intertwining takes place within a tonal environment created by a drone -- usually a four or five string tambura. Endless permutations of these basic elements go on hypnotically, building on one another. The melodic line and rhythm within the raga, kept by the instrumentalist, may at times digress to a point of extreme tension from the rhythm, tala, kept by the tabla player, but they will come together again, often dramatically, and resolve precisely on sam (pronounced "sum") -- the first beat of a tal cycle.

Throughout his childhood and as a young man, Swapan Chaudhuri continued his practice on the tabla. "But, I never thought of becoming a professional tabla player. In fact," he admits, "as I was growing up, I was told not to think of that, I was told just to concentrate on learning and practicing." Swapanji laughs ruefully, "Even on the day of my final exams at the University, my father insisted I practice."

As a college student, with his family's approval and, indeed, his own enthusiasm, he studied economics. When he graduated from Jadavpur University, his plan was to attend either the London School of Economics or Harvard. He looked forward to the day when he would become a professional economist.

However, Saraswati -- Goddess not only of learning, but of all the arts -- invoked, as she had been on her puja day, had a different idea.

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In 1969, when Ali Akbar Khan returned to Calcutta from an extended stay in America -- where he had just created the American branch of the Ali Akbar College of Music -- he invited the twenty-four year old Swapan to his house to play for him.

"I played for maybe half an hour. Khansahib was impressed. He decided that I should play with him that year in concert at the Tansen Music Conference. It was a very important concert, the first concert that Khansahib gave after he returned from America. He took the risk." Swapanji pauses, reflecting on the memory, repeating, "He took the risk. For no one knew me at that time. But by then my love of tabla had begun to develop. It was no longer just what my father told me to do."

The concert, with the already world-renowned Ali Akbar Khan, was a great success. It was after that, when musicians began to call the young tabla player asking him to play with them, that Chaudhuri decided to become a professional musician.

"My practice changed and increased. To become a concert musician is very difficult. In India, if you're not from a musician's family, it takes a very long time to establish yourself. Slowly, over the next few years, I began to be known. I sought out musicians. But I was often rejected. I remember once sitting on the stage and a musician refused to play with me." Swapanji pauses, "But maybe it was good for me, I learned tenacity, I learned determination, I knew that one day those same musicians who rejected me would come to ask me to play with them. After a time, I began to enjoy some success."

During those years, '69 to '81, Ali Akbar Khan invited him many times to come to America, but Chaudhuri was determined to prove himself first in India. Indeed, during those year, he played with some of India's most distinguished musicians, which included a particularly enduring and memorable association with Nikhil Banerjee.

"Even in '81 I didn't have the intention to leave India, but the school in America needed a teacher and Khansahib asked me to come. Also, my mother said, 'You should go this time. You should accept.'" Swapanji hesitates for a long moment, then adds: "It was her birthday. We were celebrating my mother's birthday. I had played three concerts the night before, and had to play one more at one o'clock. Then everybody came to our house, including Khansahib and his family. My mother cooked for everybody. We had a nice time and signed the contract. Then at night -- just before midnight -- my mother passed away. She had a massive heart attack. It was her fifty-third birthday, January 26th. There were seven or eight doctors in the house, but they could do nothing."

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At the Ali Akbar College of Music, which by then was permanently housed in San Rafael, Ali Akbar Khan had a succession of great tabla masters: Shankar Ghosh, Mahaparush Misra, Jnan Prakash Ghosh, Zakir Hussain. And, occasionally, Khansahib, himself, or Alla Rakha, Zakir's legendary father, would teach a tabla class. However, at the beginning of 1981, the school needed a new tabla master.

"But I could not leave India," Swapanji continues, "I was too grief stricken. I could not leave my father. I did not want to go to America. As the eldest son of a religious family, there were many rituals I had to perform. Khansahib was very kind, he told me to take my time, to think about it."

After several months, when Swapan's mourning duties were completed, Dr. Chaudhuri urged his son to join Ali Akbar Khan in California, "It was your mother's last wish, so you must go."

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"I arrived in America on May 5, 1981. I came to the College and I began to teach. The first concert I played in America was on May 9th." Swapanji sips from a cup of tea a student has brought him. "At first, being here was a terrible experience for me. My grief for my mother -- it was a very difficult period in my life. I had left all my friends, my family, and much of my professional life in India. Nobody knew me. There were few Indian musicians here. It was so different, a whole cultural difference...

"Khansahib, of course, treated me as a son, he was so kind to me, so loving. He still treats me like a son. I am his son. There's no doubt about it. Even though I'm now fifty -- half a century -- he still scolds me, he gives me love, it is all combined. He was giving me so much affection at that time, trying to loosen me up -- like teaching me to cook. I didn't know how to make a cup of tea. I didn't know how to boil the water.

"I was living alone two doors down," he nods toward the east from the College. "I was so lonely. I taught five days a week, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday," he counts the days on his fingers, "and watched television on the weekends. Sometimes the students used to come, they'd bring tea from here. But they were also busy, they were all working. It's a hard life in America. It's not an easy life. It took me a long time to get used to it.

"I left in November and came back again in April, '82 for Khansahib's sixtieth birthday. We had a concert, a great concert. That picture," he indicates a picture above the red-carpeted dais where he sits to teach, "is from that concert. I gave many many concerts. I threw my whole life, my whole spirit into playing. I played in such a way as to give the audience all my knowledge, all my love of tabla."

During the '80s, with endless practice time and drawing on the profound emotions that ensued from his cultural displacement, Chaudhuri's performances became displays of a dazzling virtuosity. With an amazing depth of emotion, a crystalline beauty of tone, a clarity of stroke, incredible speed, awesome variety, charm, wit, and a charismatic playfulness Chaudhuri simply mesmerized the audiences of America.

He played with the many distinguished Indian musicians and dancers who came more and more to perform in the West, as well as with Western musicians trained in Indian music. Then he began to tour Europe, Asia, and the other continents and countries of the world. He played not only for sarode and sitar, but for sarangi, and santoor, for vocalists, for flutists and for dancers. He played solos, and with symphony orchestras, string quartets, and with other percussionists.

"Each concert" he says, "is different, not only the instrument, but the person, the situation. Each artist you play with is unique. You have to listen very carefully for the bols -- to the instruments, the dancers, the different drums, for all are different. Each is an art in itself."

And always, he continued to play with father, mentor, guru, Ali Akbar Khan. Today, after several decades and fourteen years of continuous association at the AACM, they have become as finely attuned to one another in performance as any of the greatest masters of Indian music.

He also began to teach at other universities in the United States, Canada and at the Ali Akbar College in Basel, Switzerland; but until Swapan Chaudhuri married Jane Rockwood his life was not truly anchored in the West. Jane Rockwood Chaudhuri is also a musician. Her studies of North Indian classical vocal music began in 1978 with Laxmi Ganesh Tewari at Sonoma State University. Then, at San Francisco State University with Jnan Prakash Ghosh -- who taught both at SFS and at AACM -- she studied tabla. When Ghosh returned to India, she came to study vocal music with Ali Akbar Khan at AACM and tabla with Zakir Hussain. When Swapan Chaudhuri arrived, she began to study with him and, at times, assisted in teaching.

The love of music drew them together. Married in 1988, Swapanji and Jane now have two young sons, Nilanjan and Ishan. Recently, when the older child, Nilanjan, turned five, he came to his father and said, "You started to play when you were five. You promised me when I was five you would teach me."

"He likes a new composition at each lesson." Swapanji chuckles. "I encourage him to practice with his mother. She is very good. They both devote some time each day to the tabla. When the children are old enough, Jane would like to study again."

"Does she want to play professionally?"

"I don't think so. To be a professional is a whole different thing. It's a commitment, a life long commitment."

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Now at fifty, secure in his accomplishment, Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri divides his time between performing and teaching in America, between his rigorous world-wide touring schedule and giving concerts and performing at the great festivals in India, and between teaching in Calcutta, Basel, Switzerland, London, and Toronto. Having helped propagate the knowledge of and love for Indian music around the world, he also devotes an increasing amount of time to an ever deeper exploration into the sources of his art. He finds great meaning and beauty in the traditions handed down generation upon generation during the tabla's four hundred year history. Recently, he has presented many of the old compositions of the Lucknow Gharana. "I always try to learn more through my music," he declares. "I analyse my playing. I think the truth is that if you can satisfy yourself, people who are listening will be satisfied.

"As you grow older, you see things differently. It's not: 'I am controlling tabla.' It's like when you do the puja, when you go to church, your whole attitude is very different, you surrender yourself. I am under tabla's control. I surrender myself because I know there is nothing I can show to tabla. It becomes more and more like melody. The joy, the happiness -- I don't think I used to get that before."

Chaudhuri says that when he plays he often goes into a trance-like state. He does not know beforehand what he will play, nor, at times, after a concert, is he conscious of what he has played. "Sometimes I don't know until I hear the tapes."

In his last few concerts he has introduced traditionally based compositions that incorporated pakhawaj bols. The pakhawaj, a two headed drum, is thought by some to have been "cut in two" to become the ancestor of the tabla. Its deep base tones are particularly associated with chanting and dhrupad singing. These passages in the open more resonant pakhawaj style, played mainly on the baya, have electrified and bewitched his audiences. When asked about them, Swapanji shakes his head and smiles: "It was a surprise, even to me." Then he adds: "The art is in the bass drum, the left hand. The right is all brilliant speed and restlessness, like a child running about, but the depth, the mood, the rasa, the beauty that tabla speaks comes from the left hand."

Though many cannot follow Pandit Chaudhuri's explorations into melodic and mathematical structures, nonetheless, all can enjoy the rhythms he discovers. Instinctively, music lovers respond with delight as Chaudhuri arranges time and sound into myriad, multifaceted patterns. For pattern, rhythmic, mathematical pattern, as ancient Indian philosophy as well as the relatively new Theory of Chaos proposes, may be at the very heart of creation.

To hear Swapan Chaudhuri in concert is to share his love of tabla, his love of drumming, his generosity. At times he is like a little boy giving you a treat, his eyes laughing from under long black lashes, at times he is stern, at times majestic, at times he throws back his head to laugh with delight. From time to time the rhythms become so exhilarating, so intense, that suddenly one's heart stills, the breath slows and, like being in the eye of a hurricane, it is like listening to silence.

It might be said that here, living among us, is one of those legendary figures one reads about in Indian musicology -- that Chaudhuri may have, like Tansen, the great musician of the sixteenth century, "a power so great that he can, with his music, talk to the birds and animals of the forest, bring rain, as well as change the hearts of gods and men."

Joyous is the single word that springs to mind when trying to characterize Chaudhuri's art. He plays the tabla with a profound elegance and a contagious joy.

Happy birthday, Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, golden treasure of India and America. May you enjoy another fifty years!

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Copyright © 2002 through 2015 Jan Haag

Jan Haag may be reached via e-mail:

Selections from THE GOLDEN DRUMMING OF SWAPAN CHAUDHURI have appeared in India Currents Magazine (U.S.A.) and India Perspectives (published in India, translated into eight languages and circulated via Indian Embassies throughout the world). Selections from it also appear on various Indian Music Web Sites originating in both U.S.A. and India.

Other articles about North Indian Classical Music available on this Web site now include: ALI AKBAR KHAN, An Appreciation, SISIR KONA DHAR CHOWDHURY, and LAXMI GANESH TEWARI.

Jan Haag, writer, poet, painter and textile artist, creates works which incorporate the beauty and complexity of North Indian Classical music patterns into the intricacy of Textile Art. A retrospective of Haag's Needlepoints was shown at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Seattle, Washington.




21st CENTURY ART, C.E. - B.C., A Context