An Interview with Bickram Ghosh
Bickram Ghosh is fast becoming a household name for fans of Indian classical music. His lightning-fast yet extremely clean drumming reflects the style of his gharana (music lineage), but it also contains rhythmic elements from other influences. He has performed on fifteen recordings, including the award-winning CD Kirvani, released in 1996. This interview was conducted by Richard Klecka in late 1996 during Bikram’s tour of the U.S.A. with santur maestro Tarun Bhattacharya.
Q: How did you first come to be a musician?
I don’t even remember when I started playing. There are photographs of me at two years old, propped up with pillows and banging away on the tabla. I don’t remember when I formally started, it just happened. Music runs in my family. My father, Pandit Shankar Ghosh, is a very well-known tabla player. In the 1960’s he was one of the first Indian musicians to travel to the U.S.A. and perform with Ali Akbar Khan at the Ali Akbar College of Music. My mother, Sanjukta Ghosh, is a singer and my cousin, Swapan Chaudhuri, is another famous tabla player.
Q: It never occurred to you to do anything else?
Actually, I completed my education right up to my masters degree in English literature, so some people speculated that I would be going into a career of either journalism or literature. But all along I knew that I wanted to be a musician, a tabla player. After I finished my academic schooling, I went full-time into my musical career and luckily, with the way that things have happened, it was good for me.
Q: What influences your music? Even though you began at an age that you can’t remember, I assume that at some point outside influences come into your process.
I had my very early education in San Rafael, California. I then went back to India and was admitted into a school considered to be a very prestigious institution. It was not an Indian language school, but an English middle school, so the influences I had during the day were very Western. When I went home at night, however, it couldn’t have been more Indian. It was quite a contrast but also very cosmopolitan since I mixed around with so many different people.
In addition to Indian classical music, which is really heavy-duty, I also played in school bands, dabbling with conga and other instruments. My father directs a very interesting all-drum orchestra that’s been around since 1976. All the drums for this band, maybe 50 or 60 different kinds, used to be in our house and as a kid I played around with anything and everything. That experience gave me a wider perspective, enabled me to play well with other musicians, and has increased my versatility within the various forms of classical music and also Western and Indian fusion.
The strongest influence, of course, is my father’s music. Because he’s my teacher, his music has influenced me totally; my basic foundation is through him. My father and I belong to the Farukhabad gharana. My father’s guru, Pandit Gyan Prakash Ghosh, is another person who has had considerable influence over me in the past few years. Another strong influence has been my training from mrdangam maestro Pandit S. Shekhar and this is evident in my style of playing.
Of course, other tabla players influence me as well. If I like something that another drummer does, I’ll try to play it too. I don’t hesitate to learn whatever I can from the great tabla masters. Many musicians in the past have restricted themselves to the style of their own gharana, but I try to be open-minded and learn ~from as many sources as possible.
Q: When you compose music, where does it come from? Do you spend much or any of your time in formal composition as opposed to improvisation becoming the composition?
First I want to distinguish here between the two formats of tabla playing today. One is playing tabla as an accompanist for a lead melodic instrument and the other is playing tabla as a solo performer. Accompaniment today as opposed to 30 years ago has become synonymous with improvisation. Much of what we play on stage has become very spontaneous, but in our training we learn the language of tabla. We recite the syllables of tabla onomatopoeically. Onomatopoeia is an English term that means “the sound echoes the sense”. It’s like this: when I strike the tabla in a certain place with a certain combination of fingers, it is called “na” because the sound that emits from the drum actually sounds like “na”. When the note “tetay” is struck, it echoes the sound of “tetay.” The various sounds possible on tabla are achieved through combinations of fingers hitting different areas of the drum in different ways. That’s how this language originated. In this way we have various compositions in tabla language which are mostly played in solo tabla playing. When I’m performing solo, as in my album on the Music of the World label (“Talking Tabla”) , I perform rhythmic pieces by age-old composers and also my own compositions. In solo tabla playing there can be great variation in style and execution.
Solo playing and accompany playing are quite distinct. It used to be that compositions were played more strictly, but nowadays the composition factor is often overtaken by the improvisational factor in accompaniment. If I’m accompanying another musician, that person may play a certain movement or passage which requires me to follow up or echo that movement with something appropriate. But in solo tabla playing, I often perform straight compositions. It’s happening all the time, actually, even when I’m traveling on a train or plane, in a taxi or whatever, I’m always thinking of musical improvisation or fixed composition.
Q: Do you write these notations down or are they all committed to memory?
I suppose I should write them down but they more often get stored in my memory. When I’m teaching, which I do often in India, I give some of these compositions to my students and they write them down. We keep a set of books in the house with compositions by various artists, including my father and myself, and I ask them to write down a separate copy for me. I don’t do much writing, though. That’s just the way it works for me.
Q: What other musicians have you worked with?
A wide range of great musicians including Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Pandit V.G. Jog, and Viswa Mohan Bhatt.
I’ve toured extensively with Sri Tarun Bhattacharya, a fantastic santur player. We have played a lot together and for several years, we’ve been working with Bob Haddad at Music of the World.
Q: Are there any musicians that come to mind as particularly significant?
Every artist I’ve played with has a different way of performing and in order to be a sensitive accompanist, I have to orient myself to that person’s frame of mind and suit my music to their music. This is a constant challenge every time I play.
I recall the first time I was invited to accompany Pandit Ravi Shankar. It was an incredible honor, and something I will never forget.
I have also worked in the U.K. with Ravi Shankar on a project produced with former Beatle George Harrison.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
As for the long term, I would like to establish a strong identity for myself as a tabla player. I don’t want to be referred to as just another musician. I want to be as good as I can be and to do as many varied works as possible. I plan to branch out into as many different directions as I can within the framework of Indian classical performance, but ultimately I want to play more solo tabla. What a tabla player knows is truly established through his solo work.