An Interview with Tarun Bhattacharya:
Master of 100 Strings
by Krishna Kumar, a graduate student and host of “World Café” on WKNC 88.1 FM in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Tarun Bhattacharya is one of the world’s preeminent virtuosos of the santur, a hammered dulcimer with a graceful and quiet resonance. He regularly performs in concert and at music festivals in Europe, North America, the Far East and, of course, throughout India.
Q: Would you like to start off by telling us something about the wonderful instrument that you play?
A: The santur is an instrument which has its origins in the Middle East. Similar instruments can be found all over the world. In the United States it goes by the name of hammered dulcimer, and it’s called yang chin in China. In the northern part of India, in the region of Kashmir, it is used as a popular folk music instrument. Santur means shathathanthri veena (a veena with 100 strings). In India, the santur is played with two covered sticks (hammers). Recently it has become a very popular instrument in North Indian classical music.
Q: Who introduced this instrument to North Indian classical music?
A: Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, originally from Kashmir, pioneered the use of the santur. It was because of him that the Indian music community realized the wide scope of this instrument. Since then we have experimented and have came up with changes and modifications to the original. For example, the shape of this instrument is a little bigger so that the sound has more depth. I have put a special string on the lower octave to glide from one note to another. I have put on a bass string to get an even deeper sound. I have also installed a fine tuning mechanism for each string making tuning very easy and quick, which is particularly helpful when, during performance, the instrument goes out of tune. This happens very often because this is a 100-string instrument! I have introduced this concept to students in my school.
Q: Most western listeners are not aware of the training that an Indian classical musician must endure. Can you tell us about your initiation into this music, the training you received and the musicians who have influenced you?
A: Serious Indian musicians must have proper training and of course we have to practice a lot. I practice at least eight hours a day, and whenever possible I continue to take lessons from our guru. My father, Robi Bhattacharya, initiated me into Indian classical music. He is a sitar player and he also plays the santur. My mother was also a sitar player. We always had music in our family and I grew up surrounded by many instruments at home. I don’t remember when I started playing, I was very young. First I started playing tabla and then switched to santur, probably when I was eight years old.
I first took lessons from Pandit Dulal Roy in Calcutta. A lot of the technical knowledge I have came from him and my father. I also received some training from Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. When I attained a certain level I went to Pandit Ravi Shankar for higher learning and have been studying with him for the past 13 years. I have learned a lot from him. Even today, when I can, I seek his guidance and take lessons.
Q: ‘Kirvani’ is your second recording for Music of the World, the earlier one was ‘Sargam.’ You have also recorded with other labels both in India and here in the U.S. Have you found any major differences in the way the recording industries work?
A: I feel that the quality of recording in the U.S. is a lot better. Of course things have gotten much better in India in recent years, but I prefer the way recordings are carried out in the U.S. For example, while recording for Music of the World, I felt very relaxed. The day before, we spent time at the studio preparing sound checks. That gave us the opportunity to get acclimatized to the ambiance in the studio, get used to the equipment, etc. All we had to do on the actual day of the recording was to go to the studio and start playing. We didn’t feel stressed in any way. We were in a very good mood, and so we were able to perform on a higher plane. This way the music company and the listeners have a chance to hear us at our very best. Bob’s production style is excellent. Very few companies do that in India.
Q: On an average, how many albums do you record?
A: 2-3 albums in a year. Others do more than that, but I prefer to not do so. (At this point Tarun plays the ascending and descending scales of the Rag Bachaspati on the santur.)
Q: That is a raga from the South Indian (Carnatic) Classical music tradition. Yesterday during the recording for MOW, you performed Rag Kirvani and Hamsa Dhwani. Who influenced you in choosing Carnatic ragas as part of your repertoire?
A: It was Pandit Ravi Shankar. My guru uses many scales from Carnatic music and plays them in the Hindustani (North Indian) style. So I was inspired by him. He has popularized many Carnatic ragas which are very sweet and sound very good on this instrument. So I play them a lot.
Q: You have also recorded and performed extensively with other musicians in both traditional music settings and light classical music settings. The one album that comes to my mind is Song of Nature, with V. M. Bhatt (slide guitar), Ronu Majumdar (flute), and yourself. How did you get involved in that project?
A: Both Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Ronu Majumdar are also Ravi Shankar’s students, and so they are my guru bhaiyyas (brothers). The three of us often took lessons and travelled together. Sometimes we sit together and experiment. Songs of Nature was the result of one such session. We have performed together in concerts many times and we also recorded some light classical music together, songs that are based on ragas, but not as traditional.
Q: Do you have any plans to compose music for Indian films?
A: Actually, Ronu Majumdar and myself have composed music for a couple of t.v. serials in India. And if I get an opportunity, I am willing to experiment with film music too. After all, music is music. The more I learn from other musical forms, the better it is with respect to the development of my own musical abilities.