Dispelling darkness: Sarod and Vocal recital by young masters

The word guru literally means “dispeller of darkness”. In Indian classical music, teachers hold an especially elevated status among their students. This is due to the fact that shastria sangeet is primarily an oral tradition (guru-shishya paramapara), with knowledge being transmitted from an “enlightened teacher” to the student.

Raag-Mala Toronto’s July 9th program fell on the night of Guru Purnima, which is the first full moon after the summer solstice. It was heartwarming to hear all the artists on the stage pay homage to their gurus, more so than they usually do before each recital, as is the norm.

In this tradition, the human voice is considered to be the primary instrument, therefore it is not unusual for instrumentalists to take at least some taalim from gurus who are vocalists. However, it is rare to see vocalists who have had instrumentalists as their main gurus.

Two of the well-known vocalists I can think of who are exceptions are Soma Ghosh, who studied with the shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan, and Mitali Bhawmik (who will perform for Raag-Mala Toronto on September 9th), who spent almost 20 years learning from the great violinist Pandit VG Jog.

“At the start of my studies, I trained under three vocalists, including the doyenne of Patiala Gharana Vidushi Meera Banerjee,” explained Mitali. “However, I had an opportunity to learn from Panditji, who was not only a wonderful soloist, but had played jugalbandhis with many other soloists, and also accompanied many vocalists”.

Recognizing Mitali’s talent, Panditji took her under his wing and trained her in khayal gayaki. “The range of Gurji’s work, having performed with artists from different gharanas (musical traditions), meant that the focus was always on presenting the raag in the best way possible; always in the service of the rasa (the mood) of the raag”’ said Mitali.

More recently, she has been studying “lighter” forms like thumri, dadra, hori, etc, under Srimati Dahlia Rahut, a senior disciple of the much decorated Vidushi Girija Devi.  

The sarod player Sougata Roy Chowdhury, the other performer at Raag-Mala’s September 9th concert, grew up in a household steeped in the arts. His first teacher was his mother, Smt. Ajanta Roy Chowdhury, who was a vocalist trained from an early age in the Agra Gharana style of singing. His father is the famous sculptor Sarbari Roy Chowdhury, who was equally renowned as a music connoisseur and collector of recordings.

“The main reason that I chose the sarod was that my father was a close friend and an ardent admirer of the sarod Maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan”, says Sougata. “We had many baithaks in our home, and I became completely enamoured with the sound of the sarod”.

Sougata’s first formal guru was Dhyanesh Khan, the Maestro’s son. After Dhyanesh’s much-too-early demise, Sougata studied with the Maestro’s other son Ustad Ashish Khan.  More recently, Sougata has been with Pandit Santosh Banerjee, the highly regarded sitar and surbahar player, who traces his musical roots to Miyan Tansen, one of the jewels of the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s court.

Musicians often remark that they feel their gurus’ presence whenever they are on the stage during their performance. Whether or not one believes in the existence of a spiritual world, one cannot deny the power of music to provide solace and moments of joy and even ecstasy. And perhaps help dispel some darkness in one’s life.


Mohamed Khaki


Where and when:

Saturday, September 9th at 7pm
McLeod Auditorium (University of Toronto Campus)
Tickets online: sulekha.com/toronto
Inquiries: Rishi 647-521-3816, Manoshi 416-276-5616