Debu Chaudhuri: Stickler for Spartan custom

Sreevalsan Thiyyadi

One trend that veteran Debu Chaudhuri particularly disliked about contemporary Hindustani music was of sitarists swaying the instrument even during meditative moments. “Ye kya hota hai,” he would ask, contemptuously imitating the showmanship with a carefree throw of the right hand after plucking a critical note. The demonstration of the “despicable” act amounted to a tacit salute of his beloved guru.

“Our system doesn’t permit such indiscipline. My teacher used to be very particular about us never swinging the sitar,” the Padma Bhushan awardee would say, referring to Ustad Mushtaq Ali Khan (1911-89). Pride bordering

on cockiness distinguished Chaudhuri, who died in Delhi on Saturday amid dementia complicated by Covid-19.

A steady sitar was least the hallmark of Chaudhuri’s school. True, Khan sahib styled himself primarily on celebrated Senia gharana, but a ring of austerity defined his artistry. So focal was the Spartan purity of the sound that ornamentation became secondary. Often it looked like the ustad was playing the weighty rudra vina known for its gravitas, old-timers say.

This feature sustained its resonance in Chaudhuri. For all that acquired heritage, his family had no member into music anywhere up the generations. Nonetheless, his native village near Mymensingh in present-day Bangladesh wasn’t unfamiliar to Hindustani classical. When a sitar master in the neighbourhood school at Ramgopalpur invited Debu to learn under him, the six-year-old’s father responded with a smack on the boy’s cheeks. That apart, Debu performed as a 12-year-old at the radio studio soon after India attained Independence and the family chose to migrate to West Bengal. Panchu Gopal initiated Chaudhuri into sitar and soon Khan sahib groomed him in higher music studies as a college-goer in Kolkata. The new master prompted him to start from scratch, following which the teenager consistently topped university-level music competitions.

Into the 1950s, Chaudhuri continued to struggle amid the rise of titans Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan.

In 1960, he shifted to the national capital after Delhi University started a music department. He joined there and taught sitar four decades, also guiding PhD aspirants.

Gwalior gharana vocalist Laxman Krishnaro Pandit describes Chaudhuri as a paramparawadi — a stickler for tradition. “He was uncompromising and always sought to nurture that trait in the new practitioners,” the octogenarian adds. The sitarist, with assistance from his instrumentalist son Prateek Chaudhuri, founded the UMAK Centre for Culture in 1993, nurturing youngsters. Khayal vocalist Tejpal Singh saw an “ideal tutor” in late Chaudhuri. “His alaap would stem from a deep understanding of the raga,” he says about the instrumentalist, who had to his credit a day-long CD series of 24 ragas spanning an hour each. Chaudhuri came up with eight ragas and half-a-dozen books on music.

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