Interview with Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri on the Guru tradition

By Preeti Mann

Artist and Senior Guru, Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, is a leading tabla artist and guru, Pt. Chaudhuri trained in the Lucknow gharana under Pandit Santosh Krishna Biswas.  Pt. Chaudhuri is the Director of Percussion at the Ali Akbar College of Music and Chair for the World Music Department at California Institute of the Arts. Pt. Chaudhuri took the time to discuss the meaning of the word “guru,” his experiences with his guru, and the guru-shishya parampara.

The guru-shishya parampara is one of the essential principles of the study of any art form.  In your words, what is the meaning of the word “guru,” and who is a guru and what is a shishya?

In our Indian culture, the guru plays a major role.   Guru is actually a medium for the higher concept of Param Guru (Guru of the Guru).   Param Guru is one you can call God.  It is said in our country that the relationship between guru and shishya is made way before.  People who come to me, I never turn them away because this was already determined by the Param Guru, and that person who teaches, is the medium.

At the same time guru is also one who helps the shishya and in India in those days – I’m not talking about now – but in the olden times they used to tie Ganda (tying thread).  It means that from now on I am going to take care of you and I am responsible.   At the same time it was also the shishya’s duty to take care of their guru.  The guru is never going to hide anything from shishya, and shishya is not going to hide anything from the guru.  That was the main relationship between guru-shishya in those days.  It used to work very well because guru was like your father, but also more than a father because the guru does not have any kind of self-interest in the shishya and is very open-minded.  In our times, tying Ganda was a different concept.  The Guru’s knowledge was great and had a relationship that’s very sweet and cannot be explained.

Nowadays it has become very commercial.  Nobody cares about tying Ganda.  It’s about how many students he can have.  In our times it was different –  our aim was just to learn.  The gurus were not that well-off, but they had so much wisdom.  Nowadays, it is to learn so one can go perform on stage without any knowledge.  In those days performing was totally out of the question.  But today, people learn a little bit and go out to perform.  The whole concept got changed.

What is the difference between the way you were taught and the way you teach?

That is a good question.  First of all, we could not ask questions [when we were being taught].  I did whatever my Guruji said.  One time I could not control myself and asked a question and my Guruji said, “Don’t ask anything, do it and it’ll come after one year.”

But now everybody is asking questions about 6th grade when they are in 5th grade!  In India, I did exactly like I was taught with Indian students –  I was a strict disciplinarian.  Here,  I was blown away with too many questions and wanted to go back to India.  I tried to understand and have realized that it’s the culture here to ask many questions.  So I understood that, and I started telling them, you have to grow slowly and you’ll learn.  They started realizing after a long period of time and now I see the results. They are following exactly the same way as I was taught and now students have learned here through a lot of sacrifice.  So, it is working.  Guru-shishya parampara is changed here now.

Were there particular moments when you felt anger towards your Guruji?

I was angry with him sometimes, even though he gave me so much love, because I felt that he never appreciated me.  He never appreciated that any concert I played was good.  He always criticized me, saying that this was not right and only pointed out my negative side, not my positive.  So I would get upset about that.  When he was teaching me, he was a very strong man.  During my classes when I was playing, he would just nod his head saying, “Hmm, no no no no.”  I used to think at that point, “This guy is getting old.”  At that time he was 75, so I thought he had a hearing problem.  After a year, I realized what he was telling me.

The only compliment he gave to me was just a year before he passed away.  At that time, the early 1990s, I was here, I was already playing all over.  He was very angry with me because he wanted me to be with him 24/7, but it was not possible because I had concerts and this and that.  So anyway, one time it happened that I had a one-month tour with Nikhil Banerjee and I couldn’t go to him.  When I did come back to visit him, in front of everybody Guruji said, “I am going to give you this composition and you are going to show me at least one variation of this.  Go outside and think about it.”  So I said “Ok,” and I started thinking, but could not do it.  I didn’t realize what he was saying.  He came outside and said, “The key is in your hand and if you don’t open the door you can’t get in”.

In ‘94/’95 when I played with Ali Akbar Khan Sahib in Calcutta, Guruji secretly came to the concert.  He didn’t tell anybody, not even his family.  The next day I went to see him, and he was teasing me, but I had no idea what he was talking about because I did not know he was at the concert the night before.  When he finally told me he was there, I was so nervous.  But you know what he said?  “Look forward and follow that direction.  You are on the right track and you will reach your goal.  Go forward, don’t look back”. I was about to collapse!  And then the following year he passed away.

How has the guru-shishya parampara changed here in the U.S.?

In the beginning there was no parampara here.   People did not see clearly, but realized that there is something in India, and that it is working because of the good results.  Like Chitresh, since the 70s we have [gone through] a lot of suffering and sacrifice; [this] took time.  Now people are understanding the guru-shishya relationship and the parampara is making sense in the western world.

The Indian kids who are born here, they have no idea about Indian culture at all, and I don’t blame them.  What I’m trying to say is it is our duty and parents’ duty to teach Indian culture and give them an idea about our traditions.  Now they are learning in schools and colleges about Indian culture, history, philosophy, music.  They are also learning because they are curious.

Do you see the role of the guru changing?

I don’t think you need to change it because it’s the truth. You follow the truth.  You don’t need to change anything because it will be there always, whether we believe in it [or not].  It will come up because you cannot hide the truth.  I think it is a very sweet thing, it has a lot of meaning and I think it should be there, and I think it will be.

Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri will be performing in a tabla solo with his son, Nilan Chaudhuri, on the closing night of the Traditions Engaged festival on Sunday, Oct. 3rd.   His solo performance will be followed by the world premiere of Chhanda Bhava, where he will perform alongside Pandit Chitresh Das (Kathak), Pandit Bhawani Shankar (Pakhawaj), and Poovalur Srinivasan (Mridangam).

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