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A Rare Life

Prattyush Banerjee (, a noted sarod player based in Kolkata, is a leading student of Buddhadev Das Gupta's.

Sarod maestro Buddhadev Das Gupta (1933–2018) created a new sound and style of playing when he was just 23, and kept reinventing his music thereafter.

Image Credit: Kaustuv Ray


I believe in destiny. How could I not? How else can I explain the chain of events, some of huge significance nationally if not internationally, that sealed my fate as a sarod player decades before I was born? As a result of Partition, along with millions of unfortunate Bengalis, the great Pandit Radhika Mohan Maitra, a zamindar from Rajshahi, now in Bangladesh, was forced to migrate to Kolkata to become one of the foremost sarod players of his time. His disciple, Buddhadev Das Gupta, along with his family, was also uprooted from the same stretch of land and moved to Kolkata, only to become one of the most important sarod players of India, even while holding down a job as a power engineer for 32 long years. Buddhadev Das Gupta passed away on 15 January, a few weeks short of his 85th birthday.

My father became a close friend of Buddhadevji in school, and their special friendship deepened over the years. The seeds of making me a sarod player under Buddhadevji’s mentorship were perhaps sown at an early stage of their acquaintance. A fortune bestowed on me was this long friendship between Buddha kaka, as I knew him, and my father, who was not only a fellow engineer but also his first sarod student, and a highly regarded connoisseur of music as well. Without any effort on my part I found myself under the tutelage of one of the most inspiring and generous gurus.

Buddha kaka monitored my progress even during the initial stages of my training. Sometimes, he would teach me a tough taan when he would drop in on his way to the office in the morning, and would evaluate my progress the same evening on his way back home. On other occasions, I would stay at his place to learn, practise and master several lessons together with his younger son, Anirban, who was also my cricket and table tennis partner. Much later, these special sessions would continue on numerous train and car trips, when I would accompany him on his concert tours. We had endless discussions ranging from complex analyses of ragas or the decoding of the arithmetic of an intricate teehai, to figuring out what shade of raga Zilla was used in Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight. All this was over and above a regular class every Sunday, which I will miss till my dying day.

Buddha kaka was a hard taskmaster and often impatient with students who would struggle to live up to his demanding standards. An interesting method he employed was injecting a student with a dose of advanced lessons and making him practise with more experienced students so that the relative novice would be challenged to pick up techniques beyond his comfort zone. We often sat in a room repeating a particular phrase for hours until we had mastered it. His classes could go on for five hours in the morning, after which, in the afternoons, there would be more riyaaz with a tabla player under his supervision.

When I look back now, it seems that even as late as in the 1980s we were being nurtured in an authentic guru–shishya parampara, spending time with the master and fellow students under the same roof. In the process, we were also being taught how to be good teachers ourselves. Buddha kaka, a food lover, would always end his teaching sessions with rounds of tea, samosas and sweets.

Some people believe that it is not wise to study with a busy performer. However, my own strong feeling is that while there are knowledgeable non-performing teachers, the tricks of the trade, namely the art of performing itself, are best taught by example. I am fortunate that the largest stretch of my training period with my guru was while he was at the peak of his performing career. During concerts, Buddha kaka would demonstrate the very things he had taught us that morning. Then there would be tours, lecture–demonstrations and seminars, where I would witness not only his wonderful playing but also his lucid oratory skills, both in English and Bengali. His keen analytical mind and excellent education had also led him to become a respected music critic in an English daily as well as a sought-after speaker at seminars in India and abroad. His two-part autobiography in Bengali, Bamoner Chandrosparshabhilash, have elicited praise in literary circles.

Personal Stamp

Buddha kaka made a mark in music as early as the 1950s, when the world of sarod was dominated by veterans such as Baba Allauddin Khan, Hafiz Ali Khan and Ali Akbar Khan, the last often hailed as the 20th century’s most influential sarod maestro. For an instrumentalist, who does not have the uniqueness of the human voice, it is no mean task to create an original sound and style of playing. Right from his first 78-rpm disc, Buddha kaka was not only able to create an identifiable tonality in his sarod-playing, but also establish in those three-and-a-half minutes a style that was completely unheard of. While he imbibed the rich rabab-based style of sarod-playing from his own guru, Radhika Mohan Maitra, Buddha kaka was always guided by his own thinking, at the same time allowing himself to be influenced by the greats such as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, the Patiala gharana singer, and Vilayat Khan, the sitar maestro. He was probably the first sarod player to have successfully played gamak ekhara taans, chhoots and sapaats, as is evident in his 78-rpm recording of raga Maluha Kedar. He was then just 23.

A successful performer generally does not change his style of music, risking the disapproval of a devoted audience. In this regard too Buddha kaka was special. In his late 40s, his music underwent a gradual transformation. He supplemented his gayaki-ang approach with powerful bol work, involving complex plucking of the plectrum, and, much to the delight of tabla players, his vilambit teentaal was filled up with various passages of complex layakari and teehais in different jatis, which presented the accompanist with ample opportunities to offer suitable jawabs, or responses, creating an inspired dialogue. Here again his logical engineering brain was at play; not a single note was unnecessary nor random.

His music was often regarded as cerebral and technical, perhaps overly so for the lay listener to fully appreciate. But to me, his hallmark was his remarkable grasp of ragas and a commanding repertoire of lesser-heard ragas. It is now widely accepted that among instrumentalists, he was an unquestionable master of rare ragas like Chhaya, Maluha Kalyan, Kukubh Bilawal, Samant Sarang and Hanskinkini, while he was also able to find novelty in common ragas like Bageshree, Jaijaiwanti, Desh, Jaunpuri and Kafi. Gifted with an amazing memory and keenness to collect from various musicians, he was a repository of bandishes, both vocal and instrumental, of different gharanas along with possessing an exacting knowledge of different versions of the same raga in different gharanas.

Unlike many traditionalists, Buddha kaka had an open mind and an admiration for music of different cultures. He would analyse the harmonic lines of a Mozart symphony, asking us to notate a passage. He would then explain to us the main melody lines along with its counterpoints. He composed several raga-based pieces in the format of a Western orchestra to be played on Indian instruments. His bandishes derived from Beethoven pieces have been appreciated by Western listeners.

In the context of experimentation, his pioneering work on the songs of Rabindranath Tagore stands out. He has composed over 20 bandishes based on Tagore’s songs which have been archived by All India Radio and the Sangeet Natak Akademi. These are not tunes of the songs played on an instrument; he has used raga phrases in a song, but restructured and embellished them with sarod vocabulary to create a completely new bandish to be played in the true classical format. He was inspired by the raga lines that Tagore had conceived which were, until then, unexplored by veterans.

It is not often that such multifaceted personalities enrich our lives with their presence and work. Buddhadev Das Gupta was an engineer, sarod maestro, writer, lecturer and guru with more than a dozen successful students spanning three generations, such as Nayan Ghosh, Debashish Bhattacharya, Anirban Das Gupta and Debasmita Bhattacharya. Beyond awards and accolades, he belonged to a lost class of enlightened and refined Bengalis, who were reformers, path-breakers and role models. To me, Buddha kaka was the last Renaissance Bengali.


WATCH | Raag Megh: Buddhadev Das Gupta recorded this when he was 23!. This clipping has alaap, jor and jhala where his individual style is already evident.


WATCH | Raag Barwa: Buddhadev Das Gupta plays alap, jor and vilambit teental gat in a raga not often heard. This is followed by a drut gat in Tilak Kamod where he displays his command over various types of ekhara taans.


WATCH | Raag Goud Malhar: This piece showcases the complete concert format that Buddhadev Das Gupta would normally follow highlighting various angs of alaap jor and vilambit gatkari. The drut teentaal bandish is based on a Tagore song, Mor Bhabonare Ki Hawaye Matalo.




Updated On : 27th Feb, 2018


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