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Interview With Sitarist Shubhendra Rao

Shuchita Rao

Learnquest Academy and Mandaara New England Kannada Koota organized a lecture-cum-demonstration by Pandit Shubhendra Rao, prominent disciple of Bharat Ratna, the late Pandit Ravi Shankar on Wednesday, July 26 at the Learnquest Academy in Waltham. Son of one of the early disciples of Pandit Ravi Shankar, Shri N. Rama Rao and Smt. Nagaratna, a Saraswati Veena player, Shubhendra took his first sitar lesson at the age of seven and at the age of twenty, moved into Pandit Ravi Shankar’s home to learn in the Guru-Shishya tradition. He participated in several of Pandit Ravi Shankar’s major musical productions and has since performed at prestigious venues.

On the evening of July 26, Pandit Shubhendra Rao spoke about his journey in music, his experiences as a disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar, the evolution of the Sitar as a hybrid of the Indian Saraswati Veena and the Persian three-stringed Sehtaar instrument and the differences in the instrument constructions as well as stylistic differences in the manner of playing the Sitar by the two renowned sitar artists, Ustad Vilayat Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar. After demonstrating Tantrakaari and Gaayaki angas on the sitar , he answered several questions from the audience. Mandaara New England Kannada Koota presented a medal to him as a token of appreciation for his service to music.

You mentioned that the Sitar was a marriage of the Veena and the Persian Sehtar. What specifically did we borrow from the Sehtar that the Saraswati Veena did not already have?

The movement of the frets is what was the missing in the Indian Saraswati Veena. We have several types of Veenas (Rudra Veena, Mayuri Veena, Shat-tantri veena) . There are some constraints with Saraswati Veena when it comes to playing North Indian music. Of course, if you are interested in playing a certain type of music you can adapt any instrument to play it. My wife Saskia has adapted the Western cello to play Hindustani music for instance.

Over a period of time, how did your practice evolve?

In my late teens and early twenties, it was important to have a discipline of practice. During my teen years and in my twenties, my average practice was between 10 and 12 hours a day for six days of the week. The seventh day was given to the body to recover from the physical strain. A lot of practice goes into mastering the technique of playing the instrument.  To bring out what you want to bring out in your music, your technique must be so good that you are not stuck thinking about which fingers to press on the frets or what stroke to use, or how much should I pull the string. Only when you go beyond the technique, music starts to flow. As far as practicing everyday goes, music teaches you a lot. The day you sit to prove a point, you cannot. My approach is to be a humble servant of music. If music happens correctly on a certain day, it is because of the aashirwaad of elders. If it does not, I take it in my stride and try harder the next time.

How much does the audience matter to you?

Music is a performing art. If I am sitting in front of an audience, I have come to share an experience. It was written in the Natya Shastra fourteen or fifteen hundred years back that the audience is an artist’s  mirror.” I have analyzed and found my audience to be divisible roughly into four groups:
1. Musicians who understand your struggles and your journey.
2. Music lovers who may not understand the grammar and intricacies but love music.
3.  Attendees come to listen because they have heard that the artist is good.
4. People who have come to the concert by mistake.
An artist must please all four groups, even the one who came by mistake so that he is happy and returns to the next concert. Do not cater to the lowest common denominator but aim for your music to please the members of all the four groups.

Our children have exposure to popular music everywhere. Is it a distraction or is it complimentary in your view?

A child gets “sanskaar” (values) from the parents even before he/she is born. It is also said that the mother is the first Guru (not to say that the father plays a lesser important role). It is crucial to introduce the child to the right ingredients early in a child’s life. . I was lucky to learn from a good Guru but the others should also get a good exposure to music. I remember listening to MS Subbalakshmi early in the morning because my mother would turn on the radio. Our education system concentrates on teaching A B C in early years. I believe that arts education is crucial in early years. When it comes to popular music, you cannot avoid it and you should not too. My wife and I are into designing a good music curriculum for schools. We need to take our children to good productions, museums, and high quality music and dance events. Youth is of course all about rebellion. Once one settles into a job and family, you realize that your childhood was the best. If we put the correct ingredients on a child’s plate, everything will come out good.

Have you played for dance productions? What is the difference with solo performance?

I have composed for dance productions. The accompanist is required to do a lot of repetitions so that the dancer can improvise. If the accompanists start improvising simultaneously, it becomes difficult for the dancer.

In training musicians, what other complimentary skills for education will lead to healthier habits and success in music?

Tradition can be an excess baggage sometimes. In my opinion, Indian music is great but to elevate it to a level where you exclude young children from it is not right.  You have to take a child slowly to a level where he/she can appreciate music. Our son at the age of 2.5 was speaking five languages and we wanted him to be bi-musical (Western and Indian). In Western music, there has been plenty of research for early childhood education. In Indian music there is nothing except for an occasional story about Mian Tansen. The child should be able to relate to the music and should learn from ground up – know A, B and C, then make words and so on. A playful immersion is important for the child. Right now, in Delhi there are 15,000 children learning basics of music in a curriculum that we have designed.

Carnatic music education has been more successful than Hindustani music education. What is the reason?

In Carnatic music, over centuries they have developed a good system of music that has passed on from one generation to another with great ease. In Hindustani music because of the Gharana system, there is no uniformity in thought. Everything is good but Ustad Vilayat Khan plays Kedar raga very differently than I have learned. You will not see that happen in South India. Every student will know just one way of singing or playing a composition.

If in the teaching of music Guru shishya paramparaa is the only way to impart quality music, what is the role of institutions in teaching music?

All depends on the Guru and Shishya. Even in Western music, we have mentors (not Gurus). In an institution if a strong bond is developed between the student and the mentor/Guru, a lot can be developed even in an institution.

When you sit down to practice every day, what routine do you follow?

It is most important to practice the exercises, then the composition. Build on what you do the previous day. Even with lesser practice but the right way of practice, you can progress a lot.

In marrying an artist from Holland, what aspects of her culture have you imbibed and what aspects of your culture has she imbibed?

I have been influenced by my wife’s honesty and devotion to art. She sits on the floor and wears a sari and bindi and plays music. I appreciate that. In my own family, we hardly say “thank you” to my parents and siblings. When you say “Thank you”, people feel appreciated. That is one immediate thing that comes to mind about what I have learned from Western culture.

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