Roll of Honour

Tabla player Sandeep Das, whose collaboration with cellist Yo Yo Ma won a Grammy, on how music needs to engage with politics, his guru Pt Kishen Maharaj and why he doesn’t enjoy performing back home

Written by Suanshu Khurana | Updated: February 14, 2017 12:05:46 am
Members of the Silk Road Ensemble arrive at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles; (below) Sandeep Das with the Grammy Members of the Silk Road Ensemble arrive at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles; (below) Sandeep Das with the Grammy

When tabla player Sandeep Das drags himself away from the after-party of the Grammys — the music world’s biggest annual night — to take our phone call, his voice sounds surprisingly mellow. For someone who, just a couple of hours ago, walked up on the stage inside Staples Centre that was brimming with iconic artists such as Beyonce, Adele and John Legend, among others, and received the hallowed gramophone for Sing Me Home (Masterworks) — his collaborative album with cellist Yo Yo Ma, there is something incongruous about the tranquility with which he responds.

“It is sinking in now. But one has to understand that an award is not the judgement of your quality of music; it’s just a form of recognition. I feel happy. Mostly because it’s a result of so much hard work that has been put in all these years. I don’t have a big father or a musical khandaan or seven generations of performers. I am here because of my guru, Pt Kishen Maharaj, and the 12 years of rigorous training he gave me,” says the 45-year-old. He won the award in the Best World Music Album category, a section that also saw sitar player Anoushka Shankar’s much appreciated Land of Gold find a nomination. Shankar lost for the sixth time and is yet to register her first win.

Das and Yo Yo Ma met 18 years ago and have done six albums ever since, two of which have been nominated for the Grammys. “When I came to play with Yo Yo’s Philharmonic, I came as a proud Indian classical musician, but I soon woke up to the realisation that nothing grows in isolation. So what I thought was mine was actually a shared heritage. So many sounds and so many inspirations have a role to play in what we deliver as our own. The collaboration between Yo Yo Ma and Silk Route Ensemble is on that premise,” says Das, who is the percussion element of the ensemble that calls itself Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Route.

“When we talk of the Silk Route, we talk of the ancient network of trade routes of silk and spices and how significant all of that was as a world collaboration. But we perhaps forget the most significant collaboration in the world, which is created through music,” he says. Sing Me Home, adds Das, is an extension of that. “Music connects us in ways which transcend language, religion and geography,” he says about the album, which takes the theme of different homes for different people, has performers from 20 countries and has them coming together through various musical voices.

Das, who left India four years ago and is now settled in Boston, US, says that the relationship between the arts and politics has become more significant because an ensemble like his gets directly affected. “Getting visas to travel to certain countries has become difficult. We have an Israel-born American violinist and we were going to play for Aga Khan Architecture Award in Malaysia but the visa wasn’t granted. In the past, I have played in places such as Aleppo in Syria, Armenia, and in Kazakhistan, two months after 9/11, and all I got was love,” says Das.

He feels musicians need to find ways to be agents of cultural change. “There is only a limit to which these political figures can control how we make music. If we perform at a concert, thousands of people get to be there and experience the music. But if we collaborate on the internet, the entire world has access. So as artists, at this point, we need to find methods to surpass everything and keep being agents of change,” says Das, whose earlier nominations came in 2005 and 2009.

Das’ own musical story goes back to Patna, where he grew up in a traditional Bengali family that enjoyed listening to various musicians through 78 RPMs and radio, apart from holding regular baithaks at home. His talent was spotted by his father after Das’ school teacher complained that he was disturbing the class by constantly tapping the desk and his feet; recommending he be taken to a doctor. His father instead took him to a tabla player, Shiv Kumar Singh, where the young boy learnt the basics of tabla for a year before his father knocked at the door of Varanasi-based Pt Kishen Maharaj, requesting his son be trained by him. Maharaj accepted after he was sure that Das was capable.

For the next four years, every Friday evening, Das got onto a train from Patna to Varanasi, learnt from his guru, swept the floors, under the guru-shishya parampara, and came back on Mondays to go to school. His father later moved to Varanasi so that his son could learn without the travel issues. “I am thankful to my father who had the vision to send me to the Harvard of tabla in India. My 12 years of training under my guru is why anything has been possible,” says Das, who soon began performing with Shubha Mudgal, Pt Vishwamohan Bhatt, Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma and Pt Ravi Shankar.

But the attitude of musicians and organisers, treatment of tabla players as accompanying artists and almost never as main artists and audience always wanting classical music for free is why he decided to leave India four years ago. “The insecurity that the artists have in India — they wouldn’t even want to print the name of the tabla player on the invites and the organisers would treat the main artist better than the tabla artist. Percussion is the heart of a performance and it was getting difficult to go through things here,” says Das, who was residing in Delhi’s Dwarka until 2012.

He is still an Indian citizen but believes that as a country we need to deepen our understanding of classical music. Institutionalising music, he says, hasn’t helped. “Tell me one university in India that has produced a brilliant concert artist,” he asks. The West, he says, not only values merit and talent, it also treats its artists better. “Especially Yo Yo Ma. He always wants one to explore more, find interesting directions,” says Das. He hasn’t performed in India for almost half a decade but says he’ll come back. “It’s the land of my training, my roots, but I also value humanity and people over everything else,” he says.

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