Music: An Interview with Arpita Chatterjee

By Anjum Altaf

In response to the interest in our series on music (see here, here, and here), The South Asian Idea (TSAI) is following up with an interview with Arpita Chatterjee (AC) presently in charge of the Academic Research Department at the prestigious ITC Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata and thus an ideal person to guide us in our discussions. These are her personal views.

TSAI: We started our series on music with the quote from Goethe: “I call architecture frozen music.” Is this metaphor of “architecture” relevant for Indian classical music? If not, what would be the appropriate metaphor that could help readers visualize Indian classical music?

AC: I think that is absolutely terrific – sums it up beautifully! You see, music can never really be ‘captured’ – except by experiencing it, isn’t it? I do feel that the closest you can get to a visual form is architecture/sculpture/painting. Maybe we could do an opinion poll on this one – if you are interested, that is!

TSAI: We contrasted the description by Yehudin Menuhin (Western classical music is on the notes) with our interpretation of a comment by Wasifuddin Dagar (Indian classical music is between the notes). Is this an accurate characterization? If so, what exactly does “between the notes” mean?

AC: One of the major complaints that a lot of Western minds have against Hindustani music is with regard to the supposed inaccuracies. That’s why it can’t really be computer-generated. Or rather, the music that is computer-generated doesn’t have a ‘real feel’. We haven’t worked on finding out the exact frequency of say the Darbari Gandhar or the Miyan Malhar Nishad and you know what? We don’t need to. Any musician worth the name knows what it’s supposed to sound like! So what are we aiming at? Not pinpoint accuracy, but aesthetic pleasure. It is the meend, kan swar, andolan, gamak, murki, etc. that we have to perfect – that is what the riyaz is all about. It’s how much feeling you’ve put into the performance, how much experience you’ve had with each raga that ultimately ends up being the acid test. It’s not just the note but how you apply it that makes all the difference. You could try this link for ‘alankars.’ I hope it will help you understand what I am saying.

The silences are also important. Yes, I agree with the view that it is what one does between the notes that makes all the difference!

TSAI: Some readers have argued that there is only one way to go from one note to the other in Indian classical music? Is this right?

AC: The reason why there are so many versions of the same raga is because everyone has their own interpretation of it. Many gharanas have differences of opinion – one of the basic reasons being that there have been so many teachers and they’ve all looked at the sounds differently. In fact you sometimes have slightly varying opinions even in the same gharana! As long as the basic form is the same, you are allowed to interpret your own way. So this one I can’t agree on. I believe that if you’ve been taught by a properly trained person, they would have insisted that you get the raga right, so you might have an interpretation that might be a little different, but you are bound to meet some other people who will look at the raga your way!

TSAI: Is Hindustani classical music now using the equally tempered scale because of the extensive use of the harmonium which is never retuned for different performers?

AC: I don’t think Hindustani musicians can ever use the equal-tempered scale. That would go against the basis of ragadari. They are using the harmonium for accompaniment because it’s easier to sing with a bad harmonium player than a bad sarangiya and good sarangi players are in such short supply that you might as well give up singing if you insist that you’ll only use sarangi accompaniment! There has been a lot of experimenting with harmoniums to overcome this problem. In fact I know some accompanists who use different instruments for different scales – so they ask you what your pitch is, and bring the harmonium of that pitch! The Scientific Department of ITC-SRA was working on an instrument where the shrutis could be adjusted depending on what raga you were going to perform!

TSAI: The violin is now used in both Western and Indian classical music. Why does it sound so different in the two traditions?

AC: The violin in the Western system is held differently and the performance is either standing (solo) or sitting on a chair (in an orchestra). In both the Hindustani and the Karnatic tradition, the players sit on the ground while performing. Posture, how the instrument is held, how it is bowed, all these definitely have an effect on the sound production. Any instrumentalist will tell you that. Again – the alankars also make a difference and this plays a major role in both the Hindustani & the Karnatic systems.

TSAI: Is it easier for an Indian classical musician to adapt to Western classical music than vice versa? If so, what may be the reason for that?

AC: About adapting – I think any musician with an inclination or a wish to learn, can adapt. It’s really all about what you want to do! If you want to learn, you put your heart into it and you work hard. This is a ‘karat vidya’, meaning you learn by doing. Your level of achievement just depends on how hard you’ve tried and how much music (of whatever genre you want to learn) you’ve heard. After all, you can only know what it is supposed to sound like if you listen to it!

TSAI: Many thanks, Arpita ji.

AC: Please remember that our likes and dislikes are pretty personal. Some people might not be interested in an art form I will die for. In short, these views are pretty personal and might not agree with others’ opinions!

Best wishes with your efforts!

Arpita Chatterjee, an Economics (Hons.) graduate of Delhi University, was initiated into Hindustani classical music by Shrimati Dipali Nag of the Agra Gharana under whose guidance she completed the Sangit Prabhakar. Her interest in understanding the gayakee of the Agra Gharana was furthered by Smt Aparna Chakravarti, disciple of Ustad Bashir Khan, from whom she learnt for over 16 years. Arpita Chatterjee is a performing artist, writer and a certified teacher. She is presently researching the impact of training in Hindustani classical music.


  • Vinod
    Posted at 09:42h, 24 August Reply

    A glossary of the terms used would go a long way in comprehending AC’s responses.

    Vinod: The link given in the interview provides many of the definitions along with audio clips demonstrating the alankars.

  • kabir
    Posted at 10:56h, 24 August Reply

    Thanks Arpitaji for the great insights!

  • ElJay Arem (IMC OnAir)
    Posted at 14:01h, 17 September Reply

    Hello, dear TSAI and Arpita!

    great talk… Goethe, that one of my home country. 🙂 And remembers me to a radio show I produced and broadcasted in summer. We have a lot in common, please read:

    Warm regards
    promotion initiative IMC – India meets Classic

    ElJay Arem from Europe/North Germany, Hamburg#

    P.S.: When will you come to my studio for a StudioTalk ? (had some great guests here: )

  • Bill Bartmann
    Posted at 15:08h, 17 September Reply

    Great site…keep up the good work. I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks,

    A definite great read…:)


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