The arrival of Pandit Esraj

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A young esraj player promises to make the long forgotten instrument more relevant to Hindustani music by going solo, says Arunabha Deb

All strings attached Shubhayu Sen Mazumdar plays the esraj

IN THE world of Hindustani music, the new word for the esraj is Shubhayu Sen Mazumdar. He has revived the bowed instrument that had otherwise assumed an accompanying role with Rabindra Sangeet.

Thirty-one-year-old Shubhayu, too, came into prominence within his first few concerts in Kolkata as an accompanist. It was clear that, both in terms of his skill and musical imagination, he was leagues ahead of the esraj players who were regulars on the accompaniment circuit. Perched on a lucrative career as an accompanist with hundreds of Rabindra sangeet professionals vying for him, Shubhayu, who hails from a tradition of solo esraj players from Shantiniketan, chose a different path. “I had a problem with the players who were happy to remain accompanists. I wanted to establish myself as a soloist and dispel the notion that the esraj is fit only for accompaniment,” he says, adding, “Even in Delhi, Punjab and Pakistan, it is only used for accompaniment.”

The esraj was one of Tagore’s favourite instruments. As a result, it has been a full-fledged subject of study at the Vishwa Bharati University. Its first major solo exponent was the late Pandit Ashesh Bandopadhyay; his disciple Pandit Ranadhir Roy had pioneered a movement to popularise the esraj as a solo instrument. Roy’s disciple Buddhadeb Das (Shubhayu’s guru) is known to be quiet and introverted; he keeps himself largely to his teaching in Shantiniketan. But in Shubhayu, this gharana has finally found someone to accomplish what Roy had started.

A man of few words, Shubhayu is articulate only when he talks about music. Seemingly disinterested in publicity, he is stubborn in the musical choices he makes, especially in deciding who to accompany (which he continues to do selectively). “I play with artistes who understand my worth and allow me the space to accompany in the manner that I find best,” he says. It is ironic that Rabindra sangeet singers are suddenly taken more seriously if Shubhayu accompanies them.

HAVING PERFORMED at major festivals in Kolkata, Shubhayu has also made “conscious efforts to join fusion projects because I want a greater number of people to get familiar with the sound of the esraj”.

He is aware that listeners tend to draw parallels between the esraj and the sarangi (the former is believed to be a combination of the sitar and the sarangi). Shubhayu has, therefore, opted for a baaj that is more intrinsic to his instrument. “The sarangi is fretless. You can achieve impossible speed on it. But the frets on the esraj allow us to play the dir-dir and other bol patterns that are normally associated with the sarod and the sitar. We are also able to play a nuanced and sustained jhala,” he says. The result is that his playing style includes elements of tantrakari and is not as gayaki-reliant as renditions on bowed instruments often tend to be.

His first solo CD will be released next month by Orion Entertainment. Listeners familiar with Bandopadhyay and Roy will be relieved that the tradition is still alive; the rest will experience a sound long forgotten in Hindustani music. What perhaps will cut across generations is Shubhayu’s enviable mastery over one of the most plaintive Indian instruments.

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