She is the next big thing in Hindustani classical music. Kaushiki Chakraborty Desikan tells Shubho Deb why she is the subject of both fanfare and angry jibes
IN HER fourth standard, she had scored 2 out of 100 in Geography; in her Class X pre-board examinations, she had a 34 in history, which was the pass mark. “My history book still had that new-book smell when I sat down with it before exams. I hated studying.” It is a different matter that Kaushiki Chakraborty Desikan went on to top Calcutta University in Philosophy and then topped Jadavpur University (JU) while pursuing masters. Of course, these achievements have little relation to the fact that she is the leading female Hindustani classical vocalist of her generation. But her academic trajectory tells the story of a certain stubbornness; and a conversation with her clarifies that, even as a musician, she owes significant debt to her determination.
Kaushiki started replicating musical patterns at the age of two; by 12, she was a scholar at the ITC Sangeet Research Academy (SRA); at 15, she was on a 50-concert tour of the US. Her father, the vocal maestro Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty, would often insist that there was no need for her to go to college. “But I developed an interest in logic when I was in Class XI. And by the end of my higher secondary exams, I was determined to study philosophy,” says Kaushiki. She took money from her mother and, without her father’s knowledge, got herself admitted to Jogamaya Devi College in Kolkata. “The only compromise I made was that I chose the morning session, so that I would be done by 11 am.”
She had to face greater opposition when she announced she wanted to do her masters. By then she was already being hailed as the brightest vocalist of her generation. Even the registrar of JU advised her to concentrate on her singing. Kaushiki, however, went on to top the university.
Even at 29, Kaushiki can claim that she has spent a lifetime fighting off detractors. First, there was the notion that she could only sing thumris and other light classical forms and was not mature enough to sing khayal. “I was constantly told (at SRA), ‘So and so is going to sing khayal. Will you sing a thumri for 10 minutes after the recital?’ It was not until I had spent five years as a scholar that I got my first tour as a khayal singer.” Then, of course, there was envy. There is a tradition of a weekly ‘Wednesday Recital’ by a scholar at SRA; these recitals are open to the general public. On days when Kaushiki sang, the hall would overflow and speakers had to be provided outside for people who did not manage to find a seat. Often, the dais would have to be shifted around to accommodate more people. “If my recital was scheduled for a second or third Wednesday of a month, my name would often be torn out of the month’s programme so that people coming on the first Wednesday would not get to know that I was scheduled to sing later that month,” she says. The discomfort with her early success grew when she received a BBC award at the age of 25 for outstanding achievement in music. BBC had sent across a correspondent to film a short feature on her musical journey — particularly, people and places associated with her music. “The correspondent interviewed a number of people. He came back and said that almost everyone had something harsh to say. And most of them felt I was too young to receive such an award. The correspondent just said, ‘There seems to be something spiritually wrong about this’,” recollects Kaushiki.
Much of her early success was constantly undercut by her father’s standing in the world of music. Kaushiki admits that had she not been her father’s daughter, she would not have got a chance to sing at the Dover Lane Music Conference at the age of 20. “It’s not possible that I was the only 20-year-old girl who deserved to sing at Dover Lane. If others got the same opportunity, they could have been where I am today.” (Kaushiki was invited to sing at Dover Lane for the next seven years.) But as the din about her father’s influence got louder, she felt a stronger urge to assert an independent identity. “I thought I might get one, two or even 10 concerts, thanks to my father. But I wouldn’t be invited to my 50th concert because of him? And why do organisers agree to my terms? My father does not discuss my professional terms with them.”
APART FROM this concern, there was the more serious challenge of musically differentiating herself from her father. Historically, no musician has succeeded by imitating his/her illustrious parent (Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Ustad Vilayat Khan and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan being a few cases in point) and Kaushiki had clearly figured this pretty soon after she started performing publicly. She also had the added task of evaluating aspects of her father’s gayaki (and aspects of the Patiala Gharana and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’sgayaki, in general) to see if they would sound aesthetically pleasing in a female voice. “The Patiala Gharana is quite masculine. Its strong aakar and weighty gamaks sound incongruous in a female voice.” However, her understanding of a ‘feminine aesthetic’ is quite different from the conventional one. “ I have consciously combined sweetness and strength in my gayaki.”
‘Some people think that I am aggressive on stage. It is funny how they expect a girl to be timid and demure on stage,’ says Kaushiki
Her efforts are amply reflected in her recitals — a mature and often lilting vistaar is inevitably followed by fierce taans covering threeand- a-half octaves. In response to criticism for ‘excessive’ virtuosity, she says, “I’m not a 60-year-old trapped in a 20-year-old’s body. I enjoy the excitement of singing fast taans; I am aware that at times I get carried away.” She has also had to face criticism for the way she conducts herself on stage. “Some people think I’m aggressive, maybe because I move my hands. It’s funny how they expect a girl to be timid and demure on stage.”
Kaushiki is equally clearheaded about staying away from projects where she feels she has no value to add. She stays away from fusion projects, refuses to participate in cookery shows, does not lend quotes to articles on junk jewellery and home décor and has even turned down an acting offer by Bengal’s raging auteur Rituparno Ghosh. “I can’t go to a set and pretend to be someone else.”
And if her aloofness makes her unpopular, she says she does not care as long as she remains accessible to the few people who really matter. Apart from parents, husband and a nine-month-old son, she is close to a few school friends. “They come to my concerts only to gloat in the applause and shamelessly drink tea outside the auditorium when I sing. But I know they are only a phone call away. And I pray there should never come a day when they will hesitate to call me because I am a famous singer.”