One of the things that has most impressed me about this festival is the amount of respect everyone gives to one another. There is an Indian custom of touching the feet of your gurus and elders to give blessings and show your respect. Every time one of Samarji’s students sees him they touch his feet. If they see him from a distance and can’t reach him then they hold there hands together in front of their heart or face and give a little bow. If an elder of Samarji comes into the room, then Samarji touches his feet, as does everyone else. It is a nice custom that gives meaning to the term guruji and shows respect for those that came before you.
Understanding this custom has given me great anticipation for the final day of this festival. There has been one man that gets his feet touched by everyone that sees him. His name is Pt. Krishen Maharaj. Performers have even come off stage, walked into the audience and touched his feet before beginning their performance. I am told that he is the oldest living exponent of the great tabla players. I feel the anticipation because he is to be the final performer in the festival. I am sure that the whole front row will be filled with most of the performers from the week, all there to see a living legend. As a newcomer to this musical world, I feel that I don’t fully understand the significance of his performance, but I definitely feel the respect.
Another reason for my anticipation for Sunday is that my first teacher of the tabla, Pt. Swapan Chaudhuri will be performing a tabla solo. I studied with Swapanji for 2 1/2 years at Cal Arts and this will be my first time seeing him perform a tabla solo, and it will be in front of his home crowd. I am so excited for this. George said I may get to see him before the performance. I hope he remembers me!
Yesterday was another good day for me. I am thankful for my good health and energy. I spent the morning at the tabla maker's shop again. We talked a bit more this time. His name is Mukta Das. He told me that he is very busy because of this festival, and that he makes tabla for all of the big names. As we talked he was working on Krishen Maharaj’s tabla for Sunday. The more I watch him work, the more I understand why he is so good. His mastery of every detail of the process is fun to watch. I showed him my card with a picture of my tabla on it and he stared at it for 5 minutes. He said it was a Calcutta tabla, but not made by him. He really liked it.
After leaving Mukta’s place I hopped on the metro subway and went on an adventure into downtown. It was fun to walk around and just watch the culture buzz. India has so many nooks and crannies that are all filled by people doing every thing from making food, polishing shoes, butchering fish and chicken, selling cigarettes, telling fortunes, praying, sleeping, squatting, sewing, reading, picking their nose, making fires, washing clothes, talking, eating, etc., etc., etc., and that is all in just one city block!
As I walked I began talking to a guy who just opened a new shop down the road. He said his old shop burnt down in a fire, and now he has just opened a new one, but business is slow and he is having a hard time. I asked him if I could see it and he got really happy. I could tell he wasn’t just putting me on because his new shop looked like he just set it up and it was stuffed way in the back of an almost empty building. We had to go through a gate and walk down a deserted alley, (very rare in Calcutta), just to get to it. When we got there he had some of the most beautiful shawls and fabrics that I have ever seen. He said, “I don’t care if you don’t buy anything, but please let me show you what I have. It is so beautiful and it is a joy for me to show you.” He then spent the next hour unwrapping and laying out every piece in his store. He explained the difference in all the fabrics and asked me if I like each and every one. In the end I made a small purchase from him and he was very happy. It was nice to have an honest, good time with a merchant. As a big tall white guy in India, this kind of thing is hard to find. I shook his hand and caught a cab home, (paid for by the merchant). I got back to the mission with enough time to take a little nap before the festival.
The festival tonight was wonderful. This time it started off with the drums. It was a duet of two brothers, Madhu and Gopal Burman. One played tabla and the other played and instrument called the khol. It was like a pakawaj, except it was ceramic and the small head was really small, like 4 inches in diameter. The pitch was very high. It was piercing. They played very well. It was like fireworks were going off the entire time.
Next was Narendra Mishra on the sitar. His tabla player was a younger phenom named Sukhbindar Singh Namdhari, or Pinki for short.
They brought a lot of energy and virtuosity to the stage and the crowd was into it the whole time. They were fast and very much in sync with each other. It was a good match-up.
The final performance was Debasish Bhattacharyya. He played a customized guitar that he played flat with a slide. It had all the sympathetic strings and sounded like a warm lap steel. His tabla player was Anindo Chatterjee’s son. When the performance started Anindo and Mukta Das came and sat down right in front of me. It was fascinating to see Anindo watch his son perform. His son had his eyes glued to his father for the whole performance.
He was actually really an amazing tabla player. I guess it should be no surprise when your father is considered one of the best in the world.