Paying homage to Sitar legend, Debu Chaudhuri, who we lost to COVID-19

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Published by Diya Khetrapal on 02 May 2021

A 12-year-old Devabrata Chaudhuri arrived at the residence of Senia Gharana legend Ut Mushtaq Ali Khan in Delhi at the turn of the century and requested to be his disciple. The sitar player was enraged and rejected him right away. Another student, Nikhil Banerjee, had recently moved on to Ut Allauddin Khan of the Maihar Gharana after learning from him for a few months.

‘Dekho ek aur Bengali Brahmin aaya hai seekhne (See another Bengali Brahmin has come to learn),’ he said to his wife, his voice full of anger.

Chaudhuri, on the other hand, was adamant. Because of his passion for music, Ut Mushtaq Ali was able to teach a young boy from Bangladesh not only the secrets of the swaraz and the purity of thought process, but also an immersive spiritual experience, transforming him into a master of the instrument and helping him to make a name for himself in the world of sitar alongside some of the most important, influential, and senior musicians of the time, including Ut Vilayat Khan, Pt Ravi Shankar, Banerjee, and Ut Halim Jaffer Khan.

Pt Devabrata Chaudhuri, also known as Debu Chaudhuri on stage and as the torchbearer of the Jaipur Senia Gharana, died in the early hours of Saturday in the Capital due to COVID-19 related complications. On Thursday, he was admitted to GTB Hospital after his son, sitar player Prateek Chaudhuri, requested a bed for his father on social media.

In the midst of COVID-19 related problems, Chaudhuri developed dementia and suffered a cardiac arrest. After his son, who is also fighting Covid, is discharged from the same hospital on Monday, he will be cremated.

According to LK Pandit, a friend and Gwalior Gharana doyen, “What was interesting about Debu was that he didn’t come with a lineage. His ancestry and inheritance had nothing to do with music. A self-made artiste, the mithas in his sitar will never be forgotten”.

Chaudhuri was five years old when he saw sitar lessons in school and asked his father about playing the instrument while growing up in Ramgopalpur, a remote village in what is now Bangladesh. After a beating and several scoldings, Chaudhuri’s mother interfered and a sitar was purchased “because mausiqi (music) was considered below academics” at home.

He came to Kolkata to complete his higher education, after which he went to learn from Ut Mushtaq Ali. Who was not only a stern guru but also a firm believer in the artform’s purity. He made certain that the sitar was played with 17 frets rather than the standard 19-20 frets. He was uncomfortable with Shankar’s and others’ advances, and he rejected the populist notion of making his music more relatable.

“Which is why he was called the musician of musicians,” Chaudhuri believed. He also made certain that his favourite pupil followed the rules, which Chaudhuri did, with respect. He began working at Delhi University in 1971 as a Reader and later became Dean and Head of the Music Department, performing on a daily basis. He also founded the Ut Mushtaq Ali Khan Centre for Performing Arts as a tribute to his guru. He wrote a number of music books that are still used by classical music teachers, and he is also an accomplished pianist. He is also credited with composing eight original ragas.

Sitar player Shubhendra Rao calls him “A brilliant musician, his humility was unlike anyone else’s.”

Chaudhuri was the recipient of the Padma Bhushan, Padma Shri, and Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for his contribution to music.

 

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