At the turn of the Indian Independence, a 12-year-old Devabrata Chaudhuri, arrived at Senia gharana legend Ut Mushtaq Ali Khan’s residence in Delhi and asked to be his disciple. The sitar exponent was instantly displeased and refused. Another student, Nikhil Banerjee, had recently left after learning from him for a few months and moved on to Ut Allauddin Khan of the Maihar gharana.
The rancour surfaced in the voice as he spoke to his wife — ‘Dekho ek aur Bengali Brahmin aaya hai seekhne (See another Bengali Brahmin has come to learn’.
But Chaudhuri was adamant. His hunger for music allowed Ut Mushtaq Ali to give the young boy from Bangladesh, not just the secrets of the swaras and purity of thought process but also an immersive spiritual experience, turning the young boy into a master of the instrument, allowing him to make a mark in the world of sitar amid some very significant, successful and senior musicians of the time such as Ut Vilayat Khan, Pt Ravi Shankar, Banerjee and Ut Halim Jaffer Khan.
Sitar exponent Pt Devabrata Chaudhuri fondly called Debu Chaudhuri on and off stage and torchbearer of the Jaipur-Atrauli gharana, passed away in the Capital in the wee hours of Saturday due to Covid-related complications. He was admitted to GTB Hospital on Thursday after his son, sitar player Prateek Chaudhuri sent out a social media post requesting a bed for his father.
Chaudhuri was suffering from dementia and had a cardiac arrest amid Covid-related issues. He will be cremated on Monday after his son, who is also battling Covid, gets discharged from the same hospital.
According to his friend and Gwalior gharana doyen LK Pandit, “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”.
Growing up in Ramgopalpur, a small village Meymanpur in what is now Bangladesh, Chaudhuri was five when he encountered sitar lessons in school and asked his father about learning the instrument. A hitting and many scoldings later, “because mausiqi (music) was considered below academics” at home, a sitar was bought after Chaudhuri’s mother intervened.
He came to Kolkata and finished his higher studies here, after which he went to learn from Ut Mushtaq Ali, who was not just a strict guru, but clear about the purity of the artform. He made sure that sitar was played with 17 frets and not 19-20 as is usual. He was not comfortable with the innovations brought about by Shankar and others and refused the populist idea of making his music relatable.
“Which is why he was called the musician of musicians,” Chaudhuri would say. He also made sure his favourite student stuck to tradition. And Chaudhuri did. With reverence. He joined Delhi University in 1971 as Reader and was Dean and Head of Music Department besides performing regularly. As a tribute to his guru, he also set up Ut Mushtaq Ali Khan Centre for Performing Arts. He authored numerous books on music that are still referenced by classical music students and is also credited with composing eight original ragas. “A brilliant musician, his humility was unlike anyone else’s,” says sitar player Shubhendra Rao.
Chaudhuri was awarded the Padma Bhushan, Padma Shri and Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for his contribution to music.