Somnath asked me what my emotions were of the song. I stalled and stammered, unsure how to respond, then thought for a moment. “Joyful,” I ultimately replied, though I was not sure that captured it. It certainly did not satisfy Somnath, and he pressed me some more: “I mean, were you peaceful, or was it…” as Somnath himself faltered, searching for words in his third language to describe something that transcends description in any language. “Chaotic,” was his ultimate choice. “Oh, certainly peaceful,” I responded. “Even when the music was fast and there were many notes, I felt calm and peaceful.” This was a good answer. Somnath smiled and said this made him very happy.
Somnath Bhattacharya, originally from West Bengal near Kolkata, is a master of classical Indian music, his main instrument being the slide guitar. At The Heritage School in Gurgaon, however, he teaches sitar and singing as well as the slide guitar, everything, he proudly asserts, in the classical style. His quiz of my emotional response followed a brief private performance that he, together with Jagjit Singh, an excellent tabla musician, gave for me. Peaceful it was, but also highly ornamented, complicated, and coordinated. Even though, as Jagjit explained, classical Indian music is 80% improvised, the two musicians coordinated melody and rhythm in a performance that sounded as pre-planned as a Beethoven composition. Perhaps “sublime” is a better descriptor.
Adequate descriptions of a person’s character are as difficult come by as they are for a piece of music. For Somnath, my immediate impressions were a gentle nature, a wide smile, and a genial laugh. But, when he talks of music, his words are strong, betraying deeply held beliefs and ideals. “Students must first study classical,” he says with a wide smile. “Even more, they must learn singing and the notes of the raga. With that, they can do anything.” With Somnath, however, such strong sentiments are conveyed lightheartedly, with a smile and sometimes a laugh.
I think it is this lighthearted quality, and his capacity to be both opinionated and welcoming, that makes Somnath such a magnetic personality. Both days I was there, the dance teacher came in Somnath’s room, to listen to the music and chat casually. Another man, a Sanskrit and Hindi teacher, also visited, saying he was “feeling low.” He sat on the floor, eyes closed, singing along and sighing quietly as Somnath played music and worked with a few students. He also joined in, playing tabla and supporting Somnath on a few suggestions for the youth: learn classical first, be disciplined, and you can learn anything in music.
Or, maybe it is the music itself, his talent for performance and his deep ideals, that attracts people to Somnath. As one taxi driver recently relayed to me, “Music is everywhere in India.” If that is true, then Somnath’s ethos cuts to the core of this country. How lucky I am to be getting to know him.