‘Picking up a song from the Antara is totally unacceptable and musically unethical’ – Shreya Guhathakurta

Shreya Guhathakurta, one of the most noted Rabindra Sangeet exponents of this generation, meets team Kothabriksha.

Kothabriksha: You have been born and raised in a family which is essentially very traditional and orthodox. The Guhathakurtas’, have always been into Tagore and his music.

Shreya: Yes I was born into a very traditional, musical and the famous Guhathakurta family in Kolkata. Music especially Rabindra Sangeet has inherently seeped into my blood as a natural phenomenon. My grandfather late Suvo Guhathakurta was the founder – rector of Gitabitan and Dakshinee, two most premiere Rabindra Sangeet institutions here in Kolkata. I started taking lessons in Rabindra Sangeet from Mohor dida ( the late Kanika Bandopadhyay) ever since I was four years old. So Tagore and his music ran onto my genes almost by default.

Kothabriksha: So your pursuing of this genre of music has been more of a family imposition or something beyond family pressure?

Shreya: It was not an imposition, it came naturally. I started learning the Piano alongside taking lessons in Rabindra Sangeet. Piano and western music were a huge addiction. I learnt the piano for almost about 15 years. I still remember that I used to run away miles in school when during Rabindra Jayanti and Saraswati pujo I was dragged on to the rehearsals. I must tell you that I hated Rabindra Sangeet then because there would be this atmosphere at home 24×7. Those were the days I crooned Harry Belafonte, Ricky Martin, Def Leppard to Guns N Roses. It was much later I formally got admitted to Dakshinee and started learning Rabindra Sangeet more seriously.
I think the primary reason being that I have zero inhibitions when it comes to music, whether be it Western music or Tagore. I would say that am blessed with a steady switching mechanism where I can switch from one form of music to another very quickly.  Even while performing, this helps me a lot considering the variety and diversity of Tagore’s music. But however, it wouldn’t be imprudent to say that performing or pursuing Rabindra Sangeet has been more of an accident. It wasn’t a very calculated careerist choice that happened and this still isn’t my 100 percent career as of date. It goes much with my inclinations and choices. Precisely the reason I don’t think twice before saying a No or refuse paid shows, TV programmes or shoots even if they are lucrative pay wise. There is a lot of hearsay about me being a snob. But I would say that “I am happy to be a snob”. Especially when I have always tried to stay true to my art form and have trained myself under the tutelage of the best of gurus. I see a huge void nowadays where there are a lot of gimmicks and the complete novice and uneducated succumbing to those.

Kothabriksha: You are an artist of today’s generation. What do you feel about the disinterest among the youth towards this form of music?

Shreya: I think you always judge the audience for the place that you are in. As a performer, I have to travel places with my music whether be it Durgapur, Baharampur, Burdwan and various suburbs to places outside the country as well. Since I have been outside India mainly in the UK, Paris, USA after my marriage and have performed extensively overseas I have seen a vast and varied audience. The audience is always an overlapping set. There are people who would listen to other genres alongside Rabindranath. Take Bangladesh for example. Since I perform almost regularly in Kolkata and various places in Bangladesh I can tell you about the honesty they have towards any form of Bangla music whether be it Nazrul or Rabindranath or folk forms. There is ample youth participation who would throng places like Shilpakala academy or IGCC when I perform. What amazes me is the way they are taking forward this Bangla culture in their own trusted and honest way.

Kothabriksha: So what do you think goes wrong here in Kolkata?

Shreya: The biggest problem here in Kolkata is everyone wants to perform Rabindrasangeet professionally. Whether you have prolonged training on the subject or not doesn’t seem to be a factor. We have seen people from other genres of music bringing out Rabindrasangeet albums. Most ridiculously recently artists from other professions are performing and recording Rabindrasangeet. There are a number of celebrated artists doing this. I really don’t know what’s the logic behind these steps. Another thing I’ve noticed that artists pick up songs from Antara. I mean will you play a Beethoven symphony starting from the second movement? Then why do this with Rabindrasangeet? Picking up a song from the Antara is totally unacceptable and musically unethical. Moreover, I think here it is complete Bollywood absorption which is swaying the youth from their roots and culture. Secondly, there is a lot of cheap music selling the racks. Of course, there are a lot of artists and young aspirants who are trying to produce good work, but a significant percentage of the community here is more into gimmicks rather staying true and pure to their art forms.

Kothabriksha: As a performing artist, how important is the technique for your expressions and how do you equip yourself accordingly?

Shreya: Technique is really important, without the proper skill sets any performer will not make it to the big platform. But having said so, unlearning the grammar is also very important while performing. So not knowing the grammar is not cool. But, knowing the grammar thoroughly and then just surrendering yourself into the music brings out the best expressions. There have been occasions where I’ve missed a touch note or sometimes have added an extra note and later realized that this happened. It was just that I was too engrossed in the song to think about these very slight changes, not even changes they would be part of my expressions, otherwise, the song will turn out to be a mere notation reading exercise. Every artist has her own unique style and language of expression through which she communicates. Skill is very important, grammar is the structure of the song, but there is something beyond which guides a true artist. There are a lot of skillful artists who have tried singing Rabindrasangeet but have failed miserably. They never understood where to draw the line. Rabindrasangeet is not everyone’s forte. One thing I feel that every musician has her own genre, she/he should stick to that genre. Trying just for the sake of trying without ever understanding the essence of the music is totally unacceptable.

Kothabriksha: Since you are quite well versed in the piano and western music how do you see Tagore as a composer and his vivid melodic spectrum?

Shreya: I think the melodic diversity of Rabindranath is unfathomable. According to me, he is the best composer I’ve encountered so far in terms of diversity and uniqueness. It’s true that Rabindrasangeet has typicality, but even then if you take the tunes separately, the diversity is amazing. The confidence to apply and assimilate so many forms of music and transform them into a different and unique form is the genius of Rabindranath. The dynamics and knowledge were so vast he could do anything. It is still so very unfortunate that Rabindranath is more known as a poet who won the Nobel prize for literature from the Indian subcontinent than as a composer. He has still not been discovered so much as a composer by the west or the outside world as a result of which Rabindra Sangeet is falling short of universal popularity. I interact with people all over the world and they are amazed to know about the existence of such a composer from India. People want to know but there are not enough people trying to take it to that level.

Kothabriksha: Thanks for talking to us, it was a pleasure listening to Shreya Guhathakurta speaking so candidly. Concluding, How do you see the future and what piece of advice would you have for the youth?

Shreya: (Laughs) I’m always candid and it was really great talking to you guys. See, the future will be dependent on what we do today. Art is a huge thing with multidimensionality and infinite perceptions. I have friends who visit the Louvre and keep absorbing the beauty of the same artwork over and over again. They say the paintings speak to them differently every single time. That’s what is amazing about art. Even in case of music, or specifically Rabindrasangeet, a song appeals to you at different times in different ways. I have a lot of hope looking ahead. This multidimensionality of the music must be showcased. You people are doing great work, we need more people from the younger generations to take a stand, create organisations, build concepts, perform more, make the activities online for the world to see. Beyond singing and playing an instrument, there should be discussions on Rabindrasangeet and music as a whole. My advice to young people is don’t get carried away by gimmicks and short-lived temptations. Be true to your art form. Practise hard, create a platform, a voice to take the culture ahead, create something to enhance and spread the rich heritage that we have.

Interviewed and paraphrased by: Dipanjan & Pratyay