Writings About Music

Astonishing Auditory Auteur: Silence Is Emboldened

Swapan Chaudhuri

This title is an inadequate description of tabla artist Swapan Chaudhuri, of course, but as Shiva has thousands of names so may a musician of this caliber engender endless adjectival portraits.

Swar is Ishwar, the great Harihar Rao taught me, meaning Sound is God. With that concept we are at the beginning of understanding the significance of Chaudhuri’s tabla manifestations.

This is a majestic, perfectly etched and intoned instrumental voice comparable to the finest shiningly resonant and expressively deep vocalists such as Pandit Jasraj, Frank Sinatra, John Lennon and Laura Nyro. Think King of Fruits, a perfectly ripe mango with peach-like succulent flesh exuding sweet, nourishing juice. At the center of the mango is a rock-hard seed representing here fierce discipline, perseverance and fanatical accuracy enabling such fruit to manifest.

Never before have I heard Swapanji use silence so dramatically as he did last night at CalArts in Valencia, part of a yearly World Music and Dance Festival presented in an outdoors amphitheater. Chaudhuri's potently portentous pauses were charged with invisible energy orange blossom scents of Krishna dancing amongst the excited gathering. I had not realized this evening concert was outdoors, but fortunately was able to purchase several Indian scarves from a vender there to keep warm.

Believe me, I am not Hindu, with only a modest knowledge of Indian deities, but I am capable of recognizing greatness in music, and Swapan Chaudhuri has achieved such a high level of musicianship that poetic linkages to the divine are called for.

There is a great deal of science involved, including a miraculous (and ingeniously designed) assemblage of rarified rhythms, phrases, articulations, timbres, textures, accents, and volume attenuations ranging from oscillating hummingbird wings to trumpeting bull elephant peals.

Sitting up close, I noticed the muscularly thick and piston-like moving fingers of Chaudhuri, and there was an immediate recognition of their similarity to those of Charlie Parker, another astonishingly inventive and virtuosically superior artist.

Expanding upon the mango analogy above, Swapan Chaudhuri's tabla playing may be compared to a trove of mango trees laden with ruby and emerald marvels of spiritual, sensual and intellectual nourishment for those who are fortunate enough to partake.

Centrally intrinsic to the splendors of Chaudhuri’s performance was the fortuitous presence of sarangi master, Ramesh Mishra, who set the mood and tone of the evening with a poetically charmed rendering of Raga Kirvani, transporting us to the forests and villages of India through his mind's eye. Following his ravishingly supernal elocutions, with accompaniment by Swapanji, came the solo tabla performance, Mishra's sublimely articulated lehra patterning matching Chaudhuri's thrilling intensity.

Topping all of this off, driving back through Benedict Canyon, a flashing car roared while recklessly passing suddenly from the darkness, and as it sped away, I noticed the license plate spelling the word "TALA" in uppercases, this being the Sanskrit word denoting rhythm as "raga" does melody for the classical music of India. A rather cool coincidence, followed by passing spooky Cielo Drive soon after.

- Michael Robinson, May 2016, Los Angeles


© 2016 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and musicologist. His 162 albums include 149 albums for meruvina and 13 albums of piano improvisations. He has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University.