| Debopriya and Suchismita: Tuning up
1995. A winter evening in Mumbai. Shivaji Park is brimming over with people for the Sampoorna Yugal Sangeet Ratri concert. The Doordarshan cameras are rolling. Two girls, still in their teens, are playing the opening strains of Raag Behaag. Seated in the front row are stalwarts like Shiv Kumar Sharma. Waiting in the wings are Kishori Amonkar, Vishwamohan Bhatt, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Kelucharan Mahapatra, Birju Maharaj... As the concluding notes fade into the air, the audience breaks into a deafening applause. Two names are added to the galaxy of performing artistes in the Indian classical tradition.
The two girls who debuted that night have since performed around the globe, mostly together and sometimes with “Guruji”. Sisters Suchismita and Debopriya Chatterjee not only belong to the rare breed of female flautists but also rank among the most promising students of Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia.
In town for a string of concerts — the first of them at Srijan on Friday evening — the sisters were born and brought up in Allahabad. “We come from a family of vocalists. But when father (Robin Chatterjee) gave us the option of switching to the flute, we did not hesitate, we liked the sound so much,” says Suchismita, the older of the two by a year, at their grandparents’ in Lake Market.
There were quite a few eyebrows raised at the choice of instrument. “So many people asked our father why he allowed us to play the flute, largely a male domain. They also tried to scare him saying it would harm our voice. But father was undeterred,” she adds. Their invitation to prestigious concerts like Kal ke Kalakaar, Swami Haridas Sangeet Sammelan and Gan Prabha, as well as their recent bhajan albums, has proven the father’s faith right.
The sisters remember their training in Allahabad by Pandit Bholanath Prasanna. “Panditji was so anxious about us that during his morning-walk, he would stop at our door and ring the bell at five o’clock to wake us up and start riyaaz. We hated it then,” laughs Debopriya.
The Chaurasia chapter began after they shifted to Mumbai in 1991. Their Allahabad background made it easy for them to establish contact with the maestro of the Saniya gharana. “Initially, he insisted that we two attend his classes as listeners. So, every Sunday, the only free day available to us after attending school through the week, Ma would take us all the way from Andheri to Khar. Sometimes we would even doze off in class.” But it wasn’t long before things started falling into place.
Four years at the Rotterdam World Music Conservatory (where Chaurasia is a teacher) gave them a grounding in the grammar of both Indian and Western music and opened the doors to international performances. “Audiences abroad revere Indian music. In so many concerts we found people sitting with eyes shut and hands clasped,” they recount.
The sisters, in their mid-20s now, insist that there is no competition between them. The only time when they were pitted against one another was at the finals of Sangeet Prabhakar, when Suchismita scraped past her younger sister by a few marks to bag the gold medal.
Married on the same day, though “unfortunately” not into the same family, they now accompany Chaurasia to many of his concerts across the country. On January 24, one of them will be doing duty with Chaurasia at Dover Lane Music Conference. “It feels great to play in Calcutta. Not only is the audience knowledgeable, the Bengali ambience also makes us feel at home,” they pipe up.