The Journey. . .
. . . from Benares to Boston
Sandeep Das Today
A 2019-2020 Guggenheim Foundation Fellow, Sandeep Das is one of the leading Tabla players in the world today with a prolific international reputation that spans over three decades. Since his debut concert at the age of 17 with legendary Sitarist Pt. Ravi Shankar, Das has performed at major Indian music festivals with renowned musicians such as Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, Pt. Shivkumar Sharma, and Ust. Amjad Ali Khan, among others, and he is one of the unique Indian Classical musicians to expand beyond his traditional roots and collaborate with musicians from across the globe.
Das has performed at major events such as the 150th annual celebration of the United Nations at the General Assembly Hall in NYC, opening ceremony of the Special Olympics in Shanghai, opening ceremony of the 1st Asia Expo in Kunming, China, World Economic Forum, the BBC Proms, and for visiting dignitaries like the Queen of England, Queen of Thailand, the Pope and various other visiting country heads. His collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble (SRE) for “Sing Me Home” won the 2017 Grammy Award for the Best World Music album. He has had two previous Grammy nominations in 2005 and 2009. In 2017 he received the prestigious Brother Thomas Fellowship and New England Choice Artist of the Year award, and in 2018, he received a Live Arts Boston grant from the Boston Foundation.
Das had intensively trained for 12 years, starting at the age of 7 in the centuries-old Indian tradition, the Guru-Shishya Parampara, by living with his Guru—Pandit Kishan Maharaj— and learning and practicing music as a way of life, rather than an isolated art form. His training and life experiences provide a unique, educational opportunity for students and ensembles to learn from, and he frequently gives masterclasses and residencies at schools and universities throughout the world such as Dartmouth, Brandeis, UC Santa Barbara, UC Santa Clara, College of the Holy Cross, Juilliard School of Music, Berklee College of Music, and UC British Columbia.
He has also taught at the annual Arts and Passion Driven Learning Institute at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for the past 8 years, and has been a keynote speaker or invited speaker at other prestigious events such the New York Encounter, the annual E.G. Conference in California, the Abu Dhabi Cultural Summit in the United Arab Emirates, the Smithsonian Freer | Sackler Gallery Asian Cultural Heritage Month, and the United States Citizenship Naturalization Ceremony at Faneuil Hall, Boston, MA.
A Gold Medalist in English Literature from Banaras Hindu University in India, he is an artist, performer, composer, and cultural and educational entrepreneur. He currently resides in Boston, USA.
Journey from Benares
Sandeep's musical journey began with a complaint his father received from one of his school teachers:
“Sandeep has been disturbing the class, and when asked to stop tapping the desk with his hands, he starts tapping with his feet. Please take him to a doctor!”
On reaching home that day, rather than being taken to a doctor, Sandeep was gifted his very first set of Tabla and taken to his first guru, Shiv Kumar Singh. He spent one year in training, and was soon taken by his father, K. N. Das, to the legendary Pt. Kishan Maharaj of the Benares Gharana. Being a big fan of the Tabla maestro, his father entreated him to teach his son. The Maestro proceeded to test Sandeep's skills in various ways. in the end He was very happy and said:
"He has tabla in his blood, and I will teach him.”
Sandeep learnt tabla under his Guru for the next 11 years in what is known as the Guru-Shishya Parampara (an ancient Indian tradition where the disciple goes to live and learn from their guru) and went on to become one of his favorite disciples. For the first few years, he would travel from Patna to Benares every Friday evening, stay overnight at his guru’s home, and then return on Sunday. He would never spend a single vacation at home. Later, his father took a transfer to Varanasi, so that his musical education could continue unhindered.
Under Pt. Kishanji Maharaj, Sandeep was taught music not as an isolated art form, but as a way of life. He would not only learn tabla, but gain countless valuable lessons in life:
“When I was 9 or 10 years old, we were practicing in a room and Guruji got very mad at us. He said "why don’t you people clean the room before you sit down to practice?!" And he asked me to clean the room. I had never done it at home before, so I couldn’t sweep the floor nicely.
He took the broom from my hand and taught me how to sweep the floor, mentioning to me that if you sweep the floor nicely you can also be a good Tabla player. At the time, these words didn't make sense to me– how could sweeping the floor possibly relate to tabla? However, as I grew up, I realized that all the things he was teaching us to do, and the way in which we were instructed to do them (even doing the smallest jobs must be done perfectly) taught us discipline, focus, attention to detail, and later made the even toughest jobs seem easy. And that would inevitably spill over into our playing.”
Pt. Kishan Maharaj always discouraged his students from copying him. He would say,
“As long as you are a Xerox you’ll never have any value. The moment you start playing, everybody should know which Gharana [style of Tabla playing] you come from, but you must always have your own personality– and your own thoughts– imbued in what you are playing.”
Unlike many other teachers, he advised his students to listen to other tabla players for inspiration, but cautioned that:
"Even if you like someone's playing, don’t try to play like them. Make it your own. It should sound as if Sandeep Das is playing, not Sandeep Das copying or mimicking somebody else.”
Under his Guru’s guidance, Sandeep debuted on stage with legendary Sitar maestro, Pt. Ravi Shankar. He also won the national drumming championship thrice and became the youngest drummer ever to be graded by All-India radio.
In 1991, Sandeep moved to Delhi to continue his career as a professional tabla player. In that same year, he also toured the West for the first time on a tour of the USA and Trinidad and Tobago.
By the mid-nineties, Sandeep had established himself as one of the top Tabla players of his home country, and his initial years were spent playing mostly with famous vocalist Shubha Mudgal, Pt. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and Ustad Shujaat Khan. Slowly, as his name started making the rounds of all the famous music festivals and important concert halls of India, he was asked to play concerts by Pt.Ravi Shankar, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Pt.Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Pt. Shiv Kumar Sharma, and Dr. L.Subramaniam, the biggest names of the Indian Classical Music scene.
One of the biggest turning points in his career came when he met the world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who invited him to play with the Silk Road Ensemble. With an increase in opportunities to collaborate in America with friends from all over the world, Sandeep would eventually move to Boston, and the rest is history.