Debashish Chaudhuri – the first Indian to study at the Prague Conservatory

Debashish Chaudhuri, photo: archive of Debashish Chaudhuri

Debashish Chaudhuri holds the distinction, among many other honours, of being the first Indian person ever to study at the Prague Conservatory and the second in history to bring the Martinů Czech Philharmonic Orchestra to his homeland. For nearly two decades now, he has called Bohemia his home, while working with both Czech and international orchestras, as a freelance or guest conductor. Maestro Chaudhuri also serves on the governing body of the Antonín Dvořák Music Festival.

I met the maestro at his favourite fair trade café in downtown Prague, to learn more about his musical journey – and of some surprising links between his hometown of Calcutta, its favourite son the poet Rabindranath Tagore, and Czech composers such as Leoš Janáček.

“I was born into a family that loves music, but nobody was a musician as such. I come from an artistic family, in terms of painting. My grandmother painted, my mother is a very nice painter and my brother is a professional painter. So, I’ve had the good fortune to have parent and a family who love the arts.

“We would sit together and sing every evening, from six o’clock, by candlelight, and my parents would have a whiskey or a rum – very English – and they’d start singing Tagore songs. Everybody. It’s like folk songs when you go to Moravia. Even if they haven’t really studied music, they all know certain folk songs, and when someone starts singing, a whole bunch join in. So, my parents, my grandmother would sing – it was Indian music, of course. But it was poetry. As a Bengali, Tagore has a huge influence till today, his legacy.

And did you parents steer you towards music or a particular instrument? I’m thinking of the stereotypical kid practising the violin when all the others are playing football outside…

Debashish Chaudhuri,  photo: Martina Schneibergová

“So far as instruments go, at the age of seven, my mom decided I should learn the violin. And that was the first musical instrument I held in my hands. She wanted me to go into the Western style – not the Indian style. For me, I don’t know why, but instinctively I’ve always felt much more at home in the diatonic system; in what is known as European music, basically. Be it pop, rock, classical or whatever. There is a certain basic that comes to me more naturally than the basics of Indian music, which of course is much older, much deeper – it’s a different world.

“I don’t think it was ever her intention that I become a musician, but, as with a lot of parents, maybe fulfil something they wished they’d had as a kid but couldn’t. That’s how it started. I wanted a guitar for a long time, but my mom wouldn’t buy me one. So, I saved up and I actually made my first guitar. Then my parents bought me an accordion when I was thirteen.

“I kept playing a lot of instruments, self-taught, but nobody thought I’d become a musician – they thought I’d become an artist. In fact, I took the government arts college exams, and the only reason I didn’t get in was because I didn’t want to sign the communist register! I said I’m not going to do this – I wasn’t going to get into politics to enter college. No!

Rabindranath Tagore,  photo: Public Domain

“So, music was always there, but nobody pushed. I think we have to take this in context. In India, it’s common for children educated in schools where the first language is English that either you become a doctor, an engineer,  or go into the family business. I’m grateful to my parents not because they didn’t push me into music but because they didn’t stop me from pursuing it. In India, that’s what happens nine out of ten times – you get pushed into doing more conventional things. Of course, they mean well – it’s more secure.”

And do you remember a moment when you thought, this is my fate, my destiny, what I want to do the rest of my life?

“I think that moment came after the government art college entrance exams, where I think I placed in the top twenty, but they only took the top ten – and the next ten they would take only if you joined the Communist Party. Which, again, I refused to do. I was always pushed into art somehow – fine, I can draw, but I never understood colour as such. But I always understood ‘colour’ in sound.

“It might be incorrect to say, but I’ve been a professional in music, having some income from music, since I was around thirteen or fourteen. I was so determined, and people always wanted me to accompany them in Calcutta, on the radio, the best music programmes. There was always a shortage of musicians, be it the guitar, the bass or whatever. And I found myself accompanying big names, always in the background – ‘Debashish is reliable, give him the notes, he’ll learn it no problem – and fast.’

Debashish Chaudhuri,  photo: archive of Debashish Chaudhuri

“But I think the real change came when I got a job teaching music at St. James, soon after I finished studying there – which is very odd because you go back and the next week you’re a teacher! Without formal qualifications at that time, still. The principal said at the time, I think I you have it in you, why don’t you try. Tomorrow you have 150 children in your class. Figure it out.

How did you come to study at the Prague Conservatory – I understand you were the very first Indian person to study there?

“Yes, I got a very nice letter from the rector or vice principal, I can’t remember now, telling me I was the first Indian to study there. And the Prague Conservatory, I think was the beginning of my journey into conducting but also the culmination of my Indian musical development.

“I was playing a lot of different instruments, arranging music completely on my own – we even wrote a musical there. They had choirs in the school, which I found myself accompanying and often even conducting because they seemed to be better with this mysterious person, a conductor, there.

Debashish Chaudhuri,  photo: archive of Debashish Chaudhuri

“My parents never had Beethoven or Mozart playing in the house. It’s not something they really knew. I remember when I first came to Prague, my grandmother asked me, why are you going to Prague to be a bus conductor? I don’t understand – what’s the big attraction? I couldn’t explain this to her, that the name is the same but the job of conductor is a little bit different.

“But I had this massive hunger of wanting to work with polyphonic ensembles that have different ‘colours’, different instruments – to me it’s like a palette of colours that you then ‘paint’ and create a picture. My brother sees these colours, but I always felt like I heard them much more. But the role of conductor slowly, slowly revealed itself to me through the work, and I realised, yes, I can control all these instruments. But where on Earth do I learn how to do this?

“I was very lucky at that time to be selected for a short course for professional musicians in Kroměříž, and Zlín. That was a long time back…. It convinced me this was exactly what I wanted to do. That would be the definitive moment, not only as a musician but to pursue conducting, to work with a large number of instruments and create a blended sound which has some kind of meaning, power, as well as subtlety.

“A lot of the music I was doing when I was fourteen, fifteen was jazz. Jazz is really rampant in India. The thing with jazz is you learn how to improvise, which is great, but there’s not much working with dynamics and tempo. This is an aspect you see a lot in classical music, where you see the volume changing, the tempo changing. That’s what attracted me to classical music – Oh, Mr Mozart! He does it very coolly, actually.

Leoš Janáček

“It was a journey of discovering that eventually led me to Prague, and I must say quite blindly. They said you can learn to conduct, as a special student, since you already have some experience now and qualifications. And one fine day, I find myself standing in front of the Prague Conservatory. I don’t know why Prague, not London, or somewhere in Scandinavian – I don’t know, I can’t answer that question. I think fate brought me to this country.”

I understand you search for Western compositions inspired by Indian or Asian music. What are some examples from Czech classical music.

“This is very close to my heart and not just because I’m from that area. In the 19th and 20th century, India and Asia were a source of great inspiration – the traditions, the mystique, the unknown – the Orient, as it was called, everywhere stretching for the Middle East and beyond. There are many pieces inspired by India or Asia but sound completely Western, and then there are those that, in most cases were written by someone there, inspired by their own land, for a European orchestra.

“And as for Czech music – yes, Tagore, visited Prague twice, and he not only inspired Janáček, but if you go to his grave in Brno, the inscription on his tombstone is from Tagore! From Tagore’s book The Gardener – not many Czechs know that, even Moravians. He saw Tagore (in 1921) and wrote a piece for the choir (Potulný šílenec - The Wandering Madman, considered one Janáček's choral works). It’s very exotic, very nice, for a male choir, a Capella.

Josef Bohuslav Foerster,  photo: Czech Television

“Another piece – and I’m actually going to do the world premiere pretty soon – is by J.B. Foerster (born in Prague, in 1859). It’s never been released, and I’m working from the autograph score, with the permission of his family. I’m very lucky to have found it because it’s basically the song cycle based on the Gitanjali (a collection of poems which Tagore rendered into English as Song Offerings, for which he was awarded the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature). So, it’s the text of Tagore, using the German translation which he had at that time, in 1914. It’s a short song cycle.

“Now, J.B. Foerster again is a name a lot of Czechs will know, but he’s largely forgotten. Novák, Suk, Foerster – you hear some these days, but mostly Smetana – okay, he was more popular in the last regime a lot more, but anyway – and Dvořák. I think this generation of Foerster and Novák, there will be a wave soon when we can hear a lot of their music again, because they have left so many great works. If World War I hadn’t come, I wonder how music would have sounded today!

“This short cycle of Foerster’s, Písně Milostné (Love Songs, 1914) is a direct link not only to India but to Calcutta, my hometown, and to Prague and the Czech Republic. There’s a piano version that’s been published which is not exactly known... But the orchestral version – which is his own orchestration – Oh, I’m looking forward to it very much!”

There are thirteen philharmonic orchestras in this country and you have worked with ten of them?

“Yes, ten or even eleven.”

So, which two have snubbed you?

“Which two have snubbed me! (laughs) Well, in my case I’ve been very, very lucky, I must say. I’m grateful to god for that. I have great friends here and I think orchestras have always been happy to get me back.”

Which should touch a little bit on your upcoming concert, this Saturday (5 September). I understand it’s going to be in the woods?

“Yes! At the Lesní divadlo in Řevnice (south of Prague), which is over a hundred years old now. It was made by a wealthy confectioner for his daughter, who loved singing. So, he built this little theatre in the woods. In fact, Vítězslav Novák was there – he’s the only composer on the programme who was; he liked roaming around the countryside.

“This is the third year of this concert, of this philharmonic in the woods – you are quite literally under the trees there. It’s very beautiful and a very different experience than in a closed theatre. It’s a smaller stage, so there will be a chamber orchestra. But this year, I decided to make it much bigger than is recommended. And I only pray to god that we’ll fit on the stage!”