On Thursday, March 3, Sandeep Das, a Grammy-nominated master of the Indian tabla and founding member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, will be performing at the HOP along with acclaimed Indian dancers and musicians. Das has also been teaching tabla to students in the Music Department’s “Music and Dance of North India” class alongside Arthur R. Virgin Professor of Music Ted Levin. I had the chance to sit in on his class recently and enjoy his wholehearted humor and instruction. Along with George Ruckert, ethnomusicologist and professor at MIT, on the sarod, Das led his students in instruction. I enjoyed watching Das throw his students straight into practice and was impressed to see the skill the students had developed over the last eight weeks. I had a chance to sit down with Sandeep and ask him a few questions after class; I hope you enjoy his beautiful, humorous and insightful remarks.
What is it like being a guru to mostly American students in your tabla class?
My first objective is never to turn them into tabla players or musicians. My objective, going into any classroom, is to leave them with a positive experience. If I am able to leave even one moment of positive experience, maybe ten years from now, twenty years from now when they have to take a crucial decision, hopefully this positive experience will help them take a positive decision. And my job is done.
It can be a kid from elementary school or it can be a post-graduate student or a doctor or engineer; it’s just about leaving them with something nice and happy. That’s my goal. I don’t go in with any expectations, so when you start with zero expectations, everything that happens is great from there!
I myself have been in boring classes and boring lectures, and I don’t want any student in whichever class or grade to experience that. I am ready to dance and jump with them; the last thing I want for them is to think, “Why did I ever come here?”
What is the main thing you hope your students will learn this term?
For Dartmouth, I’m hoping to give them that small window into a unique culture, into a different environment. Next time they go to an Indian restaurant, maybe they will think of the music. Or if they come across an Indian person on the street maybe they’ll think about the culture and music that is associated with that complexion. I think it’s become a necessity in the world now, the sooner we open these windows, the better.
You have learned from some of the best musicians in recent history. What one lesson has really stuck with you or has been a milestone of your experience?
I learned tabla from my guru, legendary tabla maestro Pandit Kishan Maharaj. He taught me a lot, and he taught me tabla more as a way of life than just the technique of music. Some of my first concerts were always when I was least prepared. That way, he took the fear out of fear forever.
I would say I’m a human being first, musician second and tabla player last. So I would say the biggest life-changing experience has been meeting Yo-Yo Ma and working with him for 17 years, which is so much more than just playing music. I think being human is the biggest thing that I have learned from him.
Is there any musician that you haven’t played with that you wish you could play with? (pauses) You’ve just got everybody covered? (laughs)
I’ve played with a lot of classical musicians and big orchestras, but I like this pop singer. She’s so pretty, but I’m forgetting her name. My daughters would laugh at me that I can’t remember her name. She sings “the eye of the tiger…” (hums)
Katy Perry! I would love to play with her (laughs) just because of her eyes.
Why should Dartmouth students come to see your show?
If I haven’t tried a cuisine, if I suddenly say I don’t like biryani or I don’t like lasagna, how would I know what it is unless I have tasted it once?
I would say, the way that the world is shrinking, the sooner you can be good at finding out what your neighbor is doing, eating or listening to, the better chances are that you will succeed in life. It’s about opening your world, it’s not about having to like Indian music or dislike it. It’s about going and tasting a new cuisine for the first time, and then you take a choice whether you want to come back and ever have that cuisine or not. So, come and take a chance, take a dab at it and see where it takes you.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
Updated 3/24/16: Das performed with sarangi master Ramesh Mishra and acclaimed Boston-based Indian dancers Mouli Pal and Urmi Samadar on Thursday, March 3, at 7 pm, in the Hop’s Spaulding Auditorium. For tickets to and information about upcoming performances, go here.