This week we feature Soham Munim, one of the most illustrious Sitar players of his generation and a wonderful human being, who took time out from his busy schedule to answer the questions that everyone wants to ask!
1. Why and how did music happen to you?
That may not be a valid question!! I didn't choose music. It literally chose me! My grandparents were fond of Hindustani Classical Music and would regularly attend 'baithaks' & festivals in Mumbai as far back as in the 1940s up to the 1980s after which they settled down in Pondicherry. They were fortunate to witness almost every legend in that golden era (too many to name!). This sincere love and interest was passed down to my father who then started learning the Sitar from Pt. Kartick Kumar ji by the 1970s, although he is a lawyer by profession. He then met my mother, the great, Smt. Aarti Mukherjee, who was probably already at her performing peak by then. So by the time I was born in 1985, I believe that these two generations of 4 sincere individuals had passionately loved this music to the point of collecting a veritable treasure trove in the form of records for me to tap into. I didn't choose to listen to it and I really appreciate that I was not forced into learning it. But my folks always felt their necessity of listening to those records at different times daily. So in childhood for example, when I was eating breakfast before leaving for school, I'd notice my grandmother intently listening to some Sitar or Sarod. At bedtime my grandfather would regularly listen to vocal many a time as serious as Utd. Amir Khan's Darbari! And all this 'accidental' listening I had experienced when I didn't know a single word from the vocabulary of Indian music!
2. Why the Sitar? Why not flute as your preferred instrument?
Since KG we were taught some songs which are generally taught in so many other schools as well. At a later age we were encouraged to also learn music/musical instruments as part of our extra-curricular activities in school at Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry. So it was compulsory to learn the Soprano Recorder at first when we were 10 but I enjoyed it thoroughly. As we weren't allowed to join Tabla classes before turning 12, during the holidays, my parents would take me to Dr. Aneesh Pradhan for coaching me privately from when I was 10. Some 3 years later, I began learning the Bansuri, later only to identify and discover that the composition in Brindavani Sarang was identical to the one on Pt.Pannalal Ghosh's record! So at 15, I finally began listening to music more proactively in trying to decode all the myths! That pushed in me an entire different level of interest and approach as I wanted to get to the bottom of all that I couldn't play. I'd simple play, pause, rewind, fast forward, and play again, over a thousand times, the cassettes of Pt. Pannalal Ghosh!
Then in the holidays that year during my visit to Mumbai, my father's Guru - Pt. Kartick Kumar shared a very meaningful insight:
"It's commendable that you're studying Pt. Pannalal Ghosh in so much detail. But would you be able to mimic him for more than 5 mins?"
That really got me thinking, and what followed was a period of 'Taalim' as he sang and imparted to me concepts in the system of Hindustani Classical Music as I tried to pick those up on the Bansuri. However it also left a strange curiosity in me. Apart from the patterns & structures I could associate with my previous knowledge on Bansuri there was some other material which logically seemed to me as the insight of a Sitar maestro. I wanted to learn the Sitar to get to the bottom of that curiosity! So as I went back to Pondicherry after those holidays I approached Shri Basab Sen(disciple of Pt. Ajoy Sinha Roy) to learn Sitar under him. For the first time I sensed a certain hesitation looming around me coming especially from my father; probably as he had learnt Sitar himself. Maybe they felt that 17 was too late to begin learning in a competitive world where they generally begin at 4 or 5. Despite these apprehensions, I kept my focus on the curiosity aspect, and as 16 years have passed since then all I can tell you is that it was the best decision I took for myself in terms of my musical growth. Sitar is truly the love of my life!
A very big reason for sticking to Sitar is also that it's some music that I've breathed in. Think about it: From childhood I've been listening to full-length concerts of masters such as Pt. Nikhil Banerjee etc. in the car simply as the traffic in Mumbai permitted me to enjoy them uninterrupted!
3. What are the challenges as a Sitarist in world where everyone is obsessed with the Guitar?
Firstly there are a list of challenges as a Sitarist, in a world irrespective of anyone obsessed with Guitar or even Management for that matter!
The Sitar is an extremely complex instrument wherein a lot of details pertaining to a range of variables become critical factors in assessing its sonic behaviour. Some of these variables would typically range from the raw materials used in its construction, to the seasoning of those same materials and last but not least a player's experience in handling of the instrument in all the times of their practice and the timing and efficacy of the intermediate repair procedures . How do you deal with your instrument for those days when you know that you've practised adequately but your instrument isn't capable of handling a particular load during a performance?!
4. Who inspires you as a musician? What's your goal as one? What's your mind set as a player?
As a musician I'm inspired by many individuals, even from other walks of life. The traits that inspire me really are elements such as their personalities, attitudes etc., and not necessarily their professions/occupations per se.
The passion of playing is so much more inviting to me that I don't have goals such as receiving any particular award or recognition by a certain age!! I aim to grow musically to the best of my capacity.
5.If you weren’t a musician, you would be….?
Maybe in these times I should have thought of, but I somehow didn't take up music with any backup plans in mind! As I started Sitar quite late there wasn't much time to procrastinate on different avenues in life. I have some other passions like chess, swimming, trekking etc., but maybe food-blogging as the best alternative? I might just be the right discerning audience to the chefs who take upon cuisine as art! And in the era of call/radio-taxis, I'm sure the experience that I've gathered in driving for the last decade in a number of cities including Mumbai &Kolkata could prove to be useful too *laughs*
6. Any special memory that pushes you to work harder?
As the cliché goes, "As musicians we face more rejections in a year than most other professionals in their entire career..."! So not working hard is not an option as we can't wait for that special memory to motivate us.
As a musician, the path in itself isn't reassuring! If you don't have any clans' support, you may have no option but to fight it out like a tiger - solitarily formidable but yet as an endangered species! It may be tough to appreciate some lesser skilled individuals who may survive on the strength of their group. However through such times, I also believe in my passion which keeps me going!