Mumbai couple who mentors children in music reality shows opens school in Shillong

Jan 07, 2018, 09:40 IST | Anju Maskeri

Floored by local talent, Versova couple that mentors kiddie participants in music reality shows, opens school in Meghalaya

Shubho and Sucheta Bhattacharjee at their Versova home. picS/pradeep dhivar
Shubho and Sucheta Bhattacharjee at their Versova home. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar

In 2011 when Shubho Shekhar Bhattacharjee and wife Sucheta started mentoring kids from Mumbai in Hindustani classical music, little did they know that six years down the line, they would be doing the same in Tura, a picturesque, hilly village, 323 km from Shillong. "Frankly, we hadn't even heard of this place until then," laughs Shubho, 44, when we meet them at their Versova home. For the last one year, the couple has been living out of the suitcase — shuttling between Mumbai and Meghalaya — and for good reason.

Running to the hills
In December 2016, the Bhattacharjees launched the Centre of Excellence in Indian and Western Music (CEIWM) in Tura and Shillong, an academy that provides music education free of cost to young talent in the north-east. Although, both were born in Assam, they made Mumbai their home 15 years ago. "While Shubho works as a filmmaker, I have always been involved in music. I also enjoy teaching, so it made sense to devote all my energies in training budding talent here," says Sucheta, 43, who has auditioned kids from all over India for music reality shows such as Voice of India, Sa Re Ga Ma L'il Champs and Chhote Ustaad.

A class in progress at the centre in Shillong
A class in progress at the centre in Shillong

"When I was in Guwahati for an audition in 2004, I remember being stunned by the level of singing among the kids there. The surprising part was that they'd had no training. Most were self-taught," she recalls. But it was only when they met Mukul Sangma, the Chief Minister of Meghalaya, at an event in 2015 that the idea of CEIWM was born. "He told us that while the state has a minefield of music talent, there is no organised set-up for learning Indian classical music. The children either learn from local neighbourhood teachers or YouTube. He floated the idea of an institution," says Shubho.

The two centres were then built in association with the state Arts and Culture Department, which has trained 150 children through its flagship one-year Musical Star Development Programme. In a year's time, students have been trained by maestros Pt Mani Prasad of the Kirana Gharana, renowned American jazz saxophonist George Brooks, award-winning music producer and executive director of San Francisco Youth Theatre Emily Klion; Susmit Sen, co-founder of Indian Ocean; guitarist and founder of Boomarang, Booma Boomie Hangsing; and renowned Indian Classical musician, Pt Ramesh Jule. "We have both resident teachers and visiting faculty, but it wasn't easy convincing them to make it here. Most people perceive the north east as a volatile, unsafe place. So, we had to counsel them and get them to live there for 15 days at least in order to assuage their fears," explains Sucheta, who claims to have made at least two trips in a month to Meghalaya in the last one year.

Shubho Shekhar Bhattacharjee

Inserting classical into rock
While Shillong is well-known as the rock capital of India, rich in various styles of music, ranging from soft rock and roll, pop, grunge, deep and heavy metal, Indian classical music has little or no presence in the hilly state. This, in fact, became one of their major concerns when they decided to launch the institute. "We were wondering if people would sign up for it," says Sucheta. To their surprise, over 300 people landed at the auditions the first time they were held in December 2016. "Music is in their veins. It's no exaggeration when I say that every household either has a bunch of vinyl records or a cassette of classic rock ranging from Ac/Dc to Guns N' Roses to Pink Floyd. Girls lean more towards rock, and look down upon guys who can't play a musical instrument," laughs Shubho.

It was evident then that there was no replacing rock in young minds. "So, we decided that while introducing them to Indian classical music, we would also include western music and broaden their base. Why restrict it to rock alone?" he adds. The curriculum, therefore, includes a mix of Sufi, Indian classical, rock, jazz and blues. Apart from their artistic training, the curriculum also includes diction, stage presence and personality development. "Most children there can't converse in Hindi, although they can sing in Hindi, thanks to Bollywood. Hence, language was a barrier. But we had local assistance, so the kids were quick to pick the language. We also had to ensure that the accent doesn't seep into their singing," says Sucheta.

Classes normally begin after 3 pm, when children return from school. Unlike Mumbai, there's no concept of a night life there. "Kids normally head straight to our institute and train till 7.30 pm, go home, eat dinner and sleep," he says. This, he says, ensures they spend their time productively. Shubho admits that their aim was also to steer youngsters away from substance abuse and channelise their energies into a productive activity. "Since the venture is being funded by the state, they want the kids here to gain from it. But, we need students who are serious about it, so there's a rigorous audition process that includes understanding their interest in music and whether they want to pursue it as a profession," he says. What's also interesting is the institute's emphasis on producing original compositions. Covers are banned. This, they say, has only encouraged students to create new content. A new Garo-Sufi composition created by one of the students is an example. "We plan to release this as part of the music album by the end of this month. We have even shot a video with the students," he says.

The Bhattacharjees who are still getting acclimatised to Shillong's winter chill, have shut the institute for winter. Classes will resume from January 15. In the meanwhile, the duo chose to head to another set of mountains in Kashmir for a holiday. "While we were there, we realised how similar it is to the north-east. There's a great culture of folk music, immense talent but no opportunity for skill development. Hopefully, our next destination will be
the Valley," says Shubho.

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