Ghatam player Ujjwal Kumar has big plans for the humble 'desi' musical instrument!

He is a 26-year-old music prodigy who can play over 20 instruments, and his music has a certain ‘unheard of' quality to it. His little medley is a story of passion and dedication
Ujjwal Kumar feels that Indians should be more aware of the nation's rich musical heritage and culture (Pic Courtesy: Ujjwal Kumar)
Ujjwal Kumar feels that Indians should be more aware of the nation's rich musical heritage and culture (Pic Courtesy: Ujjwal Kumar)

For the most of us, playing a musical instrument was something to be proud of, particularly during our school and college days. The college band, as some people say, was the epitome of the ‘cool life.’ However, for the aforementioned crowd, this musical journey ended with graduation, as we, or should I say our parents, felt that we needed to get ‘a real job’, which was basically a synonym for a career in engineering or medicine! Not many retain their musical talents beyond their younger years, and those that do often find themselves struggling to make ends meet. Those that do succeed, soon have challenges of their own. Ujjwal Kumar is no stranger to music. A virtuoso from Bihar, he has mastered the art of playing over 20 instruments! His aim in doing so transcends the basic needs of earning his daily bread – he does it to send his own thoughts and ideas to his audiences, whoever they may be! An interaction with him reveals the ‘high notes’ in this man’s musical mind! Excerpts:   

What exactly does music mean to you? For some, it's a hobby and for others, it's passion. Where do you stand in this regard?

For me, personally, I think music is at the centre of my life. Just like how we consume food and breathe air – that’s how music is for me! As long as I can remember, I have been a percussionist, so even when I am not with my instruments, there is always a rhythm playing in my head. Even when I am walking or climbing the stairs, there’s a tempo! When I take a cab to work, the sound of traffic has a pattern to it. Music for me isn't just a discipline or a routine, it’s a way of life and it's inseparable from everything that I do.

You have quite the reputation for being an exceptional 'ghatam' player. Why the ghatam? What prompted/triggered your interests in learning this instrument?

I was lucky to find a ghatam in Delhi to be honest; no one knows about it here! Even I didn't know about it. When I was in college, I was supposed to give the background ‘live music’ for a play and when I was strolling through the streets of Delhi to find unique percussive instruments, I found this! When I first saw a ghatam lying in a music shop, I got curious and asked if this too is an instrument. The first time I played that instrument, the sound of it just felt like home! I knew it back then and I know it now - that I love the sound of the ghatam.

The youth and 'next generation' of Indian youngsters appear to be drawn towards the 'cool instruments' (electric guitar, drums, etc.) You cannot blame them, for this is what makes them 'popular' in school and college! What do you think is the current situation of the ghatam in contemporary India? Is it a 'lost art', as it's seen almost exclusively in 'traditional' places like heritage homes, museums, classical music academies, etc?

If you search for 'ghatam' on YouTube, you will find only a handful of ghatam players, all of them being exceptionally good. It is hardly comparable to any other popular music instruments, like you mentioned. However, with concert series like the HCL Concerts, I was able to experience ghatam live shows in New Delhi, which is a rarity! The ghatam in contemporary India isn't very popular, but like all good art forms and the medium and space of the internet, it is finally getting popularised. I have a lot of fans who want to learn this instrument. Soon, you will start seeing music shops with more and more ghatams being sold. The change that has happened in the last 2 years, with the Internet boom in India, has helped in the promotion of lost art forms, and not just the ghatam. There are so many local musicians gaining mass popularity in India. We had a dull phase for a while but I feel that the future looks bright.

Striking a beat: Ujjwal feels that the tabla is one of the most difficult instruments one can learn, as it requires considerable practice to master

It is said that you can play over 20 musical instruments! Is this true? If so, please list out these instruments, and your salient aspects with some of them (your first instrument, your favourite one, the hardest one to learn, the least popular one, etc).

Yes, I can play 20 instruments! The reason for that was, when I was growing up, my personal music tutor opened a branch at my place and taught me a little bit about all instruments, so that I could take proxy classes in his absence! These instruments include the drums, ghatam, tabla, cajon, dejmbe, congo, udu, bongo, darbuka, daf, tamborine, synthesiser, harmonium, piano, guitar, ukulele, sitar, recorder, mouth organ, flute, and a few more!

My first ever instrument was the maracas, which I got the chance to play at the age of 6 in my school choir for a local Doordarshan show in Muzzaffarpur, Bihar. My favourite out of all of these is obviously the ghatam. The hardest to learn would probably be the table; it’s very difficult to start playing it as it takes about 3 months just to get the sound right! The least popular one, I guess would be the udu; it’s a Nigerian drum.

You have set your Instagram status as 'Musician, designer, dreamer.' Are they individual traits, or do they blend together 'to make you'? Please explain the ideology behind this!

At heart I am a musician, by profession I am a designer and in life I am a dreamer! I never restrict myself with my aspirations and creativity. I try to be expansive in my thought process without keeping any kind of bias or limitations. This works well when I am playing music and trying out new things, too. The designer part of my description just does not mean making user centric applications, but also using these designs in life. Design, in its essence, is solving problems, and I take that principle into life and translate it into other areas. I try to ‘design’ a better life for myself and for the people around me. When I am at a concert, I think about the audience and the show as a product, and try to create a better user experience.

You have, if I'm not mistaken, made covers/variations of popular songs and tracks. How do you go about this? How can a 'desi and traditional' instrument be adapted/modified to match the intensity of contemporary music?  

India is an adobe of classical and folk music. I, as a musician, think that it is my responsibility to take this music to everyone. The idea of playing popular music covers, means to take on-board a brand new audience! I call it an on-boarding process (UX terminology), because a lot of these 'new audience' actually want to listen to good music but their accessibility is reduced by the content they are currently consuming. It's unreal to expect them to switch to classical music instantly. By covering pop music through a classical instrument, I create a bridge for them to crossover; this creates a comfortable space for the audience to experience! About a classical instrument matching contemporary music, all music is like that. Even the classical music that we hear today, was fusion thousands of years ago. Many genres of music came out of this fusion. It's the natural way of going about creating music - to fuse it with other genres. And it will always work out well if done with finesse. I really try to attempt that with my covers.

The rhythm within: He feels that the key to succeeding in music lies in making your audience 'believe' in your music

What exactly is 'Jugalbandi', and what is your role/contribution in it/for it?

'Jugalbandi' is a ‘conversation’ between two musicians. Instead of spoken or written language, the medium that is used is music! It involves to and fro phases of music (mostly instrumental pieces) played between two or more musicians. Music (or any art form) as a language is a lot more advanced than the spoken and written languages that we use in our daily lives! It expresses emotions and feelings that are very difficult to define. I am just starting out with these 'jugalbandi' sessions with other musicians.

What kind of events have you performed at so far? Who were your target audience and how did you respond to your music?

I have done all kinds of events. When I was beginning my journey as a musician, I played at parties and competitions, and then later I played at clubs, major music festivals and auditoriums. My target audience, surprisingly, comprises all age groups and all walks of life. I realised that in my last concert in Delhi, the audience comprised of young kids as well as 60-year-old women, and each and everyone seemed to enjoy the music equally!

How viable is music as a career in an 'engineering and medicine' dominated country like India? Honestly speaking, did you think you would become so successful in playing a traditional instrument in a modern era? Where does your funding come from, and would you advice youngsters to follow a similar path, if the're interested in reviving traditional instruments, too?

It's difficult to make a living out of music, especially when compared to conventional careers. However, in the past few years, with the advancement in technology, video content creation has become more and more accessible. Now you can sit in your bedroom and play in front of the whole world through the 'Live' features on various platforms. It's also much easier to make watchable videos today than it used to be 10 years ago. Having said that, it also means that there is a lot of competition now, and you can easily get lost in the huge pool of artists trying to ‘make it big’. You have to learn to market yourself well, and you have to think before you create something, strategise a time and place for it, and then go for it with your full intent.

I used to play the ghatam in my bedroom. I am lucky and glad to have had the opportunity to be playing my instrument in front of so many people! An audience is an artist's dream; I am lucky to be able to fulfill that dream. The most amount of investment that I have done for my music isn't money; it's the time that I have put in. However, I don't expect to make money out of this, as I want to keep it pure and unadulterated. This is only possible because I have a paying job, too. I do hope to someday make music my only job, but until then I am relying on my back-up! I am not experienced enough to offer advice, but I would tell everyone to go out there and identify the sound of the instrument they love the most while playing it! That's your instrument, that's the one you should pick up and learn.

What are your immediate plans for this year? Where do you see yourself in the next, say, 5 years?

I am currently building a portfolio, and I will soon start booking shows and after a short tour in India, I want to take the ghatam abroad. All of this is in process right now. In 5 years, if everything goes well, I hope to see a whole lot of people playing this instrument all over the world!

If you could change one thing about the Indian music industry, what would it be? (Other than the general shortage of support/funds offered by the government!) Do you think traditional or 'desi' music deserves the same recognition that, say, cricket does? Should India be more proud and aware of its rich musical history and inter-relations between music, culture and identity?   

I think we need to celebrate our roots more, since the music industry lies within and around Bollywood! I think it’s necessary for the trendsetters to set the right trends. What I have realised during my short stint on social media is that there is nothing wrong with the audience - everyone wants to hear good music, everyone wants to learn more about Indian culture and its roots. That's something which is not really celebrated in our culture. It should be. We are sitting on a goldmine here and selling mangoes!

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