Soothing Spanish Strains: A classical performance by guitarist and composer Santanu Datta

An outdoor classical performance, by guitarist and composer Santanu Datta, Varsha Naik reminisces

It’s been just over a year since I moved to Goa, away from bustling chaos of Mumbai and into peaceful calm. And my first full winter here has officially come to a close, the hot sun relentless as it toasts me to a crisp. The start of summer means evenings filled with live music from visiting musicians will be few and far between for the next six months. This season I attended a wide selection of musical nights, but my favourite evening was the unusual performance of live classical Spanish guitar by Santanu Datta. You would expect said recital to take place in a plush auditorium, with perfect acoustics and elegantly attired company. But on this pleasant winter evening a group of people in various stages of dress, or undress as it often is in Goa, sat memerised under a coloured canopy listening to the soothing notes of aforementioned classical Spanish guitar.

The Artiste

Santanu, composer, classical guitarist, singer and music educator, is a quiet Bengali born to a family of doctors in the small town of Purulia, and is now settled in Pune. As we sit to talk, he is weary of the over-friendly dogs who wander freely in the premises of 6 Assagao, the venue. But when he picks up his guitar and begins to play, he is a vision of poise and dignity – testament to a music journey that began at the age of five. His mother, a passionate singer of Hindustani classical music, ensured that her son’s childhood was filled with the melodies of Tagore, the rhythms of the tabla and the practice of sargam and the ragas. The Spanish guitar captivated him when he was a teenager, and he soon fell in love with it. “Back in 2003, the classical guitar was virtually an unknown instrument in India, and where I lived no one had ever played it before. It was difficult to find a teacher or any learning material. I was largely self-taught it was a painstaking process.”

While still at IIT Kharagpur, Santanu completed the ABRSM Grage 8 exam with disctinction, as the highest scorer among all instrumentalists in Eastern India, and moved to Paris in 2011 to study Western Art Music. “A decisive point in my career was meeting François Martin, a French guitarist and lutist, with whom I studied classical guitar for four years, at the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris and also at the Conservatoire de Ville-d’Avray. It was with him that I learned historical performance practices and the intricacies of performing French, Italian and Spanish classical music. They are very much different from each other – like the gharanas in Indian Classical music,” he elaborates. Under the guidance of distinguished musicians like Edith Lejet, Stéphane Delplace, Anthony Girard, Narcis Bonet and others, Santanu studied music composition, writing and aesthetics, orchestration, classical guitar and chamber music before returning to India in 2016.

Vision for Music

It’s been a busy time for Santanu since he returned to India – he’s hosted several music appreciation workshops, been a guest lecturer in institutes like SRFTI, CSM, etc, co-founded a music production company and worked as music director in several short films and a feature film as well. “I teach music theory and classical guitar in private, mainly to advanced students or professional/semi-professional musicians. It has been a very gratifying experience so far. Whenever I receive an email/message of appreciation from someone who attended my concerts/workshops, or get a standing ovation after a successful concert, it makes me delighted and inspires me to work even harder,” he adds.

The Spanish guitar, or the classical guitar, is becoming increasingly popular in India thanks to guitar festivals, and in turn this has opened new avenues of cross-cultural understanding. His most memorable collaboration has been with his fusion trio, Santanu Datta Trio, a project sponsored by the Alliance Française. “I presented my arrangements of folk and classical Indian songs with a French bass guitarist and an Indian classical percussionist. Western Classical, Indian Classical, Jazz: everything was there!” he says. Santanu is grateful that the opportunities that began as a student to collaborated with pianists, harpists, singers, strings and wind players from different countries, continue to motivate him to experiment with different instrumental ensembles.

A Melodious Night

The concert was titled ‘Five Centuries of Spanish Classical Music’ and Santanu played a selection of music written by Spanish and Catalonian composers. “This tradition is very much influenced by Flamenco music, which can be called Spanish folk music, the presence of mainstream western classical music is predominant in these compositions,” he says. This particular concert was his debut of a new performance project – a series of solo classical guitar recitals exclusively consisting of pieces composed by Spanish composers who lived in the last five hundred years. “The Spanish guitar is in fact a nylon string guitar which is plucked with fingertips or fingernails. It has a very soothing and soft sound and differs in construction and sonority from the more popular acoustic guitar, which is normally played with a plectrum,” he explains. The project is an attempt to bring the western classical music outside the serious concert hall environment and present it to a wider audience, in a more comprehensible format.

Santanu played a selection of pieces that transported us through the span of five centuries in melodious harmony. “I’ve picked a few pieces from the older era of music, like the piece composed for the Vihuela (a predecessor of the guitar) by Luys de Narváes was published in 1538, and another by Gaspar Sanz composed for the four-string Baroque guitar from the 1720s. I also chose a set of variations based on an aria from Mozart’s opera by Fernando Sor, who played a key role in the popularisation of the six-string guitar,” he elaborates.

A large part of the concert was based on early 20th century Spanish guitar music, from composers like Francisco Tárrega, one of the first guitarists to play and promote the Torres guitar, which was a game-changer in the design and construction of the modern guitar. Particularly haunting was Fedrico Moreno Torraba’s Nocturno, which created a suspenseful yet meditative ambience with its sublime notes and tones. Santanu closed the evening with an uplifting arrangement by Regino Sainz de la Maza, Rondeña, deeply rooted in the Flameco tradition with alternating 3/4 and 6/8 rhythm. Crickets chirped in when they could, and a few dogs lent their barks to the background score of this delightful serenade of music in Goa.

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