August, 2020

Sitar virtuoso Sharanjeet Mand: Putting Indian classical music on world stage

By Surbhi Gogia 

We all rightly marvel at the skills of talented musicians, especially when they effortlessly play classical complex forms of music — wondering how does someone become so skilled? The questions we can’t help but ask: Are they born talented? Does it run in genes? Is it hard work and practice?

Obviously, hours and hours of dedicated practice is a necessity, and many musicians receive appropriate guidance from teachers since childhood to master music, and many acquire the discipline of classical music from their family. 

But perhaps most interesting are the stories of those musicians that did not receive much formal training at a young age. It’s crazy but true—many of the greatest musicians of all time, like Prince, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton, all skipped music lessons and instead picked instruments later in their lives. We now have one more story of Vancouver-based internationally recognized sitarist Sharanjeet Singh Mand to add to this bizarre list. Sharanjeet is just 26 but his achievements defy his age. CBC recently listed him as one of “30 hot Canadian classical musicians under 30, 2019 edition.” It is hailed as a historic breakthrough throughout the world as Sharanjeet is the first-ever non-western classical musician to make it on the list. 

 A resident teacher at Place des Arts, an arts centre and music school, in Coquitlam, he has had a fascinating journey from his first performance at Mother Teresa Homage Concert in New Delhi at the age of 16 to creating history by becoming the first-ever Indian classical musician to perform a solo concert for the Juno Awards in 2018 in Vancouver. Sharanjeet is widely known as a Sitarist with impeccable style and flair, and his performances have enthralled audiences in India, Canada, and the USA alike. A young and energetic performer, his style of performance is laced with fast taans and soulful gayaki ang. 

With so many accolades under his belt, it is easy to presume that this master Sitar player must belong to a family of hard-core classical musicians who seasoned him since childhood to acquire these skills.  

But to everyone’s surprise, Sharanjeet was born into a family of Army people where all the relatives including his father served in the Indian military. Being a Science student with excellent grades, his fate too was decided. “I was doing great in school. I used to participate in high school science competitions and I knew I too would end up in the army to keep up with the family tradition.”  

When it came to music he says he always had a knack to understand classical music but never tried to learn it formally. “When all my friends were listening to Rock or Bollywood, I would prefer to listen to Western classical.” But music was never a priority in his life until one day he took it as a challenge. “Music was just a subsidiary subject and I skipped my music classes to focus on academics. One day my music teacher in Chandigarh called my parents to advice that they should take me out of the music class and try some other activity since music was not for everyone. That statement kind of stuck with me. I took it as a challenge.” 

Sharanjeet had to go on a hunger strike to get a Sitar from his parents since they were not convinced with the idea of a budding scientist romancing with Sitar. “But there are some things that are meant to happen,” he says. Sitar happened to Sharanjeet. “I sat with my Sitar first time when I was 15 and that was the day I felt complete. I knew it was meant for me and my journey started.”

Sharanjeet is of the view that there is no particular age to follow your passion. ” It does not matter when you start. Only things that matter are: passion and right guidance. I am blessed to have learned from the best gurus. Music just happened to me.” 

 After realizing his passion for music, he poured his heart and soul into it. “I practiced 16 hours a day,” he says. There was no looking back. Although criticism poured in from every direction. ” My parents had to bow down to what I wanted, but my relatives were more concerned. I was discouraged but I was so passionate nothing mattered,” he recalls.

 He started getting formal training from the same high-school teacher and went on to become a disciple of the doyen of Indian Classical Music, Pandit Harvinder Sharma. Sharanjeet represents Ustad Vilayatkhani Gharana, one of the most advanced discipline of sitar playing.

He gave his first performance at the age of 16 and since then he has been performing at various prestigious stages throughout the world.

 Being equally apt in Indian and Western Classical music, Sharanjeet has collaborated with the musicians of both genres. He is also a cherished composer and a versatile pianist. He has been credited to be the first-ever Sitarist to play ‘Art Song’ (Opera) ‘Ave Maria’ on Sitar.

This explains his love for Western classical that brought him to Canada. “I have always been fascinated with Western classical music. I was listening to symphonies and operas when I was just eight or nine years old. I taught myself Western classical music … I play the piano and I compose Western classical music as well.” 

The young sitarist was teaching at Tansen Sangeet Mahavidhlaya which had about 40 branches all over India before he came to Canada. “I was teaching the sitar there, but I was also into Western classical music that I started a western classical music program in Chandigarh.”

It was in Chandigarh in 2014 that he was invited to come to Canada by the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) during a visit of some Canadian officials and delegates when he performed for them.

 “After that, I wanted to pursue Western classical music further and I wanted to be where there was just a musical atmosphere which would inspire me to go deeper into music. So, I continued my education in Western classical music. I did a degree from Douglas College and since then I have been teaching, performing, travelling and composing.” 

Last year Sharanjeet become the first-ever Indian classical musician to perform a solo concert for the Juno Awards. He played a very rare raga Dev Gandhar. He was joined by tabla player Hriday Buddhdev. Nina Buddhdev was the curator. “A raga is a melodic system of Indian classical music and you improvise upon those formats. It was a good breakthrough. The Indian classical music is on the world map now,” he says. 

As a celebrated TV host, Radio host and through many community engagement programs, Sharanjeet has fully dedicated himself towards the cause of preserving and promoting Indian Classical Music. 

 Recently Sharanjeet has taken another initiative in this direction. He has established one of its kind Gurukul Canada — an institution through which he wants to re-establish the traditional relationship between “guru” and “shishya”.

 “I have a very dedicated group of students. They are all very good artists. But there is only a level you can go if you are learning as a student from teacher in a commercial set-up. There is a point of saturation. But to move beyond this boundary and explore the same osmosis of knowledge which used to be between guru and shishya originally, we established this institute,” he says. 

He calls it “a humble initiative.” “We have about 20 very dedicated students who are learning the sitar and who are very promising artists themselves.” 

Going further he wants it to become a self-sustained utopian kind of a system where people who are interested in just learning and practicing the classical art of music come and stay in a community kind of a place. “I want it to become a residential place. I want to really find a nice place in the mountains and create a bigger institute where everything is self-sustained like students learning and masters coming from all over the world to teach and then there are theatres and performances. I just want to stick to the principles of guru-shishya parampara (tradition / custom),” Sharanjeet elaborates. 

He aims to take music to the young generation. “In this fast-paced world, when we are stuck with tight schedules and multiple jobs to sustain a normal standard of living, it is important to think about the young generation. I am trying to spread awareness parents should encourage kids to learn Indian Classical music. It is a beautiful thing.”

 And there are some words of wisdom from this Guru about the importance of music in our lives. “There are a lot of clichéd answers to why we should learn music for any direct benefit like improving concentration etc. I feel we should leave music out of these calculations of profit and benefit. Music is an experience. It teaches you to appreciate life. When I go for a walk I don’t think about the destination, but on the things, I discover during my journey. Music has given me a perspective to appreciate the present moment. There is a great saying that we become engineers and doctors to survive but it is music and art we survive for. You should all have that essential quality of life.” 

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