“MP3” or the science of singing better, as explained by Pandit Santanu Bandyopadhyay

“MP3 — music, plus physics, physiology, and psychology,” says renowned Indian classical music artiste and vocal science proponent Pandit Santanu Bandyopadhyay about his life’s work.

Pandit Santanu Bandyopadhyay
Indian classical singer, teacher, and vocal science researcher Pandit Santanu Bandyopadhyay at his Kolkata home, seated beneath the portrait of his father, Sangeetacharya Amiya Ranjan Bandyopadhyay. Photo: CtoI

Son of Sangeetacharya Amiya Ranjan Bandyopadhyay, the nearly 98-year-old stalwart of the Bishnupur gharana who still performs on stage, Santanu was inspired by his father’s sketches of the ear canal to go deeper into the science of singing.

“Received wisdom says that a singer must commit to daily riyaaz (practice) for hours in order to ‘improve the voice’ and, therefore, improve their singing. But music does not come from the voice at all; it comes from the brain, from memory. When you focus on your memory and think about the taan (defined as a rapid melodic passage) you want to execute, in exactly the way you want it, your voice will follow your brain’s lead and let you sing as you want,” says Santanu, summarising the idea underpinning his work.

Singers become victims of misguidance

His belief is that people considered “mediocre singers” are, in fact, the victims of misguidance. Continued for centuries, this misguidance focuses on overtaxing the voice rather than enhancing the memory.

But then, we ask, how does one explain the phenomenal vocal prowess of the truly great artistes, who have often spoken of how they were lost in riyaaz for hours? “They were lost in the music, because they just loved singing; they were not trying to improve their voice. They were born with a great voice, and during riyaaz, their mind was simply absorbed by the pleasure that music gave them,” explains Santanu.

These are not merely theories devised by a professional singer through his musings. Santanu has interacted — he still does — with scientists and medical experts for years, and had the facts underpinning his theories verified by them.

Amiya Ranjan Bandyopadhyay, in his youth, had informally spoken to doctors in Calcutta (now Kolkata) about the workings of the human body, to understand how the sound of music was produced. Santanu has gone much deeper into the subject, which is still at the nascent stage in India.

He calls it “vocal science”, and — seeing that he was the first in India, and perhaps one of the first in the world to explore Indian classical music in this way — his work is both greatly rewarding and quite difficult.

Beliefs in India tend to be entrenched; people are sceptical about deviating from what they feel is tried and tested. Santanu hopes that his work will push the boundaries of what is seen as “vocal training” for a performer.

First contact with global researchers

Now just a few months shy of 65, Santanu has been consistently curious about vocal science for the past 30 years.

His first contact with professionals working in this field came in the early Noughties, shortly after he wrote to Bowling Green State University, United States, in 2001. This led to a joint study with Professor Ronald C Scherer, PhD, a renowned speech scientist.

Pandit Santanu Bandyopadhyay has been working for years with top scientists, having started with Bowling Green State University faculty at the beginning of the Noughties. Photo: CtoI

A March 2004 letter from Prof. Scherer, addressing Santanu, says that it is “a great privilege for us to be collaborating with you in a research project on the production of Indian classical vocal music, with emphasis on taan production”.

Prof. Scherer adds in the letter: “Although there have been some studies that have dealt with the acoustical nature of Indian classical singing, our joint work appears to be the first studies ever, world-wide, that not only looks at the microstructure of fundamental frequency production, but also the aerodynamics and glottal dynamics of taan, as well as other important ornamentations.”

The letter conveys the excitement of Prof. Scherer about this “landmark, unprecedented study”. It says that “this work should also enhance the pedagogical foundations for teaching Indian classical music because of the physiological insights the information will help to create”.

In a layperson’s terms, understanding the science behind our vocal sounds would improve the teaching and performance of Indian classical music.

Santanu, whose work has also been featured in The Oxford Handbook of Voice Studies (edited by Nina Sun Eidsheim and Katherine Meizel), shares his knowledge regularly through Facebook and YouTube, with the aim of helping other singers. “It’s my way of giving back to music,” he tells us, adding that he charges a fee for his music performances, but none for his many workshops.

‘Come and experience the joy of singing’

In his social media posts and workshops, Santanu raises questions meant to whet one’s appetite for learning more about singing better; he also cites painful examples of misguided singers, whose excessive riyaaz cost them their voice.

This Facebook post (written in Bengali) by a singer using the pseudonym “Marcus Brutus” laments how excessive riyaaz done the wrong way has completely killed their voice — and also their college teaching career. Santanu warns that taxing the voice too much could result in a condition referred to as “singer’s nodules” in the throat.

One of his workshops last year was held at the Function Room, Regency Park, Singapore, in April 2023. The workshop on modulation and improvement of vocal quality was titled ‘The mediocre can compete with the talented: Come and experience the joy of singing’.

Speaking to us, he explains the correlation between our voice and our singing: “Imagine you’ve bought a guitar and want to play it well. Now, in order to improve your playing, are you going to fiddle with the mechanism of the guitar? Or are you going to focus on learning a skill and applying it better using memory and intelligence?” The answer is a no-brainer.

Music is exactly like that, says Santanu. “You cannot improve what you’re born with — the mechanism of your voice. You can, however, improve how to best utilise what’s available to you. For that, your focus should be on your memory and applied intelligence.”

Larynx, pharynx, mouth cavity, and nasal resonator are the four things working to turn the air coming out of one’s lungs into sound — and memory and applied intelligence turn that sound into music. This is the basis of vocal science, explains the singer, who shrugs off the title of “guru” and considers himself a lifelong learner.

Many of his students have benefited following his advice; some have given up too soon. As with all scientific pursuits, the best results come through sustained practice of the proven methods, Santanu points out, and impatience is a hindrance.

“The brain,” he says, “is a very selfish organ. It does everything for its own benefit. Music is relaxing for our brain; that’s why nature has made us capable of singing. Use your brain wisely, and your singing will improve.”

Remembering the young Rashid Khan

Ustad Rashid Khan
The famed Indian classical vocalist Ustad Rashid Khan, who died on January 9, 2024, was a dear friend of Pandit Santanu Bandyopadhyay. Photo courtesy: Instagram/rashid_khan_ustad

As one of the renowned Indian classical singers based in Kolkata, Pandit Santanu Bandopadhyay spent a lot of his youth in the company of the late Ustad Rashid Khan, who died aged 55 on January 9, 2024.

Santanu tells us an anecdote of Rashid Khan, then in his early twenties, giving an impromptu performance: “My father told me one day, ‘Ask Rashid to come over. Want to hear him sing.’ Rashid was taking a nap when I called him. He said, ‘Certainly, I will sing for kaka (uncle). Let me have a cup of tea first.’

“Then, having woken up and had a quick cup of tea, Rashid began singing for baba (father) — from the first note, it sounded as if he was performing after hours of riyaaz. Such was his talent.”

We ask him to define talent, and Santanu gives a very unconventional reply: “I believe that talent is not within us, but is floating there in the ether. What it always needs is a conduit — that’s us — to be channelled.”