Amit Roy: musician extraordinairre

Amit Roy: musician extraordinairre

Added In: Articles › Arts

Jon Davies

Only the fingers give him away. They constantly strum at his thigh when he is not holding his instrument, and the worn nails look as though they have been playing the sitar for eternity.

Amit Roy has been in Nagoya since 1990, arriving from Kolkata (nee Calcutta) in eastern India where he grew up in a family of instrument makers, surrounded by music and musicians from infancy. George Harrison visited his family’s shop in the mid-1970s, although young Amit was not aware who this strange ojii-chan was, and they shared chai and curry. He took his first steps in Indian classical music at the age of five or six, and built his current 20-string sitar himself some 30 years ago, even hand-carving the tuning pegs in the form of lotus flowers.

Roy and his compatriot who has introduced us, artist Niren Bhat (see Avenues #121), chat in a comfortable mix of Hindi, English and Japanese, sometimes using each language in one sentence. Complimenting his friend, Bhat says that when Roy picks up his sitar time stops still and the hubbub of urban Japan melts away. Roy proves this to be true when he demonstrates his art. Sitting cross-legged, the body of the instrument, formed from a gourd, resting on one foot, he picks a timeless sound from its strings, one that is simultaneously simple and complex.

Once a globe-trotting professional musician, these days the 47-year-old (who could easily pass for a decade younger) is content to play concerts and teach the secrets of his trade within Japan. He has more than 100 students aged 15 to 64, and travels regularly to Tokyo, Osaka and Sendai.

Indian music first became popular in Japan back in the 1970s, with the versatile sitar offering guitar and shamisen players the opportunity to explore wider musical vistas. Roy says that the increased individualism of young Japanese means they are much more adept then the first generation of Japanese sitar and tabla (double hand drum) players. He believes that as people learn to trust their instincts and gain exposure to global influences, subsequent generations of Japanese musicians will be ever more skilled at Indian music.

Roy explains how music the world over evolves from being the soul of festivals to a form of prayer in religion, from a symbol of royal court to a form of entertainment. The Indian classical music that he plays and teaches has undergone all these transitions over a period of 2,500 years, and has finally emerged as a public art. Usually three musicians are featured, playing tabla, tanpura (a kind of lute), and the sitar, the lead instrument. If you are able to catch a Roy concert or listen to one of the CDs he has released in Japan on the Nada label, you too will marvel at his skill, and at his ability to make time stand still.