PETALING JAYA, February 19 — It is the determination of carrying on his father’s legacy that has kept sitarist Samuel Dass at playing the instrument for the past 46 years.

He has also been teaching the younger generation how to play the instrument for many years.

Samuel’s relationship with the sitar started when he was only five, as his father, Jabamalai Dass, a sitar player attached with Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM) influenced him to pick up the instrument.

“He taught me the basics of the sitar because at that time, he was diagnosed with cancer and he wanted me to be able to play the instrument.

“After three years, he passed away, and I continued to play the instrument because I missed my father and his moments with the sitar,” he said.

According to Samuel, music was never his first love and he kept on playing the sitar because it was also the cheapest route to gain expertise in a field, considering he came from a poor family.

His passion for the instrument only grew much later when he learned the art of plucking the sitar under various musicians from India and Malaysia which include Giani Bachitar Singh, Professor Haridev and acclaimed sitarist from Delhi University, Raj Kumar Sharma.

Later, he earned his Sangeet Bhushan (the equivalent of a senior diploma) under the tutelage of Professor Haridev from Chandigarh University.

Finding his community

Samuel recalled that initially when he started playing the sitar, there were a number of people who were not pleased with his decision to pursue music as it was neither a “proper profession” nor was it equivalent to the highly esteemed government servant’s job.

As such, the journey to becoming a musician was a very lonely one during the early years.

“There were only a handful of people who encouraged me to go down this career path,” he said.

However, as a musician, Samuel was able to find similar interests with other musicians when he performed in and out of the country whether it was during tours or simply just “making music” with other music enthusiasts.

Some of the instruments he has played with are the er-hu, flute, and even the Korean traditional instrument, Gayageum.

He also picks up a thing or two about their instruments when he meets other musicians from various backgrounds.

Samuel Dass has learned a few tricks on other instruments, thanks to his wide range of musician friends. — Picture by Hari Anggara
Samuel Dass has learned a few tricks on other instruments, thanks to his wide range of musician friends. — Picture by Hari Anggara

He and a few other musicians have also combined their talents to form a band, Prana, that was established in 2003, focusing on contemporary and classical songs.

The band, however, was dissolved, and Samuel formed another band, SwaraAsia in which he is an active member till today.

Preserving the art

Samuel, has also won numerous accolades which include bagging seven gold medals and one silver medal for eight categories he took part in the World Championship of Performing Arts, Hollywood, 2006.

He is taking it slow on his performances, and instead, focusing on his academy, Swara Community Arts Centre which was started in 2014, where he teaches the sitar.

Samuel estimated that there are only about six professional sitarists in Malaysia.

“The reason why I wanted to teach the sitar to the community was to preserve the art, so that people would know this instrument,” he said, adding that most of his students were inspired to learn the sitar after watching him perform in various shows.

Being a teacher, Samuel allows freedom to his students, by occasionally allowing them to play a song of their choice, so that they would enjoy the lessons.

“Recently, my students played the popular Chinese New Year tune, Gong Xi Gong Xi, which was composed by me, but it was their idea entirely to perform the song,” he added.

He said the sitar, as a traditional instrument, needed to be revived in the community, or else it would die out, and be overpowered by electronic music instruments instead.

When asked to offer any advice for the young ones, Samuel simply said:

“Get involved in the fine arts field, whether it is dancing, drawing or singing as these talents touch the soul, and you develop other skills apart from your academics.”

Samuel’s upcoming project is SwarAsia Malaysian Tour 2020 where he and his bandmates will be performing in three states — Johor, Penang and Kuala Lumpur on March 7, 14 and 28 respectively.

For more information on the tour, go to the Facebook page.