Kabir Dabholkar has just been announced as winner of the Olga & Jules Craen Foundation’s “Young Musician of the Year” (YMOY) award for Western classical music.
Kabir is very young (20 years old) and an exceptionally talented classical guitarist. While this is very exciting for Kabir, it’s also exciting for classical guitar. India has one of the most active classical guitar scenes in south east Asia. Each year, the Indian Guitar Federation hosts the most significant festival of the region, and several carefully curated workshops. However, despite this, at a national level classical guitar doesn’t have much visibility. As an illustration, the NCPA probably hosted their last classical guitar concert four years ago, in early 2014 with Xuefei Yang.
Part of the YMOY award includes a series of recitals at various schools of music across the country. I hope this will help promote the instrument to listening audiences. After the award was announced, I had a conversation with Kabir about his background, education, and the kind of environment that helped him grow into the musician he is today:
Veda Aggarwal: How did you get into classical music and the guitar?
Kabir Dabholkar: I had already started playing steel string guitar – popular music – when I was 10. After a while, my teachers at school recommended that I learn classical guitar. This has a more formal method of learning and I could give grade exams for Trinity College or ABRSM. Mohan Krishnan, Konarak Reddy and Muthu Prathap were my teachers who prepared me for the graded music examinations.
I was at The International School in Bangalore. In our 9th and 10th, as part of our IGSEs, I chose music as a subject for my board exams. I had to study music history and genres from around the world. The syllabus has a serious history and listening section, and our school had a very active music department.
VA: It’s not that common to hear a classical guitar concert in India. When was the first time you heard the instrument live in concert?
KD: When I first went to the Calcutta International Classical Guitar Festival in 2012. We did have a good music culture in the school, but I wasn’t that exposed to Western classical music concerts. My parents are into Hindustani classical but I had never really heard Western classical music that seriously before.
VA: How has the Calcutta International Classical Guitar Festival impacted you as a musician?
KD: Over the years this had a huge impact on my guitar playing and music education. There are different components of the Calcutta International Classical Guitar Festival – concerts and masterclasses. Till 2014 there was also an international competition. I got to be around conservatory students from across the world, witness how rigorously and seriously they practiced, and understand what it took to be serious concert musicians.
The concerts in Calcutta were (and are) just amazing. I got to see David Russell, Pavel Steidl, Marcin Dylla, Johannes Moller… people like them play. They are at the absolute top in the international classical guitar scene today. Because I have this exposure, I will always know the difference between an excellent concert and a performance that was merely good. For example, I’ve seen Pavel Steidl and Marcin Dylla in concert more than once, and I know which ones I enjoyed more. That’s something!
In Calcutta, I met other young classical guitarists from across India – Antara, Rohit, Mehuli – people my age who were playing the same thing as me. I made friends and this has been a great support. We kept in touch through the years over phone and email and WhatsApp, meeting each December in Kolkata. We have regular video chats in which we talk about music and play for each other. This has made a big difference.
VA: Apart from the guitar festival in Calcutta, what were the other kinds of exposure you had to classical music?
KD: The internet is a big resource for me. I’ve done most of my listening and discovering new music online. I’ve also been abroad a couple of times – to Bangkok in 2015 for the Asia International Guitar Festival, and to Tignes in 2017.
VA: Tell us a bit more about the Asia International Guitar Festival. You won a prize there! How did you hear about it? What made you go there?
KD: Nandini (a classical guitarist my age and from Bangalore) had been to Thailand and she recommended this to me. The Asia International Guitar Festival is fairly big and quite accessible from India. I had a masterclass with Gerard Abiton. I took part in the competition, and won a prize in the junior category. Paul Cesarczyk was on the jury and he told me what he liked about my performance later. That was very encouraging for me.
I was 17 then and had travelled there on my own, so one of the big takeaways was able to meet and connect with a lot of people.
VA: That’s incredible! For your parents send you to Thailand alone at that age for a guitar festival!
KD: Yes, I hadn’t really travelled alone before and I’m sure they were quite anxious. But they were very supportive and that is quite special.
VA: Did you hesitate before asking your parents to fund this?
KD: Not really. They’ve always encouraged me and never hesitated when it came to spending money on something that would help me learn or grow in any way. They aren’t big spenders and don’t really spend money on themselves. So, I would hesitate to ask for something more trivial. But with this sort of thing, I didn’t and never have to.
This year I went to Vienna to stay and study with Raphel Bereau (a French guitarist who I met in Kolkata in 2016), and then to MusicAlp in France to take lessons with Judicael Perroy. For this too, I didn’t have to think twice about speaking to my parents before making that plan.
VA: Judicael Perroy is a legendary guitar teacher. What is it like to study with him?
KD: Judicael has amazing knowledge and tells you stuff you don’t hear anywhere else. His teaching is very personal. In the lessons, he would really try to get to know you first (the student) and then suggest advice that was particularly relevant to you. He is also tirelessly committed to his teaching. This is incredible.
VA: You’re also taking regular Skype lessons with Raphael Bereau. How does that work?
KD: Even though there are obvious disadvantages of a Skype call, regular lessons in this way are useful. It’s important for me to have someone to play to each week. Raphael gives constructive feedback, and really helps explore possibilities for the piece I may not have considered before.
VA: You’re at IISER Pune now, studying physics. This is the best place in the country for pure science studies. How do you manage to balance it all?
KD: I just happened to be interested in physics and maths. It was never a burden to study. I can easily commit to it because I like these subjects. It was the same with guitar. I make sure that I’m doing things that I really enjoy doing.
VA: Well, it seems to pay off because you’re really doing so well at both. Congratulations on winning the OJCF YMOY award! Could you tell us a bit about the selection process?
KD: The first step is within the committee. A central part of this award is that you get to study abroad. For the shortlist, apart from the video audition, the committee is looking for people who are eager to learn, who are open to accepting feedback, and have a desire to improve.
VA: What do you think helped you win at the finals?
KD: The jury made it clear that this was a selection and not a competition. So, they would overlook minor mistakes in the playing and instead look at overall musicianship. I think they were looking for a performance that is interesting to listen to. This lends itself very nicely to the guitar.
There were seven finalists – five pianists and one violist, and a classical guitarist (that was me). I think that put me at an advantage.
For my programme, I picked a very wide range of music both in terms of time and in terms of space on the globe. The jury commented, and said they liked my selection. I started with 16th century Dowland from England – written for the lute. Then harpsichord music by Dominico Scarlatti from Italy. Then classical guitar music by Guiliani from Italy. And my own transcription of Albeniz’s Capricho Catalan which is very romantic, nationalism from Spain. I also performed Capricho Arabe by the Spanish Francisco Tarrega and Prelude No.1 and No.2 by Heitor Villa-Lobos of Brazil. The last piece was an etude by Leo Brouwer– he’s a contemporary Cuban composer.
VA: Well done! How do you plan to use the award?
KD: I’m still in the process of working this out. I’m looking at options on studying abroad in the summer. I would like a workshop or series of lessons with Judicael Perroy but this is not decided. I do also need to buy a professional luthier-made guitar.