Aloke Dasgupta arrived in the U.S. as an accountant. He and his wife have since played with the Rolling Stones and the LA Philharmonic and established their own music school in Torrance
by William Foss
On a quiet street in North Torrance lives an internationally renowned performer who has jammed with the best in the business. He and his wife are accomplished musicians, boasting not only performances with the Rolling Stones, George Harrison, Gwen Stefani, and the LA Philharmonic at venues ranging from India to the Hollywood Bowl, but also major film and television soundtrack credits.
Meet Aloke and Sanjukta Dasgupta, masters of Indian music equally at home on a Las Vegas stage as a meditative ashram. They have been performing and teaching music together for over twenty years and have shared an immigrant journey that has taken the couple from the most modest of beginnings to some of the world’s most hallowed stages.
“I grew up near Kolkata and my uncle played sitar and taught me,” Aloke said. “By the time that I was eleven I performed in public, and as a teenager I took a four-hour train each way to take lessons.”
He continued his music studies, earning two decidely unmusical college degrees – in accounting and economics. At the time this seemed the logical choice.
“I came to America in 1980 to see what it was like, because I had a brother already here in New Jersey,” he said. “I had never seen so much snow, and I didn’t like it.”
The brother counseled Aloke that there was no living in playing Indian music, so with his financial background a job was secured in banking. In the evenings he played gigs not only with traditional Indian musicians but jazz and rock artists also.
“I sat in with Carlos Santana once, during a performance for his guru,” he recalled.
This led Aloke to new styles of playing.
“Traditional Indian music has no harmonies, with each instrument playing essentially alone,” he said. “While a sitar might have support from percussion and drone instruments it plays a single and distinct line. Western music involves musicians coordinating their performances to create a melodic style that is completely different. With the influence of media, many Indian composers and performers now embrace this.”
A friend at the Rockefeller Center Foundation recommended him to the music program at San Diego State University, where he earned a Master’s Degree in Ethnomusicology. He then became Professor Dasgupta and taught some classes at the university while tutoring as a side job. But even with his work as an accountant, there was barely enough to make the rent.
In 1985, his father in India decided that Aloke should get married, and made arrangements for it. One of the requirements of the matchmaker was that the bride must love music. A candidate called Sanjukta fit the bill, being multitalented as a musician and vocalist. When asked how she met her husband, Sanjukta laughed.
“On our wedding day! That was the first time that I saw him,” she said, her eyes sparkling, smiling, holding Aloke’s hand.
A month after the couple’s wedding, Aloke had a decision to make.
“I was working part-time as an accountant for a school, and my boss really did not understand accounting so we did not get along,” he recalled. “One day he threatened to fire me, and I just said to him, ‘You cannot fire me! I quit!’ I walked the streets for a while, not knowing what to do next.”
He came home to Sanjukta. “I have a dream,” he told her. “I want to have a music school. That is my life”.
Sanjukta was immediately supportive. “Let’s just do it,” she said.
They had about fifty dollars in the bank at the time. There were enough students, but most lived in the Los Angeles area and commuting was stressful. Luckily one student owned an apartment building in Torrance and would let the Dasguptas move in without a deposit or income qualification, and so in 1993 to Torrance they came. Their apartment came unfurnished, and for a long time that was how it stayed while they saved for furniture.
Aloke’s first big break came not on a music stage but in a commercial for Twix candy bars, in which he played the sitar.
“We did about twenty ‘takes’ of the scene, and in many of them I improvised with words like, ‘Nice mix, man!’ Since they used the words in the commercial it doubled my pay,” Aloke said.
One of his early concert opportunities was playing “Paint it Black” with the Rolling Stones in Los Angeles.
“After the concert Mick Jagger was talking to me and asked what project I was going to do next.“ Aloke admitted that what he really wanted was to visit India again to refresh his musical roots. However, the shaky income from being a studio musician and teaching didn’t allow it. “Mick immediately committed to pay for the trip, which he did,” Aloke said. “I am still grateful to him for that. I have visited India every year since then to play”.
Aloke has played with George Harrison, Yes, Gwen Stefani and at a private concert for Ozzy Osborne to celebrate Ozzy’s 50th birthday. He also played along with the L.A. Philharmonic for a crowd of 18,500 at the Hollywood Bowl.
The longest run for Aloke and Sanjukta came when the rock band Cheap Trick decided to take on the challenge of performing the Beatles’ album “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” live in Las Vegas. The Beatles themselves never tried to play it live, thinking it impossible to do – it required a full orchestra, brass band and Indian quintet working together to pull it off. The result was 35 sold-out performances where the show-stopping number was Aloke and Sanjukta’s sitar arrangement.
ESPN features his work on the documentary ‘Sideline’ about recruiting cricket players for baseball, including what is probably the world’s first sitar version of ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’. The entire soundtrack of the movie “Outsource” is from Aloke and Sanjukta, and they are featured in an upcoming Hollywood biopic,“The Letters”, based on the life of Mother Theresa.
Aloke and Sanjukta have not forgotten their musical roots; for all of January he was playing packed concerts of classical sitar music in India.
Music is more than a career to Aloke but also a deeply spiritual journey.
“The human ear can only hear sounds within a certain range,” he said. “Beyond that range the universe is full of music that the ear cannot hear. For an Indian musician, one of those goals is to hear that universal song.”
One of the things that the Dasguptas like about Torrance is that people of all cultures are welcomed here, and their appearance when they go out in traditional clothes draws barely a glance from others.
They also appreciate the excellence of our school system. Their son Riju, who went to North High School, graduated with honors from U C Berkeley in Mathematics and Physics. He is in a PhD program at UCLA and soon to study in Switzerland at CERN, the world’s premier physics research facility. Riju follows in the family footsteps as a vocalist, flutist and violinist. He took up the violin because his hero Albert Einstein played it – and played it so well that Einstein performed in concerts that were well-received by music critics who had no idea that he had any other career.
They also still have their music school Raja Ranjani, which means, “music that makes you happy,” and periodically host home concerts. It’s a long way from Kolkata to Torrance and from banking to rock star. Aloke and Sanjukta are still enjoying the trip.