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SciArt Scribbles: The mellifluous gene editor

Many scientists embrace the artistic medium to infuse new ideas into their scientific works. With science-art collaborations, both artists and scientists challenge their ways of thinking as well as the process of artistic and scientific inquiry. Can art hold a mirror to science? Can it help frame and answer uncomfortable questions about science: its practice and its impact on society? Do artistic practices inform science? In short, does art aid evidence?

Nature India’s blog series ‘SciArt Scribbles’ will try to answer some of these questions through the works of some brilliant Indian scientists and artists working at this novel intersection that offers limitless possibilities. You can follow this online conversation with #SciArtscribbles .

When Debojyoti Chakraborty isn’t engrossed in gene editing experiments in his lab, you will find him rehearsing for his next sitar recital. A senior scientist at the CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in New Delhi, Debojyoti has a parallel career as a performing sitarist, trained in the Maihar school of music. The musician scientist tells us how CRISPR Cas9 and raga megh beautifully balance his creative energies.

Debojyoti Chakraborty

Ashish Gupta

Very recently, we lost one of the doyens of Indian classical music, the surbahar and sitar player Shrimati Annapurna Devi. In times when terms like ‘legend’ and ‘irreplaceable’ are used indiscriminately, Annapurna Devi is perhaps one of those artists whose lifelong devotion to music will compel us to remember her as a ‘musician’s musician’ long after she is gone.

Music, like science, is a journey of a lifetime and for the few fortunate people like me who have just begun to scratch the surface of both, they are a constant source of satisfaction and gratification.

I have been learning and playing the sitar for more than 24 years, way longer than I have been in science as my main profession. Perhaps the excitement of pursuing two fields that are seemingly infinite in scope and yet extremely rewarding for the creative mind is what still drives me to pick up my instrument for practice after a long day in the lab. Needless to say, science on most occasions for a young group leader is an extremely frustrating venture — juggling grants, research and administration. Music is thus not only a source of comfort but also a medium to vent out the nervous energy, a constant companion of the scientist.

The sitar is a seven stringed instrument (with thirteen additional sympathetic strings) that requires several parts of the body to work in unison: the vigorous right hand movements that evoke the sound, the gliding left hand that pulls on the main string and above all the continuous brain stimuli which channelise inputs from both into the shape and form of a raga or the melodic interpretation of a mood.

[Watch Debojyoti perform raga Khamaj at the Indian Embassy in Berlin, accompanied by Pt. Debaprasad Chakraborty and Ashis Paul: https://youtu.be/om5bR9eNj3M]

In many ways, there is a lot of consonance between the job of a researcher and a musician — both involve multitasking at various levels. Thus marrying music and science has traditionally not been difficult for serious enthusiasts.

For me, the initial phase of learning was marked by the general unwillingness to practice but half-hourly candy bribes from my father made sure I complied. It was only much later, when I really began to like the sounds I produced, that self-motivation crept in and I could spend long hours without feeling any stress. Several years down the line during my PhD, the belief that with persistence my project will take shape helped me wade through those doctoral blues. Music thus teaches life lessons that come handy in various situations.

For a musician, listening to good music is of paramount importance. Just like a toddler learns new words by continuously repeating them, listening to various improvisations and compositions on the same melodic structure or percussive element allows a classical musician to develop a refined, original and personal style. A lifelong devotee of masters like Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Pt. Nikhil Banerjee and Ustad Vilayat Khan, I grew up buying records and hearing them every night. I attended nightlong music conferences and tried to emulate everything about the artists — from their stage mannerisms to the color of their kurtas! This helped when I later became a performer myself. After all, an artist is a package of creativity and every aspect of that package needs to be perfectly aligned to deliver a memorable performance.

Similarly, in my scientific pursuits I have been fortunate to meet scholars and laureates who have shaped our understanding of the natural sciences. In most of these meetings, I felt that humility, devotion and a child-like excitement for knowledge are hallmarks of musical or scientific greats, regardless of their age or nationality. Once I spent an hour with the outstanding dance guru Pt. Birju Maharaj, listening to compositions that he learnt forty years ago. The glee in his eyes as he recounted the tunes told me how much he loved his art form and how much pleasure he still derived. It was no different from the expressions of Edmond Fisher, the Nobel laureate, whom I had the good fortune of meeting in Lindau.

My training in both music and science has given me access to the international and truly plural nature of both fields. At the Technical University of Dresden, I have worked as a guest researcher in music, trying to model Indian ragas mathematically with musician scientists from Europe. We still tour as the musical group Dhun. Our compositions universal, an example being the interpretation of a melody by Rabindranath Tagore that has the influence of the Scottish highlands and is set to notes of raga Gaud Sarang.

The time I spent in learning from European musicians has been enriching and filled with great camaraderie. This is in stark contrast to the somber and introspective nature of pure classical performances that I give. Musical associations are creative exercises that build long distance bonds just like scientific collaborations. At least on one occasion, it had also helped me finance my stay in a foreign country when transitioning between jobs.

My area of research is focused on developing better gene editing strategies using CRISPR Cas9 to target monogenic disorders like sickle cell anemia in Indian patients. The field of genome editing is fast paced and of late, balancing research, fatherhood and music has been challenging. However the support and encouragement of close family members and friends keeps me motivated to play and perform.

Being in science makes me pursue music for its aesthetic beauty and not purely for financial reasons. This is a refreshing thought to wake up everyday to since music, like most professions, comes with cut throat competition that often undermines its inherent beauty and soulful character. Being in science also makes me work with exceptional colleagues who appreciate creative art and share similar passion.

It has been an invigorating journey so far.

[Debojyoti Chakraborty can be contacted at debojyoti.chakraborty@igib.in]

Suggested reading:

SciArt scribbles: The molecule painter

SciArt scribbles: Coupling creation and analysis with collages

SciArt scribbles: Technology to aid dance

SciArt scribbles: Music to tackle PhD blues

SciArt scribbles: Playing science out

Artists on science: scientists on art

 

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