Monday, June 6, 2011

Pandit Nikhil Banerjee (1931-1986)

Pandit Nikhil Banerjee (1931-1986) was amongst the finest sitarists to emerge on the classical music platform in the post-independence era. He entered the profession at a time when vocal music ruled the scene, and formidable musicians like Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and Pandit Ravi Shankar were shaping a market for instrumental music. Under such daunting conditions, he created a niche for himself in the musical culture on the strength of his originality and musicianship.

Recognition came late, but it came. When he died at the age of 55, he had been decorated with a Padmashri, a Padma Bhushan, and a Sangeet Natak Academy Award. He had, by then, cultivated a sizeable constituency in the US.  Sadly enough, India discovered him after he acquired a cult-like following in the US. With Vilayat Khan and Ravi Shankar polarizing the stylistic spectrum, the domestic musical culture took time to accept a third option. Fortunately, Indian recording companies had, all along, remained interested in him, thus facilitating his re-discovery. Nikhil Bannerjee has thus become larger in his death than he was in life.

Childhood and grooming
Nikhil Babu was born at Calcutta in a conservative middle-class Brahmin family. His father, Jitendranath, and his grandfather, both, played the sitar as a hobby. But, in his family, music was frowned upon as a profession because of its association with courtesans. Young Nikhil heard his father practice every day, and developed a fondness for the instrument. His interest in learning the sitar was also discouraged out of the fear that it might interfere with his formal education. Family resistance eased when Nikhil was 5 years old, and he was given a toy sitar to start learning. By the age of seven, his prodigious talent became evident, and his father started teaching him seriously. At the age of nine, he won the All Bengal Sitar Competition and also became the youngest ever broadcaster on All India Radio.

In his childhood, he was deeply influenced by Ustad Ameer Khan, who was his sister’s teacher, and with whom he interacted extensively. He was also a great admirer of the leading vocalists of the pre-independence era – Omkarnath Thakur, Faiyyaz Khan, Kesarbai, and Roshanara Begum. In his youth, he learnt music for varying periods from musicians, who were part of his father’s circle of friends. By this process, he studied the sitar for a few months with the Seniya sitarist and surbahar exponent, Mushtaque Ali Khan, and the Tabla and vocal music with Bengal’s versatile genius, Gyan Prakash Ghosh. Thereafter, for several years he studied music with the aristocrat-musician-musicologist, Birendra Kishore Roy Choudhury.

Roy Choudhury was an exponent of the Dhrupad genre, specializing in the Sursingar, Rabab, Rudra Veena, and the Surbahar. He was an encyclopedic treasure house of old compositions. Nikhil learnt hundreds of vocal and instrumental compositions from him in a large number of raga-s. As Roy Choudhury was not an active performing musician, he advised Nikhil to go to Maihar and study with Ustad Allauddin Khan.

Once Nikhil had tackled the family resistance to the idea of a career in music, he faced an obstacle in the person of Ustad Allauddin Khan (Baba). The Ustad was over 70 by this time, and in no mood to accept any more students. After much persuasion, Baba agreed to listen to Nikhil’s next radio broadcast, and then decide whether he would teach him. Baba heard the broadcast, and pronounced it a piece of rubbish. But, he saw a hidden spark in Nikhil’s playing, and accepted him as a disciple. Nikhil packed his bags and left for Maihar to live and study with his Ustad.

Then started Nikhil’s five-year long saga of studying under the greatest and, by all accounts, the most difficult, Ustad of the era. Baba had mastered several instruments, but not the sitar. Therefore, he taught his sitar students by singing the music, and allowing them to find their own technique for executing it. Baba consciously and systematically also steered Nikhil’s music into a direction distinctly different from that of his other sitarist disciple, Ravi Shankar. When Baba was satisfied that Nikhil was ready for the real world, he allowed him to launch his career.

Even after launching himself in the profession, Nikhil did not stop being a student. Baba was too old by then. So, Nikhil spent five years in Bombay, studying with Baba’s son, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. Thereafter, whenever he visited Bombay for concerts, Nikhil would also go to Baba’s daughter, Annapurna Devi, and take lessons from her.

A  look at Nikhil Bannerjee's discography reveals his musical personality. Amongst available recordings -- published and unpublished -- the vast majority of the ragas featured are popular mature ragas like Darbari, Lalit, Marwa, Shree, Bairagi, Patdeep and Bhimpalas. In addition, there are "patent" ragas of the Maihar-Senia lineage -- Chandranandan composed by Ali Akbar Khan, and Hemant  reportedly conceived by Alauddin Khan.

The listing also has a handful of raga-s adopted from the Carnatic tradition -- Basant Mukhari (Vakulabharanam), Charukeshi and Kirwani. Semi-classical ragas seemed to have had a minor presence in his repertoire. I came across a Bhairavi rendering of his, in which he has treated the raga like a classical raga, rather than the more common thumree-style liberal treatment. I also observe that, although he did perform in the modern medium-tempo Jhaptal and Roopak, a majority of his recordings are in the traditional Tritala format.

These are indications that he was a musician of orthodox temperament in the classicist mold, who kept his music accessible, and occasionally displayed his mastery over the specialist repertoire of his lineage.

Duet artist
Unlike his Maihar seniors -- Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar -- Nikhil Bannerjee had only a minor presence as a duet artist. He is known to have performed duets only with Ali Akbar Khan. In addition to several stage concerts, the two also played brief (3 mts.) duets for a Bengali film, Kshudita Pashan (Hungry stones) and a Hindi film, Pheri.

Nikhil Banerjee entered the profession at the toughest possible period of history. As he told the American journalist-photographer, Ira Landgarten in an interview (1986):Of course, I had confidence after learning from Allauddin Khansahib but there was a great point in front of me: Vilayat Khan was there, and Ravi Shankar-ji was there, Ali Akbar Khansahib was there, and all these great stalwarts just in front of me! Until I've got some sort of individuality, who will listen to my music? After coming from Maihar, I was a little nervous for some time and I was really searching for a way to cut my own path because these three great instrumentalists hadn't left a single point through which to take up and dig out your own way… As a whole [complete] performer, how to place your individuality in front of these great instrumentalists? These three great instrumentalists have not neglected a single phrase or portion of Indian classical music; they've got their own individuality and are really great”.

As it turned out, Nikhil Banerjee did emerge as an original musician, whose style appeared to blend the finest features of the Dhrupad-derived Maihar (Ravi Shankar) style, with those of the Khayal-inspired Etawah (Vilayat Khan) style. This was not surprising considering that, Ustad Allauddin Khan had channelized Nikhil Babu’s musical energies in a direction different from that of Ravi Shankar, and other mentors had also given him a musical vision unfettered by either of the dominant sitar styles. It is inconceivable that Nikhil Banerjee should have developed his middle-of-the-road style as a conscious strategy because he was a conscientious musician, answerable only to his art.

He told Ira Landgarten (1986): “Music is such a thing that through your music you can be judged. It's not any particular way, it's from the experience because through music you express yourself. My approach to music is very deep. I do not compromise with anybody or anything else in the world. I do not care, I don't care if anybody appreciates it or not; I don't care. When I start I always like to play better, nice, good, heavenly music. I want to really go beyond this materialistic world towards Space -- there, no compromise. I really want to know -- not for the sake of enjoyment, entertainment, no. In the beginning portions –naturally.  With tabla, that's another chapter, a completely different chapter; the intricacies and mathematics are there. A musician must lift up the souls of the listeners, and take them towards Space.”

Despite entry at a difficult time for Sitarists, and departing early, Nikhil Bannerjee made it to the big league.  Fortunately for the music world, he also left a large number of recordings in the personal archives of collectors and with All India Radio. Many of these have now been released in India and abroad. As a result, today, Nikhil Bannerjee has a fanatical following amongst segments of music lovers, who hungrily devour every recording of his they can lay their hands on.

© Deepak S. Raja, 2011

Nikhil Bannerjee: Selected Discography
ASD 2394: Raga Lalit, Raga Sindhu Bhairavi, Raga Puriya Kalyan 1968 
EASD 1305: Raga Komala Rishab Asawari,  Maluha Kalyan, Mishra Gara. 1966 
EASD 1318: Raga Malkauns, Raga Hem-Lalit 1967
EASD 1342: Raga Hemant, Raga Bhatiyar 1969
EASD 1355: Raga Lalit, Raga Sindhu Bhairavi, Raga Puriya Kalyan 1968 
EASD 1377: Raga Sohini, Raga Megh 1972
EASD 1378 :Raga Jaunpuri, Raga Mand 1973
EASD 1450: Sitar from the Concert Hall: Volume 2: 1988
EASD 1465: Padma Bhushan Nikhil Banerjee in concerts 1988 
EASD 1473: Sitar recital live at San Francisco 1989 
EASD 1490: Live at Berkeley 1991
ECSD 2600 Nikhil From the Concert Hall 1979
PSLP 5072: Raga Megh, Raga Malkauns
PSLP 5301: Raga Komal Rishab Asavari, Raga Jaunpuri