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An August requeim

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An August requeim

Nikhil Banerjee was a musician out of tune with his times. A sitar virtuoso who was a cut above the rest.

Till the end, however, Banerjee preferred to stay away from the limelight. Playing essentially to further his art, conducting his career with quiet dignity.

MOHAN NADKARNI reminisces about the maestro and his contribution to Hindustani music.

Nikhil BanerjeeWhat is it that makes most of us – especially those of my generation – claim that Nikhil Banerjee was a cut above all other sitar virtuosi of our time? Comparisons can be way out and invidious, too. And much more so in a field like music, hopelessly riven with feuds, rivalries and intrigues.

Nikhilbabu was one virtuoso who had no use for catchy, theatrical elements to compel wild, lusty applause from today’s motley audiences. He could win over his listeners with his persuasive music and pleasing, dignified manner. For all his supreme virtuosity, he never lost sight of those aesthetic values that make our music a truly ennobling, fulfilling experience. He played more for himself than for the gallery. (This also, incidentally, perhaps explains the kind of casualness with which the national press has, by and large, given the news of his death.)

True, death comes to all. But then in the case of a rare genius like Nikhil Banerjee, 54 was not the age to die. Despite three heart attacks and a paralytic infirmity that once almost threatened to disable him, he continued to perform with the same verve and vigour as before. I have haunting memories of his out-of-the world recital at the Gharana Sammelan in Bombay in January last year. According to reports, he succumbed to a fourth cardiac attack barely within two days of his performance at the hallowed Dover Lane festival in Calcutta on January 27.

Indeed, had Nikhilbabu lived longer, his music may well have served to eventually demolish the myth that still revolves – albeit totteringly – around two sitar maestros with international eminence. Although he had emerged on the Indian musical scene more than two decades ago to represent a third force in the instrumental domain, it was only lately that shy, unassuming and introverted Nikhilbabu had begun to show an awareness of the impact he was capable of making on our top rankers who were more glamorous and much senior to him in profession and age.

Prodigies of the common run seldom maintain their fame at a more mature age. Nikhilbabu was a rare exception to this truism. He learnt from many masters. His musician father Jitendra Nath Banerjee, gave his basic training from the age of four. He was only nine when he gave his first public performance and won acclaim as a star performer an all-Bengal sangeet sammelan. Sensing the conspicuous potential of the boy, Raja Birendra Kishore Roy-Choudhary of Gouripur (now in Bangladesh) took him under his wing. The Raja was himself a noted beenkar of the Seniya (Rampur) tradition and a great patron of music, and it was from him that Nikhilbabu had his systematic grooming in sitar-playing. Six years later, Roy Choudhary himself placed him under the tutelage of Allauddin Khan of Maihar.

And it was from Allauddin Khan that the genius of Nikhilbabu received its magic touch. Looking back, it can well be regarded as an association of two kindred souls that culminated in a lasting guru-shishya relationship. For, in the course of his long arduous shagirdi with the pioneering master, Nikhilbabu imbibed the content and spirit of his Ustad’s music to a degree where it became an integral part of his own musical being.

The mystical element in Nikhilbabu’s music, that quality of detached intensity that suffused his playing, was his mentor’s precious bequest. That explains, why, even while showing equal concern for form and design with all his supreme virtuosity, his music never shed its contemplative character. His own introvert temperament made the impossible possible.

In 1952, Nikhilbabu moved to Bombay after Allauddin Khan went to Haj for his pilgrimage. During his four-year stay in the metropolis, he sought further guidance from Ali Akbar Khan, the Ustad’s illustrious son. True to the manner born, Ali Akbar Khan accepted his gurubhai as his shishya and gave him valued guidance on his quest for perfection. And more. He helped the struggling youngster in various ways. To bring him into the limelight, he even condescended to present instrumental duets in partnership with him. In later years, Nikhilbabu continued, in the true spirit of an ardent devotee of his Muse, to seek guidance and direction from Annapurna Devi, the versatile sister of Ali Akbar Khan. And he never tired of expressing his gratitude to these three stalwarts of the beenkar tradition.

To my mind, Nikhilbabu’s singular distinction lay in the way he enriched his inheritance. In doing so, he achieved an uncanny fusion of two musical streams: Maihar, pioneered by Allauddin Khan, and Etawah, founded by Imdad Khan, of which Vilayat Khan is the reigning master. This was a bold attempt at synthesising what are regarded as two contrary paramparas where even reconciliation, let alone fusion, would have been a pipedream. And as we know it today, Nikhilbabu’s approach proved to be the kind of venture that set our gharana-conscious diehards a-thinking. Strange but true, he did it with the blessings of his mentors!

Nikhilbabu was proud of his sitar. He called it the most versatile of all other string instruments. He once demonstrated to me how no other fretted instrument could hold a candle to the sitar in point of instrumental expressiveness, how it could conjure up the tonal abstractions associated with other musical media like the surbahar or the sarod or the surshringar. He reminded me that it was Allauddin Khan who pioneered and popularised such a unique combination of contemporary modes of instrumental expression without bias to any particular technique. Nikhilbabu’s own style provided proof of the validity of the Ustad’s trend-setting concept.

It was at a private concert that I first heard Nikhilbabu in Bombay in the early fifties. Many opportunities came my way, in the years that followed, to listen to his public concerts. His concert at the January 1985 Gharana Sammelan was his last appearance on the city platform. It was great music that he offered us for two hours.

All said and done, Nikhilbabu’s music was truly sui generis. The moving humanistic faculty that inspires all great creations was supreme in his art. It breathed life into his melodies. There was something in it that was much deeper than a mere display of an art cultivated through long and deliberate concentration. There was in them a rare assimilation of classical exactitude and emotional freedom – the kind that revealed his extraordinary insight into our ageless classical tradition. I, unhesitatingly, hail him as the best sitar maestro of our time.

Unlike most other less gifted but more fortunate confreres, he had no use for new-fangled or so-called self-composed ragas. He always chose profound, serious ragas that ideally suited his temperament. The raga Man-manjari, which he occasionally played for his audiences in response to requests, was about his only melodic innovation.

It is an irony of our time that despite the world acclaim he earned in his own right, Nikhil Banerjee did not receive the recognition richly due to him in his own country. A Padma Shri in 1968 and a Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1974 were all that came to him in ‘recognition’ of his contribution to Hindustani music. Could this, in the final analysis, be attributed, at least partly, to the personality of the man himself? He was none the worse for it when he was alive. Now he has gone away, leaving us sorrowing and wondering. The half-a-dozen commercial discs he has cut for the Gramophone Company of India are now all that we have to cherish and preserve as mementos of his greatness and, let me say it again, of the best sitar maestro of our time.


Mohan Nadkarni traces the virtuoso’s career  

Nikhilbabu had settled permanently in Calcutta since 1956 as vice-principal of the Ali Akbar College. Although he undertook frequent concert tours all over the country and abroad, his stage appearances in Bombay were rather few and far between. Fewer still were the occasions when we could meet amidst his hectic visits. And for one not given to talking about himself, even a suggestion for a formal interview seemed out of the question.

But he was amenable to informal conversation and, on such occasions, he would reveal himself as a perceptive observer of the contemporary musical scene and also as a man of firm convictions. He was one maestro who took a rather dim view of the way sangeet sammelans were planned and organized. With disarming candour, he once asserted that it was the duty of top-notchers to create and sustain the right mood and atmosphere for proper enjoyment and appreciation of music at the sammelans.

According to him, it was also their personal responsibility to find out why the audience did not turn up in time, or why there was crass disregard for concert etiquette and manners or why clapping was resorted to by the audience at wrong moments! Equally frank were his views about the kind of training imparted to young musicians today. A firm believer in the age-old gurukula system, which is now on the verge of oblivion, he felt convinced that no other system could produce a real performing musician. Mass education was totally incompatible with traditional music.

How can there be proper training without special attention, strict discipline and sustained guidance from the guru, he once asked me. Then he would add with a sigh, “Yes, times have changed, and musicians have become very busy because they have to earn their bread through professional takings.” Nikhilbabu was in his early thirties when he embarked on his first foreign tour, under the auspices of the American Society of Eastern Arts in California, on a teacing assignment under the direction of Ali Akbar Khan himself.

It was with misgivings, not unmixed wih a little-trepidation, that he received this assignment. He rushed to Allauddin Khan to seek his permission to accept the offer. The maestro, who was the first great musician to spread the gospel of our music to he world at large, readily gave his consent. But he did not forget to caution his shagird in these words, “Whatever you have learnt and achieved, it is for the service of mankind. You must render, with all sincerity, the richness and the spirit of our music to everyone irrespective of caste, creed, religion or nationality. This is the only way you can really serve your country and your music as well.”

It is in the spirit of this advice that Nikhilbabu undertook his annual tours to America and other places abroad. How did he view the work of other musicians in this field in the various parts of the world? Ali Akbar Khan, according to him, was possibly the first and the only Indian maestro to have successfully taken the true message and spirit of our music to the Americans. Several of the Ustad’s American pupils, he once pointed out, had matured into gifted stage performers as a result of his successful method of teaching.

Speaking in the same vein, Nikhilbabu was all praise for some sections of American listeners who were now able to understand and appreciate the fineries of our ragas and talas. He was often amazed to see some of them precisely count the matras and keep up with the tempo of an ada-choutala or a dhamar-tala cycle like hard-boiled connoisseurs. Young parents were prompted to send their children to his California school only because they wanted their tiny tots “to find a way out for their stagnant souls… to find out what was lacking even amid material prosperity”.

Nikhilbabu often drew a sharp contrast with the conditions existing in our own country. When he spoke of his teaching experience at his Calcutta college, he candidly said he had not been able to produce a real musician. He thought that the people who came to learn at his college could not possibly afford to continue even for six or seven years. He once summed up his feelings in one cryptic observation. “There is unfortunately no short-cut to learning music.” He hoped and wished that the youngsters who were in a hurry to make it to the concert platform would remember this fact. By seeking shortcuts, they caused much damage to themselves and music-lovers alike.


The Illustrated Weekly of India, March 9, 1986 


1 Comment

  1. This is a remarkable tribute to this great musician, one who – in a fairer world – ought to be known to everyone who loves music. I entered an earlier version of this writing of Mohan Nadkarni’s at my tribute page to Pandit Nikhil Banerjee (web address below). I am currently editing this page for the first time in many years, and I will let you know when I have finished my current edit.

    P.S. Why has no one commented at this page before now (2nd December 2022)?

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