Remembering Pandit Nikhil Banerjee: Pioneer of the sitar

Pandit Nikhil Banerjee. Photo by Bhaidu Sanyal (Found here: www.stevenbaigel.com)

Pandit Nikhil Banerjee. Photo by Bhaidu Sanyal (Found here: www.stevenbaigel.com)

Although he is not as well known in the western world as Ravi Shankar, any Kolkata citizen will know the name of Pandit Nikhil Banerjee and his legendary status in Hindustani classical music. As I write this piece, in a few hours, 27th January 2014 will mark his 28th death anniversary.

As my grand uncle, I called him by the Bengali term of Nikhil Dadu and I still have hazy memories of his face, his voice as well as his playing. His untimely death came when I was a child, but I still remember his trips from Kolkata to my hometown of London to play in front of British audiences. I was too young to really grasp the essence of his music whilst he was alive, but listening to him as I have grown older has led me to understand his mastery of such an insightful musical genre. Today, when I’m surrounded by noise, from my environment or endless streams of thought, listening to his album ‘Lyrical Sitar’ brings me peace.

But it’s a form of music that is difficult to define. European scholars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who were fascinated with this type of music, had attempted to create a system for the sounds. But the accuracy of it became lost in the complexity of the notes. The structure of western and Indian classical music seems to reflect the differences that exist between the two cultures: the western version demands order and discipline, whereas its Indian counterpart is highly spiritual. Dadu once said:

“My approach to music is very deep. I do not compromise. Indian music is based on spiritualism and was practiced and learned to know the Supreme Truth. A musician must lift up the souls of the listeners and take them towards space. This is the history of Indian music.”

It is also timeless, as the performer elaborates on the basic melody to create a distinct and individual sound. Ravi Shankar said:

“A raga is the projection of the artist’s inner spirit, a manifestation of his most profound sentiments and sensibilities brought forth through tones and melodies.” (Raga Mala: The Autobiography of Ravi Shankar, George Harrison, 2001).

Awakened strength

Nikhil Dadu’s late father, Shri Jitendranath Banerjee, was also a talented musician and introduced his son to the sitar. Dadu then honed his talents by receiving training from Ustad Allauddin Khan, who was a pioneer in this field. He had also taught Shankar, but in a very different way to Dadu which brought out the individuality of each performer.

After Allaudin Khan decided to teach Dadu, he wrote him a letter, from which Anindya Banerjee quoted an excerpt in the Indian Telegraph magazine of 1986:

“Your playing is terrible, it simply cannot be listened to…but there is a strength which is hidden within you, which must be awakened.”

But there is also a marked difference between the way that eastern and western classical music are taught. In the UK, a student will generally attend lessons given by the teacher and follow sheet music, which is then practiced in the student’s own time. In India, the student looks upon the teacher as a Guru and the student is his or her Shisyha (disciple). Lessons are often taught sitting on the floor without reliance on pen and paper. A strong connection manifests in the Guru-Shishya spiritual relationship that transcends into the everyday life of both individuals. An intimate, lifelong bond had developed between Dadu and Khan during the course of their lessons.

Dadu’s talent blossomed from his early childhood. He was one of nine children and had a younger brother, called Tapan Banerjee, who was a gifted tabla player at just three years old. Tapan Banerjee would sit on two cushions in order for his hands to reach his child-sized tablas; his tiny hands were at odds with the immense talent that came from them. Together, the two brothers won Indian talent competitions. Very sadly, Tapan Banerjee died at just eleven-years old from typhoid and Dadu continued his career as a solo artist.

Born to play

Dadu’s elder brother, Dilip Banerjee, resides in London and recalled a childhood memory that signified the early stages of Dadu’s talent. Their father was teaching a complex piece of music to a group of students. At just four years of age and considerably younger than the students, Dadu was able to recite the piece of music on his father’s sitar that overpowered his size but not his gift. My mother, his niece, also remembers a time when a prisoner on death row in Kolkata requested Dadu to play to him in his final moments, which was an intense experience in his life.

His father never failed to encourage him to pursue his extraordinary ability and Dadu showed exceptional dedication, nurtured by his close connection with Allaudin Khan. Dadu died at the age of 54 from a fatal heart attack on 27th January 1986 – regrettably on his youngest daughter’s birthday.

From my faded early memories of my grand uncle, he was a warm and entertaining character in front of his family, but a reserved man in the face of his audience. His sitar was his instrument of expression and he would lose himself in his music whilst performing. Music critic Nilaksha Gupta wrote in the Telegraph magazine:

“He was a man totally dedicated to, totally engrossed in music. When the curtains opened he was busy with his final tuning. Once this was over he was immediately engrossed in his alap [musical intro] – head turned towards his left shoulder, slightly lowered and face partly hidden by the huge fretboard. He hardly ever had time to greet his audience: in fact I think he hardly remembered their presence when he was playing.” (The Daily Telegraph magazine supplement, 23rd February 1986)

Hindustani classical music is highly appreciated by those that understand it, although the comprehension of it goes beyond description. Many students in London learn to play classical instruments, including the sitar, at establishments such as the Bhavan Centre, which showcases its talents during the year. Also, the Darbar festival of South Asian classical music in Leicester, England, creates a platform for up and coming classical artists.

Steven Baigal, an American independent filmmaker and photographer, is in the process of completing a documentary on Nikhil Banerjee entitled ‘That Which Colors the Mind’. The production will touch the hearts of all who remember Dadu and open the minds of those who are less familiar.

Unfortunately, I was too young to tell him this, but thanks to Nikhil Dadu, my appreciation of his genre stems from my early exposure to it and my ancestry is awakened on hearing its tones. Having heard a variety of styles of music in the UK, I have not found one with such endless depth and wonder, which also make it so uniquely Indian.

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11 thoughts on “Remembering Pandit Nikhil Banerjee: Pioneer of the sitar

  1. Namashkaar Monica,
    Thanks for your fond remembrance…I was so fortunate to learn of Nikhil Banerjee’s music in the early 1970s; I subsequently met him in Brussels, helped arrange a performance for him in Amsterdam & with his encouragement, went to Calcutta [as it was then called] in spring 1973. I visited him several times in Jodhpur Park, took a few iconic photos in his practice room & continued to listen to him live or on record [or CD] until his untimely passing.
    I eventually co-founded Raga Records [www.raga.com], largely with the intent of preserving Nikhil’s live concert recordings…
    I just returned from a month’s visit to India — Kolkata, Varanasi & Jaipur — during which time I place in the hands of a number of serious devotees copies of some Raga releases; his memory lives on!
    All the Best, Ira Landgarten, producer, Raga Records

    • Namashkar! How lovely to hear about this and thank you so much for creating a space where Dadu’s ingenuity lives on. If there is a way that I could see your photos or hear the recordings that you have so that I can pass these on to Dilip Dadu (his brother) and my mother (his niece) please do let me know. Thanks for taking the time to comment 🙂

  2. Thank you for remembering him with such reverence and gratitude.
    Samir Chatterjee

  3. Dear Monica,

    Thank you for this very well-written and timely article. For me, Nikhil Bandyopadhyay’s music is a treasure-trove. It takes the music above the individual and the listener becomes a part of the artist’s deep-rooted spiritual world. His musical skills reflect his long hard training till his last breath but to bring out the same raag in a different color each time he played it sets him apart truly as a musician’s musician. We are fortunate to be born in an era that listened to him, even posthumously..
    On a different note, can you elaborate a little on the story about the prisoner on a death row? I never heard of it before and am really curious to know.

    Thanks and kind regards
    Debojyoti Chakraborty
    Dresden

    • Dear Debojyoti, thank you very much for your kind words and for taking the time to read. Yes, he truly was a gifted, individualistic performer. My mother (Nikhil Banerjee’s niece) told me about the prisoner on death row. It was a personal, and emotional experience, hence the little detail I have written about it. But I felt it showed how deeply and profoundly his music could reach an individual. Thanks, again, for your time.

  4. Joe Cohen says:

    Dear Monica,

    Thank you for sharing your memories. I too studied with Mr. Banerjee in Northern California in the late 60’s and 70’s and visited him at his home in Jodhpur Park in 1968. He was such a kind and wonderful friend, with a great sense of humor and an open and curious mind.

    Before he came to the US for the first time, I wrote him saying I wanted to study with him. There was a big all day production put on by the American Society for Eastern Arts in San Francisco with concerts by Ali Akbar Khan, Viswanathan and Ranganathan and Bala Saraswait, Japanese musicians and others. Mr. Banjerjee played a morning raga that brought tears to my eyes. Afterwards I went back stage to meet him, and before I could introduce myself, he said, “So you have come.”

    I drove him around in an old Deux Chevaux that could barely make it up the hills in Berkeley, shared many meals with him and followed him as he toured America for a month. I heard 20 concerts in that time.

    The last time I saw him was in San Francisco at an all day event for the Ali Akbar College. He had already had one heart attack and his hair had turned white. Seeing him was like sitting with a saint for darshan. He was so full of love and light.

    • Hi Joe, what a lovely story! I hope you are still playing now – I admire anyone who can take up the challenge and discipline of learning such a meaningful instrument. I’m really touched by the number of people who connected with him while he was alive, and continue to give life to his music as well as his teachings. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. 🙂

  5. Dear Monica,

    Many thanks for remembering our Nikhilda with such reverence and love.

    I had the privilege of listening to Nikhilda in Wolverhampton in our friend’s house. In ’70s & ’80s we used to organise ‘Baithaks’. We listened to Pt V G Jog, Pt Ravi Chakraborty, Pt Jasraj, Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, Ustad Sabri Khan, Nikhilda and other musicians before we formed our society, Surdhwani. We also presented Nikhilda at the Lecture Theatre of Wolverhampton Polytechnic [now known as University of Wolverhampton].

    In my lifetime I have listenened to many sitarists but I cannot compare Nikhilda’s sitar with any other musician. His music touched my heart. Sohini is one of my most favourite ragas. During mid 70s, Sohini was my most favourite raga and I had to listen to it invariably before retiring.

    If you visit our website http://www.surtarang.co.uk you will see that we will be featuring Nikhilda under SPOTLIGHT for October 2014. I chose October as it is a special motnh for him. We are planning to upload everything by 13th of October. If you have any rare pics of Nikhilda, please let me have them so that I can use them on the Spotlight. I would like to request you to have a look at our site now and next month. We are featuring M.S. Gopalakrishnan in this month.

    Nikhilda was so humble and that attracted me so much. When I used to listen to him I used to feel that he was trying to please God and not his audience.

    I am very much interested to get a copy of the documentary on Nikhil Banerjee entitled ‘That Which Colors the Mind’ by Steven Baigal, the American independent filmmaker and photographer. Please keep me posted.

    Thank you once again for sharing information on Pandit Nikhil Banerjee with us all.

    Maitreyee Sarcar,
    Wolverhampton,
    West Midlands,
    UK.

  6. My first exposure to Indian classical music is via Nikhil da. When I was just 12 years old, I listened to him playing raga “Bageshree” in a live concert. I never knew classical music could be so much spiritual and so appealing and the way it was played by the maestro as if music was written in poetry and it left me in tears. My parents asked me why I was crying and in a sobbing voice I told how I had felt. They also fully appreciated my statement and told me that I was not alone in that feeling and anybody even who has no knack for classical music would still become a fan of him because his music is so deep, soul searching and spiritual His all ragas are my favorites but amongst my favorite ragas the most favorite ragas are Bageshree, Hemant, Manj Khamaj. Megh, Malkauns and Sohini and one raga I like very much is Maluha Kalyan. I am not a seasoned musician but the rendition of Alap in this raga is the best alap I have ever heard. He has a special uniqueness in his sitar playing by which he can be easily recognised amongst many. I am a consultant Psychiatrist in UK and his music I often play in music therapy with good success. In my difficult times in life, I myself found solace in his music. It is so tragic that he died so young at a time when he had much more to give to the world as a musician. Possibly, he was more wanted by God as his musician than ours!! I have heard from my musicain friends that after finishing his recital even after drawing of the curtain he used to sit still for sometime before leaving the concert hall. I would very much like to call him the “Meditative saint musician”
    I have a few questions in my mind:
    Has he got any disciples and who he has left behind in his family. How are they doing, because his family members must have been gifted with something-some genetic endowment of such a genius.. May his soul rest in the heavenly abode of God as his music is Godly!!

  7. mds says:

    There must be many recordings of Nikhil Banerjee which have never been brought forward–I have read, for example, that he played a thousand jugulbandis with Ali Akbar Khan. I wonder if it would be possible for all of it to eventually be made available, now that publication of music doesn’t require actual release of CDs. I was just today talking with a friend about the possibility that, with the growth of popular modern culture and the relative decline of traditional culture, there may well never be another sitarist to equal him.

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