Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Raga Lalita-Sohini: The Bahadur Khan interpretation

Lalita-Sohini is a recent (early 20th century) raga reportedly created by Agra gharana vocalists. I have heard it only on a recording of the sarodist, Ustad Bahadur Khan of the Maihar-Senia lineage. This solitary recording cannot be construed as being the standard or authorized interpretation of the raga in the Maihar gharana. But, the concept is interesting and deserves attention.

By its nomenclature, Lalita-Sohini appears to be intended as a melodic enhancement of Sohini with a touch of Lalit, both popular ragas. Sohini has been traditionally prescribed for close-to-midnight performance, while Lalit has been prescribed for post-sunrise performance. Lalita-Sohini therefore becomes a difficult raga to define in terms of the time-theory.

Sohini, as commonly heard, belongs to a family of three hexatonic ragas, Marwa, Puriya and Sohini, which have identical tone-material (S,r,G,M^,D,N). However,  there exists a version of Sohini which utilises two Ma tones, the natural as well as the sharp (Subba Rao B, Raga Nidhi, Music Academy, Madras, Vol. IV, fourth edition, 1996). The composer could have seen this version of Sohini as the inspiration for the creation of Lalita-Sohini, although there appears to be no recognisable relationship between the two. Bahadur Khan's recording, in fact, suggests the intention of using the commonest version of Sohini (S,r,G,M^,D,N) as the base-raga.

The commonest form of Sohini is distinguished from Puriya and Marwa by its distinctive phraseology and its dominant tones. However, its most significant distinguishing feature is its ascent-oriented and upper-tetrachord dominant character. In fact, several authorities believe that the notional scale of Sohini is from the middle-octave Ga to the higher-octave Ga. This is supported by the overwhelming opinion regarding the upper-Sa as the vadi of the raga and the middle-octave Ga as the samvadi.

Such a view of the scale is extremely valuable for saving Sohini from the chhaya (shadow) of Puriya and Marwa. For, Puriya has its centre of gravity in the lower tetrachord of the middle octave (vadi: middle octave Ga, samvadi: lower octave Ni), while Marwa, as currently performed, has its centre of gravity in the lower octave, with its notional scale from the lower-octave Dh to the middle-octave Dh (vadi: middle-octave Re, samvadi: lower-octave Dh).

While Sohini is a resident of the upper tetrachord, Lalit is a resident of the lower tetrachord, with its soul being revealed in the poignant use of the two Ma tones. Thus, when Sohini is melodically enhanced with features of Lalit, the resulting melodic entity opens up the entire scale for exploration, and exposes it to dilution with elements of Puriya as well as Marwa.

Bahadur Khan's interpretation of Lalita-Sohini appears to offer little resistance to suggestions of Puriya and Marwa. Their intrusion is aided by his affinity for lower-octave melodic development. The Puriya-Marwa influence in the aural experience might have been weakened if Bahadur Khan had introduced the Lalit element in its ascending manifestation (N-r-G-M-M^-M) in addition to the descending manifestation (N-D-M^-M-G).

Because of his decision to restrict the Lalit fragrance (the twin-Ma usage) to the descending expression, the melodic form of Lalita-Sohini is dominated by the unified (and undifferentiated) melodic field of the Marwa Parent scale (S,r,G,M^,D,N).

A documentation of the skeletal phraseology (Chalan) of Bahadur Khan’s Lalita-Sohini is meaningless based on the present recording because Bahadur Khan uses phrases suggestive of Sohini, Puriya and Marwa in all the segments of the melodic canvas. Raga connotations are often inexact except for Sohini phraseology in Sohini territory. This ambiguity in phrasing is probably intended to shape a fourth raga by fertilising the combined tone material of three ragas with genetic material from Lalit.

Based on this sole recording of the raga, it appears that the raga is either unfortunately named, or liberally interpreted. The nomenclature suggests, but belies, an intention similar to Lalita-Gauri, a melodic enhancement of the base-raga (Gauri) with the twin-Ma usage of Lalit. Bahadur Khan's Lalita-Sohini emerges as a blend of Sohini, Puriya, Marwa, and Lalit, with Marwa as the prominent, and Lalit as the fringe facet of the residual aural impression. Extracting a fourth raga out of the same tone material with nothing more than a touch of Lalit as a catalyst suggests alchemical ambitions.

This discussion is not intended as a critique of Ustad Bahadur Khan's handling of the raga concept. The rendition has to be viewed with sympathy as it was recorded during the last few months of his life, when he was in very poor health. The intention here is to consider the blending of Sohini and Lalit as a raga concept, and to pinpoint the pitfalls that lie on the path of forging compounds using any of the tricky triplets -- Marwa, Puriya and Sohini -- as one of the components. In such a context, the trickiest of the three would obviously be Sohini -- because of its very limited improvisational canvas.

Deepak S. Raja
(c) India Archive Music, New York. Producers of the finest recordings of Ustad Bahadur Khan

Monday, June 20, 2011

Raga Multani: wilting under the afternoon sun

Multani is amongst the popular afternoon ragas in the Hindustani system. It is classified under the Todi parent scale. The raga is prescribed for performance during the last three- hour period before sunset. The raga is pentatonic in the ascent and heptatonic in the descent. In the tone material, Ni is Shuddha [natural], Re, Ga and Dh are komal [flat], and Ma is tivra [sharp].

Ascent: N. S g M^ P N S'
Descent: S' N d P M^ g r S.

Chalan: [Skeletal phraseology]

N. S g S r S/ S g M^/ M^ g  M^ g/ M^ P/ M^ g M^ P N/ P N S'/ N S' d P/ M^ P g M^ g/ S g M^ P g/ M^ g S r N./ N. S M^ g /S r S

The melodic signature of the raga [Pakar] is S g M^ P M^g M^g / S r S, with the repetitive oscillation on the Pa to [komal] Ga transition touching [tivra] Ma along the path, and the special treatment of [komal] Re.

The raga's scale base is at the lower-octave Ni, and its centre of melodic gravity lies in the lower tetrachord. The primary dominant tone [Vadi] of the raga is Pa, and the secondary dominant [Samvadi] is base-Sa. The permitted melodic foci for phrasing are Sa, Pa, and Ni. The raga is exposed to the risk of confusion with Todi if Re, Ga or Dh are permitted prominence in its treatment. The raga does, however, require a significant deployment of Ga in association with [tivra] Ma. The repetitive oscillation of the Ma-Ga transition in the descent is considered one of the signatory melodic features of the raga.

There is something special about the treatment of the Re and Dh tones in this raga. There are also views on the treatment of Ma and Ga. According to Manikbuwa Thakurdas, a scholar-musician of the Gwalior gharana, the raga deploys suppressed shrutis [microtones] of Re and Dh. [Raga Darshan, Vol.II, First edition. 1988, Krishna Brothers, Ajmer]. Omkarnath Thakur, another scholar-musician from the same gharana believes that the Re and Ga of Multani are intended to be a trifle sharper than the standard komal [flat] frequencies, as also the tivra [sharp] Ma.[Sangitanjali, Vol. IV. Second edition. 1997, Omkarnath Thakur Memorial Estate, Bombay]

In contemporary practice, and in the renderings of maestros, it has been observed that the deployment of Dh and Re in the descent tends to be circumspect, if not subliminal, thus giving the raga the suggestion of pentatonic starkness even in the descent. The special treatment of Re and Dh tones makes Multani a profound raga, and a challenge to musicianship. This might explain why, despite the raga's popularity, truly memorable recordings of it are few.

Multani has been associated with the sentiments of romance and pathos. Based on the two recordings of the raga that have made a deep impact on me - one by Hirabai Barodekar [ECLP:2275] and the second, a concert recording of Ustad Ameer Khan, I have come to view Multani as a raga not merely of pathos, but of a debilitating oppressiveness.

Although the tradition does not refer to Multani as a seasonal raga, I associate this raga, in a very personal way, with the oppressive afternoon heat of May in the Indo-Gangetic plains. The very special treatment of the Re and Dh tones in this raga suggest to me the virtual wilting of the body and the mind under the remorseless tyranny of the North Indian summer. Interestingly, and though this need not form the basis for a definitive perspective on the raga's emotional flavour, I have found considerable sympathy for this view amongst friends from the West who have lived and studied long enough in India to internalize the spirit of Hindustani music.

Deepak S. Raja 
(c) India Archive Music Ltd., producers of the finest recordings of Raga Multani

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Pandit Omkarnath Thakur (1897-1967)

Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, regal in appearance and bearing, dressed in flowing silken robes, and sporting a leonine mane of shoulder-length white hair, accompanied by four tanpuras, two vocalists, and often two melodic accompaniments, is one of the enduring images of the last century in Hindustani music. On stage, Omkarnath was living theatre. But, he was much more than a musician. He enjoyed a rare combination of stature and popularity as a teacher, administrator, theoretician, political activist, and an institution-builder.

For almost three decades, starting from 1930, his was a towering presence in Hindustani music. He rose to national eminence sharing the stage with formidable rivals like Ustad Faiyyaz Khan and Kesarbai Kerkar, and held on to his position even as the next generation of vocalists like Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan and Ustad Ameer Khan were acquiring large followings and building awesome reputations.

Pandit Omkarnath was honoured by the President of India with a Padma Shri, and with several decorations by prestigious cultural organizations. He was amongst the few musicians in whose memory the Government also  issued a postage stamp. He received honorary Doctorates from Benares Hindu University and Vishwa Bharati University. Among his many awards was the title of “Sangeet Martand”, which was most commonly used by the music community as a prefix to his name.

Though trained under Vishnu Digambar, a scholar-musician of the Gwalior gharana, Omkarnath deviated substantially from the tradition, and became a daring innovator. In an era when khayal was still bound by the Dhrupad legacy of formal aloofness, Omkarnath had the courage to adopt an emotionally charged, and even melodramatic, style of rendition. He freely introduced elements of Tappa and Thumree into khayal rendition, sometimes blurring the borders between the genres.  In a milieu in which grammarians were taking over the organization of musical knowledge, he emphasized the esoteric aspects, and even experimented with the healing powers of raga-s.

Omkarnath is often considered a forerunner of the romanticist movement that surfaced in khayal vocalism in the 1970s with the emergence of Kumar Gandharva (1924-1992), Kishori Amonkar (Born: 1931), and Jasraj (Born: 1930). As an artistic ideology, romanticism signifies a preference for emotionally charged expression, along with relative indifference to the structural aspects of music. Omkarnath exhibited a generous dose of classicism in his musical personality. But, with his emphasis on the explicit communication of emotional values through the khayal, he paved the way for later romanticists.

Childhood and grooming

Pandit Omkarnath was born at Jahaaj in the Khambhat district of Gujarat. His grandfather and father were both soldiers in the employ of the Peshwa rulers. Under the influence of a saint, Omkarnath’s father, Gaurishankar, lost all interest in worldly affairs. Heedless of the material needs of his family, he became a hermit and devoted his life to Pranava Sadhana -- the exploration of the mysteries of “Om”, the primeval sound. This spiritual pursuit led him to name his last child Omkar.

Omkarnath’s mother was cheated out of her husband’s share of the family’s assets, and left destitute, along with her four children. A strong-willed woman, she moved the family to neighboring Bharuch (Central Gujarat), did menial tasks as a domestic servant, and brought up the children. From the age of five or six, Omkarnath started contributing to the family’s resources by working as a domestic servant, as a cook’s assistant, as a laborer in a textile mill, and as an occasional singer-actor in local theatrical productions. When Omkarnath was in his teens, he came in contact with Seth Shahpurji Doongaji, a philanthropist of Bharuch. The wealthy merchant noticed his talent and passion for music, and sponsored him for training under Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar at the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya in Bombay.

From 1910 to 1916 (according to some accounts:1913-1919), Omkarnath learnt the vocal art of the Gwalior gharana and the Pakhavaj (two-faced barrel drum), studied authoritative musicological texts, and served his Guru with devotion. When his Guru decided to open a branch of his music school at Lahore, Omkarnath – still in his early 20s -- was sent there as its Principal. Working tirelessly as a teacher and administrator at the Lahore school, he also launched his career as a performing musician. After three years at Lahore, he returned to Bharuch to start a music school, and to launch himself in political activity. His music school was later shifted to Bombay in 1934, and thence to Surat in 1942.

His family circumstances had not permitted him to go to school in childhood. But, in his early years, while he was struggling to help support the family, he had worked for a Jain religious establishment, where the monks taught him to read and write. Later on, by his own efforts, he mastered several languages – Hindi, English, Marathi, Sanskrit, Bengali, Punjabi, Urdu and Nepali. With himself as his only tutor, Omkarnath grew to be the most articulate orator and the most profound theoretician amongst musicians of the 20th century.

In the profession

In 1918, his career took off with impressive concerts at the court of Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III of Baroda, and at the Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan at Jallandhar. A few years later, he visited Nepal at won the admiration of the King, who could not persuade Omkarnath to accept his patronage. By 1930, Omkarnath’s fame had spread far and wide, and he became a star attraction at every major music festival in India.

In 1931, he was invited to the International Music Conference at Florence in Italy. From there, he traveled to Germany, Holland, France, England, Wales, and Switzerland, giving performances and lecture demonstrations, introducing the beauties of Hindustani music to European audiences. This was an era in which the West knew India only as the land of Gandhi, Tagore, and Uday Shankar. Indian classical music was an unknown entity. It was Omkarnath who ignited a degree of serious interest in Hindustani music amongst Western scholars and audiences three decades before they had heard the Elder Dagar Brothers, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

While earning laurels as a musician, Pandit Omkarnath also involved himself actively in the freedom struggle. He was elected President of the Bharuch Congress Committee, and a member of the Gujarat Provincial Congress Committee. When India made its tryst with destiny at the stroke of midnight on August 14-15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru invited Pandit Omkarnath Thakur to sing the national song, “Vande Mataram” at the Central Hall of Parliament House, from where it was broadcast nationally. In later years, his composition of Vande Mataram became, by public demand, almost a permanent feature of his public concerts.

When Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya was establishing the Benares Hindu University (BHU), he invited Pandit Omkarnath to set up and manage the Department of Music. This could not happen during Malaviya’s lifetime; but it did happen in 1950, and Omkarnath moved to Benares as the first Dean of the Music Faculty to serve there until retirement.. At BHU, he trained a group of outstanding musicians and scholars to build a center of excellence. Amongst his most distinguished students were Dr. Premlata Sharma, whom he groomed as an eminent musicologist, and Dr. N Rajam, whom he nurtured into an outstanding violinist.

During his tenure at BHU, he accelerated work on two major musicological treatises:  Pranava Bharati, published in 1956, is landmark treatise on the theoretical aspects of music – swara, raga, and rasa. Sangeetanjali (in six volumes) published between 1938 and 1962, is a manual on the practical aspects of music performance, including raga grammar and esthetics.

Between 1934 and 1961, Pandit Omkarnath cut over twenty records with HMV in the 78 rpm, 45 rpm and Long Playing formats. On most of these recordings, he was accompanied on the Sarangi by Pandit Ramnarain, the sarangi maestro, who later gave up accompaniment in favour of a career as a soloist. Several of Pandit Omkarnath’s radio broadcasts were posthumously published by All India Radio archives. The repertoire on his recordings consists of  Khayals, bhajans, and patriotic songs. As a result, in the popular imagination, Omkarnath is most widely recognized by his two Meera bhajans – Jogi mat jaa, and Pag ghunghroo band Meera naachi re – and his rendering of the national song, Vande Mataram.

While at BHU, Omkarnath suffered a heart attack, recovered from it, and continued to perform. In 1965, he had a paralytic stroke which claimed his life in 1967.


Omkarnath had been trained only by Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, a thoroughbred maestro, and pioneering educator, of the Gwalior gharana. With his formidable intellect and erudition, Omkarnath obviously did not have the makings of a conformist. To an extent, he was influenced by the doleful and sweet style of another Gwalior-trained maverick, Auliya Rehmat Khan (1860-1922); but his own deviations from Gwalior were more radical. Critical opinion therefore regards Omkarnath as an original musician, though with firm moorings in Gwalior vocalism.

Like the later romanticists, Pandit Omkarnath’s repertoire consisted only of Khayal and Bhajans. He never sang Tarana-s, Tappa-s or Thumree-s in public, although all these were part of the Gwalior repertoire in his times. His Khayal repertoire had a substantial representation of common ragas like Malkauns, Desi, Shuddha Kalyan, and Komal Rishabh Asavari, and a moderate presence of uncommon raga-s like Devgiri Bilawal, Sughrai, and Shuddha Nat. He adapted a few Carnatic raga-s so comfortably, that they virtually lost all traces of their Carnatic origins. He selected them for their emotional content, and rendered them in his own unique style.

There are clearly three facets to Omkarnath’s personality as a musician. The first is his pre-occupation with mystical aspect of musical pursuits, inherited from his father, who renounced the world to unravel the mysteries of the primal sound, “Om”. The second is the scholarly facet, steeped in ancient musicological texts, whose wisdom he attempted to translate into performance. The third is the dramatic, even theatrical, facet which explicitly sought to create an impact amongst his audiences. How comfortably these facets cohabited in the same person is a matter of opinion. The combination, however, made him a colorful, and even, controversial musician.

The Pandit Omkarnath had cultivated a monumental voice in terms of volume, range, and pliability. His faultless technique enabled him to cover two and a half octaves without any sacrifice of musical value. He made very effective use of volume and timbre modulations in order to heighten the emotional intensity of his renditions. He had strong views on the emotional personality of each raga. In pursuance of these perceptions, he composed a large number of bandish-es in various raga-s under the pen-name “Pranav Rang”, published them in his six-volume work, Sangeetanjali, and performed them regularly at concerts. He tailored all aspects of his rendition of each raga based on his perception of it, drawn mostly from ancient and mediaeval musicological texts. This approach could sometimes lead to unorthodox architecture or apparently libertarian interpretations of raga-s as currently understood.  But, most of the time, it was compelling music.

His explorations in the melodic and emotional personalities of raga-s were informed by his experiments with their non-musical applications. For instance, in Sangeetanjali (Vol.IV), he narrates how he was able to cure a child of insomnia by singing to him the vilambit alap of a variant of raga Puriya in the lower octave around sunset continuously for a week. Though Omkarnath did not claim scientific validity for such successes, he was unjustly derided for having made such claims. While the scientific value of these experiments may be questioned, there is no doubt that Omkarnath enriched his own insight into mysteries of the raga-s through them.

Omkarnath had a rare ability to deploy the poetry of his khayals in a variety of ways and for achieving a variety of effects. While rendering the bandish, he treated the poetic element with great respect as literature. In rhythmic play, however, he could mutilate the words, treating them, effectively, as clusters of meaningless consonants. And, as evocative expressions, he could use them virtually in conversational deployment. The various ways in which he enunciated selected phrases, along with melodic variants, almost approached the lyrical sophistication of the Thumree genre.

Not surprisingly for his stature, Omkarnath’s khayal architecture was impeccable, except in a few raga-s, like Nilambari, in which the emotional content of the raga was suited only for slow-tempo compositions and improvisations.  His virtuosity was formidable. His tan-s were epitomes of effortless agility and complexity, comparable to the best in his era. Occasionally, there was an element of exhibitionism in them. But, even conservative audiences accepted this as a part of the total package that was Omkarnath Thakur.

The recording companies gave him the importance he deserved. But, most of his published recordings came out before the advent of the LP format.A sizable number of his surviving concert recordings have been published posthumously on audio-cassette and CD. It is reliably learned that his entire legacy of recordings -- other than what remains unpublished from the All India Radio Archives -- is, by now, in the public domain.

© Deepak S. Raja 2011

Selected discography
33ECX 3252 Raga Todi; Raga Malkauns 1964 
33ECX 3301 Sangeet Martand 1971 
33ECX 3303 A lecture on raga Bilawal). 1973
33ECX 3751 Devgiri Bilawal; Raga Bhairavi
EALP 1272 Ustad Bismillah Khan, Omkarnath Thakore
EALP 1455 Desi Todi / Mishra Bhairavi 1986

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Raga Bahar

This essay is now published in my fourth book:

Removing it from here was considered proper, though not contractually obligatory, in order to protect the investment of my publisher in the book. 


Monday, June 6, 2011

Raga Bihag

Bihag is a popular late evening raga in Hindustani classical music, but not too common in the semi-classical genres. In classical music, however, it is regarded as a raga of Shringara rasa (romantic sentiment), and early romanticist Khayal singers such as Bade Gulam Ali Khan (Lat uljhi suljha jaa balam) are known to have interpreted the raga liberally in Thumree style renditions, albeit presented as Chhota (drut) Khayals. It is also significant that Bihag has given rise to variants – Savani, Bihagda and Maru Bihag amongst others – thus suggesting its malleability. To this extent, Bihag may be considered to fall on the borderline of classical and semi-classical raga.

Interestingly, the Carnatic (South Indian) tradition has a raga called Behag or Byag, which bears a close resemblance to Bihag of Hindustani music, and is considered a light, romantic, raga suitable for Javali-s, the Carnatic parallel of the Thumree in Hindustani music.

In terms of its melodic structure and grammar, Bihag is a non-controversial raga. It recognises two versions – the traditional-austere, and the modern-liberal. The only difference between the two is the permissibility of Tivra (sharp/raised) Ma in the descent.

Ascent: N S G M P N S’ 
Descent: S’ N D P /G M P M G/  R S.  

Ascent: N S G M P N S’ 
Descent: S’ N D P/ P M^ G M G/ R S. 

Contemporary chalan (skeletal phraseology): 
N. S M G/ S M G P/ G M P N S’/ S G’ RS’/ N DP/ P M^ P G M G/ P M G/ G RS

Tivra Ma entered the raga as an accidental, a subliminal presence in ornate phrases constructed in the madhyanga (mid-octave) region. Its presence has become more pronounced over the years. As a result, the austere-traditional form is now heard only in the Dhrupad genre, while Khayal and instrumental music have adopted the modern-liberal form.

The raga’s vadi-samvadi (primary and secondary dominants) are Ga and Ni, thus placing the raga’s centre of melodic gravity in the poorvanga (lower tetrachord). In contemporary music, however, Ni is frequently accorded the primary dominance, with the raga’s centre of gravity shifting into the uttaranga (upper tetrachord). This tendency is more pronounced in Thumree-style treatment. This transformation also tends to bias the melodic personality of the raga towards descending, rather than ascending, phrases.

Significant issues of intonation in Bihag pertain to Dh and Re in the descent. In classical treatment, the explicit intonation of these swara-s is contra-indicated. In semi-classical treatment, these rules are not considered binding. In fact, in Thumree style renditions, Dh, which is forbidden in the ascent, is often intoned with varying degrees of explicitness.

Deepak S. Raja
(c) India Archive Music, New York, producers of the finest recordings of Raga Bihag. 

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