Appreciation and Biography
Simple to a Fault
It is said that the great master of the Kirana Gharana, the late Ustad Abdul Karim Khan Sahib, while travelling from Madras to Pondicherry suddenly, as if with the visionary clarity that characterised his music, felt the approach of death. He got down from the train and told his accompanying disciples ; "I am about to die. Tune the tanpuras.'' So, sitting on the platform of an obscure railway station, and singing the famous Darbari khayal Jhanak Jhanakwn Bole • Bichwa", Abdul Karim Khan passed away ; it was as if the greatest singer of India had realised that nobody else was fit to sing his funeral anthem. Nikhil Banerjee's death may have lacked this sense of high drama, but he too was aware that death was not far away. A couple of days before he died, he played at the Dover Lane Music Conference. The Ragas that he chose were again Darbari. Their regal majesty acquired somre under tones in Nikhil Baner jee's hands. Those who were fortunate en ough to hear this recital are unlikely to forget it. The great sitarist was, however, far from satisfied himself. His heart ailment, which had drastically curtailed his recitals in the past few years, had been particularly aggrava ted in recent times. His disciples recall his anguish after the performance, at the failure of the body to execute what the mind concei ved, at his awareness that death could not be far away.
But the day the end came, things had started in an ordinary manner. It was his younger daughter Debdatta's birthday; but nevertheless. Nikhil Banerjee's sat down with his close disciple Amit Roy for a session of talim and riyaz. It is fitting that the day should have started this way, for more than anything else it was riyaz, practice, the pursuit of perfection, that characterised his whole life.
Roma Banerjee, the griefstriken widow of the maestro, tearfully remembers a story she had heard from her mother-in-law of how Nikhil Banerjee's father, Jiten Banerjee, a well-known amateur sitarist of his time, was fiercely possessive about his precious instrument. Everyone else in the family was forbidden to touch it. One day, he heard strains of the sitar coming from the room in which he had left it after practice. He rushed angrily into the room to see who it was, and found his four-year-old son, Nikhil, trying to play a gat on an instrument which he could not even lift from the ground. Surprised and pleased the father decided to give talim to his son, which set Nikhil Banerjee on the path of becoming a prodigy. At the age of seven, he gave his first recital on the radio, and by the age of 13, he was able to learn from stalwarts like Mustaque Ali Khan, John Gomes, Radhika Mohan Moitra and Birendra Kishore Roy Chaudhury.
But, between the prodigy of the early forties and the Nikhil Banerjee we knew lay the moulding influence of one man whose contribution to north Indian instrumental music was so vast and profound that to this day it has not been assessed properly. He was, of course, Baba Alauddin Khan of Maihar. Very choosy about his disciples, he was at first reluctant to teach Nikhil. The young boy persuaded the master to hear a radio recital of his, after which Alauddin Khan wrote Nikhil Banerjee a letter which the latter treasured till the last day of his life. It said 'Your playing is terrible, it simply cannott be listened to...but there is a strength which is hidden within you, which must be awakened'.
At Maihar, Baba Alauddin made Nikhil immerse himself in music. "Think in music, sleep in music, dream in music," said the master and set about discovering the "hidden" strength behind the prodigy. As Nikhil Banerjee later said, his whole life was changed in Maihar, as well as his attitude to music. The discipline that was instilled in him at Maihar characterised his later life. He also realised here that there was no alternative to the 'Gurukul' system of learning, for in this particular field, knowledge comes from laying down your pride, your ego before your Guru and serving him with love and humility. Strikingly, this spirit of surrender also characterised his approach to music. 'Submit to the notes of a Raga, do not strike it, but try to embrace it with the purest feelings of your heart," he told his students repeatedly.
This concept of submission, of devotion, is deeply rooted in our religious traditions and it is also seen as the only way of knowing one's self. Music for Nikhil Banerjee was also the path of self-realisation. This he learnt from Baba Alauddin himself. There were to be no compromises, no gratuitious display of skill. "Always try to be at your own centre," Baba Alauddin would say.
Nikhil Banerjee studiously shunned the publicity that most artistes long for. While playing, he would try to lose himself in the Raga. This gave further an impetus towards self absorption to a character already introverted. His intimates recall his habit of falling into a trance ever so often. It was as if he entered into a different world, in which there were only his favourite Ragas and Raginis. The way he thought about the Ragas was also far from conventional ; Gauri was a widow, full of fearful sadness. While walking in the Lakes one evening, he told his disciples that the evening, with its setting sun and weary bird s was an image of submission, and to try to portray this in Ragas like Purvi, Puriya, Dhaneshri and specially Shree. This musical introspection must have also, in part at least, come from Ustad Ameer Khan and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan who, after Baba Alauddin, were the most dominant influences on his music. Ameer Khan's high sense of seriousness and Ali Akbar Khan's profoundity and artistry were balanced perfectly in his style.
Nikhil Banerjee was, in fact, a blend of modernity and tradition. A disciple of the great "impurist", Alauddin Khan - as Pandit Ravi Shankar lovingly called him - he was progressive and liberal in his attitude towards life, not hesitating to perform in public the most humdrum of domestic tasks, at the same time realising the importance of traditional observances. The accent on purity 'Suddhachar' - was something one noted continually in his behaviour. Annually, he would go to seek the blessings of his Guru Ma (the wife of Allauddin Khan). That day was sacred for him.
Nikhil Banerjee also appreciated the ritual solemnity of hymns and chants, and was fond of listening to the Upanishads. Though he acquired the reputation of being a reluctant teacher, this may be ascribed to his deep regard for the value and permanance of the 'Guru-Shisya' relationship. He realised that his busy public schedule made it impossible for him to devote the proper attention towards his disciples. He looked forward to the day when he would have the leisure to look after the complete welfare of his disciples. He died before he could achieve this dream.
As a man, Nikhil Banerjee was simple to a fault. He lived a life that was modelled in many ways on that of his Guru, another legacy of the Maihar days. He sought out religious men and listened to their discourses on holy matters. His life was devoted to the ideals of his per onal pantheon - Shri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita, Subhas Chandra Bose and Alauddin Khan. With frail health and fading eyesight, he had little interest in wealth and luxury. Neverthe less, he was not averse to an occasional hearty meal , or a dab of perfume before a concert. He was fond of reading, especially history and philosophy, but poor vision forced him to rely on others. He was always pleased by the company of his friends who, in turn, appreciated his refined and subtle humour.
He was a warm and accessible person and had complete identification with his music - performer and perfi)rmailce, become one indivisible entity. It was as if he had imbibed the essence of a saying of the late Ustad Ameer Khan Sahib ; "Sangeet ruh se nikalti aur ruh ko hi sunati hai (music originates in the soul and reaches out to it}."
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