Appreciation and Biography


What was the unique nature of his music and why is there no one else today to replace him? NILAKSHA GUPTA explains

When a great artiste dies it is customary to ay that his death leaves a void that 'cannot be filled.' This is, I suppose, absolutely true in the case of the great sitar player, Nikhil Banerjee, who left music lovers distraught on January 27 last. It is also customary not to say why there is a void, what the nature of this void is and why it 'cannot be filled.' However, this time we shall try to do exactly this and not bother whether this rubs a couple of king-size egos the wrong way.

The main thing about Nikhil Banerjee is that he evolved the most complete and most satisfying sitar style within living memory. This is something most people realise but will not admit. It is normally found enough to say that Nikhil Banerjee's main achievement was that he was able to create a third style in an atmosphere in which the magnificent styles of his two seniors Vilayat Khan and Ravi Shankar were ruling the roost. This is an understatement and an underestimation. But it is something one can say without attracting the wrath of Vilayat Khan, who I am told has a photograph showing Nikhil Banerjee sitting at his feet with Vilayat's right palm on his head in a sort of gesture of blessing and Ravi Shankar, who after Nikhil's death included him in his list of disciples ( Bartaman, Feb, 6, 1986, page 8).

That he created a third style is definitely a fact. It would be a fitting achievement for a sitar player of a very high order. But Nikhil Banerjee was a sitar player of much greater significance than this Unless we assess his style and compare it with his peers we can hardly make a proper estimation of his worth as a classical musician.

Nikhil Banerjee, as in the case of certain great poets and authors, had a genius that was accompanied by great critical intelligence. His final style bore ample evidence of this. With his thorough and solid training in finger­ technique under his father and advanced training under Ustad Allauddin Khan, be could through his critical intelligence select technical knowhow from Vilayat Khan and Ravi Shankar's styles, blend it with the Amir Khan approach to note-progression and phrase development and cement it together with his personal and serious philosophy of music into a style which was the most complete within living memory.

That, I suppose, is a rather complex statement and requires clarification and elaboration. The Vilayat Khan style is advanced finger technique oriented. Very advanced meends (several notes deflected off a single plectrum or mizrab stroke by means of a controlled lateral left finger pull), tans (quick _note movements), gamaks (quick , two or three-note deflections repeated in rapid stages), murkis (quick, deflected ornamentations), sooths (rapid slides up and down the fretboard) all similarly advanced and clear four-stroke jhala at fast pace with numerous variation from the backbone of this style. This in turn has its moorings in very scientific methods of sitting and holding the sitar.

Having been taught perfect technique by father, Inayat Khan, who died before Vilayat entered his teens, Vilayat Khan took the sitar playing technique to unsurpassed heights. He incorporated meends and gamaks into long tans which as a result became very similar to those used in khayal signing. With his superior technique he can inject subtle vocal nuances and timbre into slower note movements. Along with this, came as conscious and deliberate imitation of khayal texture and material on the sitar.

As the late Radhikamohan Maitra (the aristocratic sarod player) once told me, there was nothing more to be technically done on the sitar after the emergence and ripening of Vilayat Khan. He was talking about this when many of us were very enthusiastic about a young sitar player playing tappas. "This chap is supposed to be the first to play tappas on the sitar". Radhikamohan had said, "but he plays the zamzamas as ekhara tans. The zamazamas, to sound like zamzamas proper, have to be deflected like gamaks : Vilayat long ago perfected this and has now got fed up with it and given it up."

Then a technical wizard is always in danger of becoming merely a technical wizard. This is a danger Vilayat Khan could never overcome. Ever-increasing portions of his recitals became platforms for display of superior techhnique or technical wonders if one wants to p ut it that way. The content and structure suffered and still suffers. Whenever Vilayat does give a superb recital (these are getting more and more rare) it is because on those special occasions he forgets or is able to suppress his penchant for display of technical virtuosity.

Nikhil Banerjee, by listening to Vilayat Khan recitals or even practice sessions perhaps (one can never be sure about such things) - Nikhil may have just picked up the idea and the rest by himself) developed mastery in the art of the deflected or meend incorporating tan. The other technical items were also selectively incorporated into his style. The ekhara tans played purely on the frets with one mizrab stroke per note - also owed something to the Vilayat model and so did, most probably, the jhala technique. For Ravi Shankar usually employed the three-stroke jhala and the sarod model jhala he experienced with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (his final guru) and Ustad Allauddin Khan was different.

Now, that is about all he adopted from Vilayat Khan : knowhow or means to an end. The end was his and so was the content of the musical figures he built with the knowhow. The technique was never used as a thing in itself - a thing to display, to develop for its own sake. To put it in another way, he never borrowed the content or ideas of Vilayat Khan's music or even the Vilayat Khen sitar tone. Nikhil Banerjee's sitar tone was his own and an integral part of his personality.

I consider Nikhil Banerjee 's sitar style more complete and satisfying that of Vilayat Khan because in it technique was ancillary to content as it should be in the case of any fine art. We may even go a step further and say it was more satisfying because in it technical discoveries of Vilayat Khan found aesthetically superior use or even proper utilisation. As I have said before, in the Vilayat Khan style proper technique very often becomes more important than content or one is very often served awestriking virtuosity in place of art proper. Nikhil Banerjee's style was more satisfying and complete also also because it was also the vehicle of a more intelligent, serious and aesthetically cogent attitude to ragas and music itself­ this is something I shall elaborate later on.

In the Ravi Shankar style meends are shorter and they at times have their resonance deliberately cut off to keep in tune with the maestro’s very individual approach to music. It was the first, most probably, to use the surbahar-like bass kharaj string and thus impart a Been-like grandeur and sombreness to the alap jor. As a result it used a variety of Been-style figures in the alap and jor which were not used on sitar earlier. It represents an aspect totally absent in Vilayat Khan's style. Vilayat Khan has totally dropped the bass string aspect from his sitar by having the bass pancham string used on most traditional sitars at that time removed. This was done to highlight and technically facillitate his individual khayal, fast tankari and jhala oriented style.

Nikhil Banerjee, with his training under Allauddin Khan, automatically opted for the Ravi Shankar model sitar. But he played much longer meends on these bass strings. In fact he fully exploited their resonance by playing the meends as long as possible on the sitar. Longer meeeds are possible only on the surbahar bass strings. He did use the Ravi Shankar Been-phrases but only selectively. In other words he achieved whatever Ravi Shankar does in the bass region with a large variety of things that were exclusively Nikhil Banerjee's own. In this way he can be cribed as having made much more exhaustivee use of the bass strings than Ravi Shankar has.

Then another aspect of the Ravi Shankar style is the intricate and carefully structure rhythmic work or layakari. This is a thing absent in the Vilayat Khan style in which a few simple, set rhythmic patterns are played and only in teental. Nikhil Banerjee's rhythmic work and 1ayakari showed a marvellous balance of rhythm and melody and tans. It had a few general ideas that could be traced to the Ravi Shankar style but it never made the rhythmic or mathematical aspect as pronounced as in the Ravi Shankar style. This delicate balance and unbroken flow of melody made a more satisfying total impact on the listener. Certain stages of Ravi Shankar's layakari can only be appreciated by laya or rhythm buffs (I include myself) but those who don't have much of a feel for layakari often get left out. But in the case of Nikhil Banerjee everybody was there throughout - the melody enthusiast, the tan lover and the rhythm buff. It is true that though Nikhil Banerjee did not restrict his gat work (the part plyaed with the tabla) exclusively to teental (16 matras or beats) in the manner of Vilayat Khan, he did not play in a wide variety of tal as as Ravi Shankar does. It was, however, usually teental that he played. There was occasionally a gat in Dhamar (14 matras), Rupak (7 beats), Jhaptal ( 10 matras) or Char Tal ki Sawari (11 matras ) - but it was usually teental.

To round up then, one can say one could listen to the Nikhil Banerjee style gat work with an unified sensibility - with the part that appreciates melody, the part that appreciates rhythm, the part that delights in quick rounding-off movements all switched on and equally aroused. This is something one can never say about Vilayat Khan and only about parts of Ravi Shankar's gat work. This is why I find Nikhil Banerjee!s gat work more satisfying than those of Vilayat Khan and Ravi Shankar.

Continued in the Telegraph Article Part 2