Appreciation and Biography
THE TELEGRAPH, NILAKSHA GUPTA, Part 2
In the alap portion Nikhil Banerjee's style scored over that of Ravi Shankar by the virtue of the impression of a continuous flow of notes, very similar to that of vocal music or those played in wind instruments that he managed to conjure up with his long meends, smooth tone and programmed mizrab strokes. There was no broken-up, jolting phrases punctuated by chikari strokes as in the case of Ravi Shankar or unevenly spaced out meend work wirh big pauses in between as in the case of Vilayat Khan.
It scored over the Ravi Shankar style also in the intellectual aspect as there was always a great deal of new ideas and the unusual development of these in the Nikhil Banerjee style alap, Ravi Shankar believes in simple traditional development of simple melodic ideas that keep the raga structure as pure as possible in the Been- Dhrupad style. Nikhil Banerjee too never look liberties that violated a raga but he was often seen stretching the note progression to the very brink in the advanced khayal style of Amir Khan. Here too he had merely borrowed know how from _the great khayal singer - neither ideas or phrases proper - and thus maintained his individuality.
I think all this more or less establishes the reason why Nikhil Banerjee's style was more satisfying and complete than that of Ravi Shankar. Of course, I don 't want to mean that therefore it was much superior to that of Ravi Shankar. It had its drawbacks too. Let me give an example. I once had the opportunity of listening to the raga Marwa played by Nikhil Banerjee and Ravi Shankar within, say, two weeks of each other. I had heard the Nikhil Banerjee recital first-it was in the early 1970's I think and it was in huge courtyard of the Laha house. I remember coming back very satisfied. Then came the Ravi Shankar Marwa. I immediately noticed the raga mood, its awesome sombre effect was palpably greater in the Ravi Shankar recital. By comparing mental notes -I was not a music critic at that time and didn't carry a note pad around - I realised that Nikhil Banerjee, by the flowing mellifluence of his style and his penchant for working out unusual combinations had diluted somewhat the sombre roughness that gives Marwa its potent character.
Such things happened with certain other ragas as well. Again many other ragas sounded as they should or even better than they do in the styles of other maestros when played in the Nikhil Banerjee style. When we analyse particular cases we find that everything depends on what the artiste is playing - whether it is a raga that suits his style, whether he is in the proper mood, whether his instrument is playing sweetly or giving trouble and so on and so forth. But had you gone to a music programme in which Ravi Shankar had already played on a previous evening and Nikhil Banerjee was scheduled to play at midnight with Amir Khan two items later and Vilayat Khan in his usual 'last item' position, you could usually bet your boots that Nikhil Banerjee would floor them all. l remember being present at such a programme and Nikhil Banerjee did floor them all. As far I remember he played alap in Darbari Kanada - he tried such a long deflection from the lower pancham fret of the nayaki - (main) string during the jor tankari that he broke the string, a rare occurrence in any sitar recital. The main gat work, as far as I remember, was in Hemant. Funnily enough these were the two ragas he played in the same order at the last recital of his life - a few days before his death - at the Dover Lane Music Conference.
The advantage of his style was definitely a factor in this but so was his philosophy of music. This was marked by what English literary critics of yore called "high seriousness." 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-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. When one heard him play the same raga twice or thrice over a couple of years one realised that the same engrossed seriousness had persisted in the off-stage period for each time the same raga came with a fresh orientation, a fresh bounty of unusual developments and very often, a fresh character.
It is because there is no one around who can build a style as complete and as satisfying and use it with such an engrossed seriousness that there is such a void and a void that "cannot be filled."
Next - an appreciation by Anindya Banerjee