Speaking about Chinmay Lahiri inevitably means speaking about his teaching abilities. We used to say that he is a philosopher’s stone. Everything he touched would turn to gold. I have analysed his style. What he would do is, if he saw someone who was talented, dedicated, and disciplined, he would most certainly train this person and make them great at what they do. Now if someone has no potential, then no matter how much they are trained, and how much they practice, they can only go so far. Yes, you might say that such a person will become a good listener. Good listeners are also very important. We need people who can understand good music. Anyway, his training was very scientific. When we were young, he used to always say to us, “Practice Bistaar when you ate over forty years old.” At that time, we would only work on Sargam and Taan.
I had later spoken with a couple of doctors to corroborate his idea. He had told me that at that age the tissues in our throat are very flexible. He used to say, “Now you are young and you can run fast. But as you grow older, you’ll grow more rigid.” That is, the flexibility will decrease. So, if we practice Sargam and Taan at great speed now, even at the age of seventy, we could perform it if we practice properly. He used to say, “Bistaar requires maturity and intelligence. When you are more mature, you’ll see that you are performing a Bistaar on your own. The tune is important. If I perform a Bistaar for half an hour, then I’d perform the taan and sargam for one and a half hours. That was the ratio.
You know, there’s one thing I remember. He used to say, “How many can you do in one breath?”
No, it was a breathing exercise – kind of like what they call Pranayam these days.
No, no. Not like that. How many Sargams can you do in one breath? (SINGS). And increase the count.
But this is a breathing exercise.
For example, I started with seven and ended with sixteen. But that isn’t there anymore.
No, but this is our breathing exercise – drawing one long breath to see how much we can do.
Breathing exercises test how far we can sing in one breath. If we suddenly stop at a word in the middle, the entire meaning will change. But such things are not a problem for us because we have practiced like this. Breathing is a very important thing, but we got used to it because we practiced so much.
Then there was the question of modulating the voice onto a higher pitch. We were always told not to shout when singing, never to use our full sound. The voice had to be smooth. The voice would be kept intact and the volume would increase. He would always keep a mirror in front of my face. Sometimes, I wonder how far ahead of his time he was! When practicing a Taal, he would keep a bowl of water in front so that the jaw doesn’t move. He kept the mirror to see how the face looks. Does it look nice? Now it’s twisted. When we go to a higher pitch, we have to decrease the volume.
Radhika Prasad Goswami brought his nephew Janendra Prasad Goswami in this house. Rabindranath Tagore came to this house often, stayed here and sometimes put tunes to his lyrics. He was very respectful of Radhika Prasad. Later he took him to Shantiniketan with him. But Janendra Prasad Goswami remained here after his uncle left for Shantiniketan. Earlier Radhika Prasad Goswami lived in Raja Manindra Chandra Nandi’s house in Kashimbazar. Before that I don’t remember the name of his residence. But he took his nephew from Bankura and returned here to live.
On 9th December 1934 All Bengal Music Conference started. Ustad Alauddin Khan came with his Maihar Band. There was also Pandit Timirbaran and Faiaz Khan perhaps. I couldn’t remember whether Pandit Omkarnath Thakur came that year or not but the inaugural song was Vandemataram. In later years whenever the conference started the inaugural song was sung by Pandit Omkarnath Thakur. The full song was sung by him and there was a CD of his voice singing the full song. Now the part of it is regarded as the National Song. Later when he could not come or sing his disciple Bijanbala Ghosh Dastidar would sing the song. She had a sweet voice and she sang kheyal.
Afterwards Pandit Binayak Rao Patbardhan sang the inaugural song. Binayak Rao stayed in this house many times. Anyway, it was a tradition to sing Vandemataram as inaugural song in the conference and someone had to sing it. I couldn’t remember all their names. But it was a tradition to start the programme with Vandemataram.
The programme always started with Dhrupad. There were many great Dhrupad singers then. Ustad Nasiruddin Khan sang once, I remember. Ustad Abdul Karim Khan came just before the year he passed away. He departed this life in 1937, so it must be in 1936 that he came. He was invited the next year but unfortunately, he passed away. This was his sole visit to Calcutta.
Nasiruddin Khan was the father of great Dagar brothers Ustad Mainuddin Khan and Ustad Aminuddin Khan. He was himself a great Dhrupad singer. But he also performed just once because he passed away after that. Alladia Khan Saheb came here to perform once. He was very old then. It was common gossip that he was almost a centenarian then. The organizers who invited him was in constant fear whether they could send him back to his place safe and sound. I heard it from Bhupendra krishna. I didn’t know how he performed at his age. But he was a great musician. He was the Guru of Moghubai and Kishori Amonkar’s mother’s. Moghubai sang here but not Kishori Amonkar. I don’t remember the year when Moghubai performed. Alladia Khan Saheb, Nasiruddin Khan Saheb and Abdul Karim Khan Saheb all visited and sang only once in the music conference.
Pt. Nikhil Banerjee was scheduled to play Shyam Kalyan at a programme, the announcements had been made, but he was yet to fix the strings. The string was to go along the bridge could not be fixed. This was because his eyesight had deteriorated so much and he had just recovered from his stroke. I can vaguely remember the date to be possibly 1981. We were sauntering around, but were not allowed inside. Rabindra Sadan has two greenrooms; one of them is visible from the Car Park but only if the windows are open.
On a previous occasion, Ravi Shankarji had almost taken a class before a programme, flanked by Anindo Chatterjee on one side and Dipak Chowdhury on the other. We were privy to everything from what he would play to how he would come on to the stage, thanks to Rabin pal, Ravi Shankarji’s organizer. He had kept a window open just a little bit and had told Partha Majumdar, a friend of ours, ‘Stand here and you’ll get to hear everything.’ Partha had taken me there. We two had stood there and seen a lot of how he demonstrated the Taalas.
On this occasion, we had used a similar opening to stand outside pt. Nikhil Banerjee’s greenroom. Ravishankarji was more conscious about these things, Pt. Nikhil Banerjee more oblivious. So through the open window I could see him having difficulties in fixing the string. Anindo Chatterjee asked him, “Kakababu (he used to call him that), can I have a look at that?” He said, “ No, not at all. I will do it my own.” Hiren Roy’s son, Amit Roy, or Bachchu as he was called, tried to lend a helping hand, but was allowed very little. He fixed the string till making the last kink at the end, allowing him only to fix the last gauge of the string with the left hand tuning pegs. Then he told Amit, referring to Hiren Roy, “Your father has not done the Jawari well this time.” which had been done the previous day.
Nikhilbabu preferred a jawari that was neither too open nor too closed, something in between. This produced an outstanding sound, and when he performed Taans, there was a singular sound and you could hear just what was being played. I’ll take no names, but there are many taanbaaz Sitarists, who perform Taans at a blazing speed, at 8-times, sixteen-times or twenty-times even, but then the other strings start to respond and there is too much noise. This I had never heard from Pt. Nikhil Banerjee.
After the 80s, he became a bit slow, owing to ill health, but came to terms with that. He had mentioned this to some persons somewhere, while praising Ustad Vilayat Khan Sahab, of whom he was a great admirer. While listening to a Taan by Ustad Vilayat Khan Sahab, he lamented, “ Ah, I could have done such taans at a time, but my health has stopped me. I cannot perform them anymore. He had acquiesced not to perform taans beyond a certain Laya himself.
But the greatest thing about him was the sense inherent in his head. He used to travel alone, without any accompanist. I have heard it from people who used to plan his programmes abroad, from many other people including Tejen, that he was scheduled to play, say, at two programmes in Amsterdam with Zakir Hussain, one at London with Swapan Chaudhuri five at sundry locations with Anindo Chatterjee. But they were not travelling together, he travelled alone, and this with a high optical power, resulting from myopia and the surgery on the eye which was affected by the second or third stroke. I do not know how he did it, but he did so religiously.
Maybe it was Anindo Chatterjee who reminisced about the time when they were to play in a programme at Paris. They were very particular about the time, about the exact duration of the programme. Ten minutes before the programme, the strings had not been fixed, they kept breaking off repeatedly. But Pt. Nikhil Banerjee was adamant about doing it himself. And after that, he was to play Shyam Kalyan on PanchamSawaritaala, which ran to an hour and a half. But he never compromised about the time, that is to say, if he played Alaap for one hour here, he would do so for an hour abroad also. He was not concerned about what the audience was willing to accept or not, he would endeavour to elevate the audience to his level. This is one instance I remember among many.
Let me tell you about another experience. Nikhil babu played Kaushik Bahiron at the Uttarpara Sangeet Sammelan in the late seventies, 1977 or 1978. Me and two or three of my friends were sitting in the empty pandal, all the people had left, well after seven in the morning. The reason being, even after the playing had stopped, and the audience had left, the effect of the music lingered on. I can quote many such experiences from my memory if you wish.