If you could share something about his legendary performances at the various music conferences in Kolkata.
SL: So, at that time, there were a number of music conferences which were held in Kolkata. The main venue was Mahajati Sadan. Indira was one venue as well. The Tansen Music Conference used to be held at Indira. The Sadarang Music Conference used to be held at Mahajati Sadan, as was Surdas and the North Calcutta Music Festival.
Not at Rabindra Sadan?
SL: No. Rabindra Sadan hadn’t been constructed yet. It was built later. During those days, loudspeakers were set up outside the venues as well. People used to sit outside and listen to the music. All the stalwarts of music used to perform. Bade Gulam Ali Khan used to perform. My father was there, of course, as were other great musicians of India. Naturally, everyone couldn’t get hold of tickets. So they set up loudspeakers outside. Later, this stopped because of problems of transport. At night there could be extra buses.
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.
In 1975, there was a programme in remembrance of Begum Akhtar in Rabindra Sadan. Nikhil Banerjee and Vismadeb Chattopadhyay were to perform consecutively. People were a bit baffled to hear that an instrument would be played before the vocal. But later I heard that Nikhil Banerjee himself requested it, as Vismadeb was a very senior musician and he should complete the programme. As it was a tribute to Begum Akhtar, Nikhil Banerjee played raga Patdeep. I remembered two things clearly, one was that it took fifty-two or fifty- three minutes to complete the raga with alaap, jod and jhala and it was bewitching. It was like hypnotism and I remined fixed through the performance with my legs one upon another. Afterwards I couldn’t move my legs but the heavenly tune was still there after the music was over. At that time Rabindra Sadan had one of the best aquistics and his sitar had the best tone and quality. Apart from the technical brilliance the performance was superb. The loftiness or transcendence through music was quite rare. I experienced it four times, I think. Once with Ali Akbar Khan’s Darbari Kanara made this magic. But, this performance in 1978 or 79 it was unique. It was so uplifting one can not express it in words. We use the term transfiguration in literature but transcendence is the best word to express it.
Afterwards I went out for a stroll to relieve the cramp on my legs and also to move away from the performance of Swapan Choudhury who started the tabla with gusto. With full respect to him, he should think about the atmosphere created by the earlier performance and chose his piece well. Anyway, I suddenly spotted a person crying helplessly outside. I thought of some misfortune must had befallen him. But he was also inside and experienced the music which had shaken our soul. Nikhil Banerjee had taken the experience of music to another level and no one could come close to that. This was one of my unique experiences.
Translation by: Rajeswary Ganguly Banerjee
Data processed at SAP-DRS Lab, Department of Instrumental Music, Rabindra Bharati University.
Back in those days, the music conference Tansen was held in MahajatiSadan. My father used to sing at these conferences. In ‘68–69, my father wasn’t in good health, but he was supposed to perform at the Tansen music conference. He didn’t take us with him. We went with a woman (who we called pishima) from the family of Duggadas Banerjee – they were our neighbours. Theirs was a zamindar family. An elderly woman of their household bought the tickets and took us with her. A huge crowd had gathered there to hear my father sing. He sang the ShawaniBeh?g. Pundit Bishwanath Bose, the father of Kumar Bose, was accompanying him on the tabla. There were other instruments as well, including the sarengi. After his performance was over, there was great excitement. We are unfortunate that we could never learn such songs. We saw father entering the greenroom and a crowd around him asking for his autograph. We told him we were leaving and went home with pishima. He was surrounded by people.
Translated by: Sarbajaya Bhattacharya
Data processed at SAP-DRS Lab, Department of Instrumental Music, Rabindra Bharati University.
In those days in Bengal, there was Tarapada Chakraborty, who was a star artist of that time. So at that time, Bimala Prasad Babu…
-Kindly let us know the full name of Bimala Prasad Babu.
-Bimala Prasad Ray Chowdhury. He was a great singer of those days. It was at his home that the program was going on. He had addressed the entire audience that day and requested them not to leave the place after the program because a new artist is in Kolkata, and he wished everyone to listen to him sing.
So what happened here was that, father was known by the name of C M Lahiri, because back in Uttarpradesh he was still known by that name. Though at the University, people knew him just by CM, because there they know their professors by the short forms only. When the announcement was made, everyone was outside, and no one had any particular hurry to come back inside. Right after the performance of a stalwart, no one was kind of interested in listening to a new artist. At this moment, father said, “Please bear with me for five minutes, please come inside and sit. If you do not like my performance, you are always free to leave. I promise I won’t take more than five minutes to wrap up with my music.”
One or two people came inside, among whom, one was Shailen Chattopdahyay. His daughter was the first pupil of my father. She was called Meera Bandopadhyay then, who later became the renowned vocalist Vidushi Meera Chattopadhyay. So my father began performing, and slowly with time more people came inside to listen to him. In a few minutes, I noticed that almost all the audience had come back. Then, the situation became such that there were requests from the audience, which was very surprising. My father was very inclined towards Taana, and would do the Taanas in circles. For example, the Gadda Ghasit Taana, , which literally means the sound of throwing a Gadda. There were other such phenomenon, and father started to speak to the audience about it in brief, which attracted them even more. Thus, right after this program, father had already gotten five pupils from Kolkata to give music lessons to. Among these five was Meera Chatterjee, the daughter of Shailen Chatterjee. There was also one by the name of Bitun from Howrah, Gobindalal Bose, Gobindalal Bandopadhyay and a few more to name. Then there was Minu Kaka, or Mrinal Kanti Chakraborty, who proposed to my father to teach him music. At that time, we used to live at Bhawanipore.
This incident took place near about 1948. 47?
I wasn’t even born in 1946, 47.
Prior to that?
And where was his house at that time?
There is the Ganja Park at Bhawanipore. Our house was right behind the Ganja Park.
He was very young at that time- maybe 25 or 26 years old. He used to live at Dhumdhumar at Dhaka, where he used to work at the Radio also. At that time, the Chief Producer was Suresh Chandra Chakraborty, whose son later became the editor for Ananda Bazar Patrika. Suresh Babu had become a very important figure in the career of my father. He had helped my father with a lot of things including taking him to venues, organizing events for him, etc. It happened once that a person belittled my father’s Laykari and said that it was not a big deal to perform.
So he asked the audience to pick up their hands one by one in any random matra and he would take tehai, instantly from that specific matra. I still am getting Goosebumps thinking about that.
Everyone was ready to entrap him, and was raising their hands now and then and father kept on doing the Tehai accordingly. So this raged on like a storm for a long time. At that time, in our Khayal and also Bangladeshi Khayal, there was a mid part, right after the Bistar, it was rarely to be found on that time, there was bolbani in Dhrupadi style. I remember him doing it with Bol Bani (words), which together comprised of the Laykari. This too comprised of a number of Tehai and a number of improvisation Laykari in derhigun,dwigun, and chow gun. He attempted several of these Laykari and used to reach at the ‘Shom’ in an incredible way. This whole procedure was a unique one. You can’t imagine, I can still see it in front of my eyes while talking about it. He would do it with such ease. Players who were not accustomed with playing with him never got a chance in these times. So this was his style of singing. And later in life, he himself started to change and alter his style. During this time, people used to say that he acquired this style from Dilip Chandra Bedi. I have never met Dilip Chandra Bedi, though I have listened to his records and seen him at places. I remembered that he too did a variety of Palta. My father also worked with Palta and he also did a lot of Taana too. For example, he did the Gadda Ghashit Taana, Tehara Sapat,ChoukhaSapat, etc. All these experiments and innovations that father used to do were his brain child.