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.
Among the elders, I have heard about Pt Ravishankarji, I have not seen his Riyaz (practise) personally. I heard that at the age of ninety-three, he still bathed in the morning and started his practise from 9a.m. to 11 a.m. He had that discipline throughout his life. I have seen Nikhil Banerjee also, every day he had to practise. I remembered one incident. His domestic help had committed suicide inside his residence. He, as usual, had completed his morning walk and while entering his house saw the body hanging under the stairs. He was a little bit short sighted and he touched the body to ascertain. Then the police came and all the hustle bustle started. Meanwhile Nikhil Banerjee had started his Riyaz at eight a.m. To him, ‘the police are doing their job, I am doing mine’. From eight a.m. to twelve -thirty he used to practise. It was a lesson in itself to hear him practise- as my Guruji advised us about tabla practise (bolparanta) to carry on in one tempo (laya) for minimum half an hour.
Other elders like Shamta Prasadji used to practise hard, I have heard the tales. Nikhil Banerjee as I knew him and played with him, practised vigorously. Just before the day of his death, in fact, even the day he died he practised. That very day, he returned from Dover Lane, he was feeling ill, but he kept practising. Then he said he was not feeling well and needed some rest. We had a feast, we had to go there. Then I returned home. In the evening a phone call came that he was no more. I have rarely seen such a riyaji person in my life.
Another person, I can recall, is Pt. Ajay Chakraborty. When he was practicing sapa?t ta?na, he was doing three thousand sapa?t ta?na and told us to keep count. He would do this and started sweating by the sheer effort. He is the first Bengali classical singer, I can say this with much pride, whom the rest of India accepted wholly. Yes, there were others earlier, the very best of singers, but they did not get accepted in classical brotherhood. Before Ajayda, there were Prasun Banerjee, a great singer, Tarapada babu was excellent, Pt.Vismadeb Chattopadhyay was unbelievably good. I will tell you anecdote about Pt.Vismadeb Chattopadhyay later.
Another Riyazi person was Arup Chatterjee, the tabla player who is also my friend. Another senior tabla player is Anindya da, who is very sincere about Riyaz. Kumar Bose is among other Riyazi players. Another tabla player, a little senior to me, is Kushalda, we toured together a lot and I know that Riyaz is his life. I have seen Nikhil Banerjee as well as Kushalda practising simple sargam. So, one day I asked him about it, I was very young then, and I used to ask such foolish things and he didn’t mind. So, I asked away, ‘why do you have to practice sargam very day?’ He answered that your Guruji Jnanbabu did not ask you to practice such simple things in the morning? ‘Yes’ I answered truthfully, ‘but why should you do it regularly? You are a master, I am a learner.’ So, he smilingly answered ‘Why? Am I out of this world?’
He had some grievances against Pt. Ravishankar but whenever I recalled his name, Nikhil babu was agitated and started grumbling. He used to tell me, “Don’t you talk about Robuda in front of me, I know you amused yourself by hearing such anecdotes. But you should know one thing for sure that if you want to listen to shudhhara?ga, if there would be a bakra?chalan even (in a ra?ga) he would maintain that. Neither me nor Pt. Ali Akbar (whom he used to call Dada) did maintain this. There is no doubt, no second thoughts about it that if you want to listen to pure Ra?ga, pure tempo (ta?la), he is the master (Pundit). I may have my personal grievances against him but do not mix these up.”So he taught me these things, but still we used to amuse ourselves sometimes.
Pandit Abhijit Banerjee is a renowned Tabla player of Kolkata. He is a prime disciple of Pandit Jnan Prakash Ghosh. He has also learned Vocal from Pandit Ajay Chakraborty
Kashim Bazar Palace, Rajbari, Harish Mukherjee Road, Debika Devi, Sitar Player, Nikhil Banerjee, Programme, Goutam Mukherjee, Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, Kishan Maharaj, Sujat Khan, Nishat Khan, Imrat Khan,