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.
Let me say a few words about Ali Akbar Khan, who was practically my Gurubhai. This was because; Ustad Allauddin Khan had wanted Ali Kabar khan to tie his Naara with Allauddin Khan’s own Guru’s family. So he kept Ali Akbar Khan for a few days at my Guru Dabir Khan’s place, who hailed from that family, so that the first Taalim came from him. That connection makes him my Guru Bhai.
He loves me very much, talks with me for a couple of hours whenever we meet, and urges me to take sweets and other food, a very cordial relation we share. I have also taken my wife to meet him, and he had welcomed her with great warmth, chatted with us for two or three hours.
Anyway, Ali Akbar Khan was a person who was oblivious to whoever was playing with him, or whatever he was playing.
It happened so at the Tanen Music conference, that Ali Akbar Khan had started to play with Pandit Shamta Prasad on the table. He completed the Alaap and started a Gat in Dhamaar at a very Vilambit laya. Shamta Prasad had to sit idle, playing only a theka and nothing else. Ali Akbar Khan, who always played with his head down, watched for some time, and then, with a smile, increased the Laya a little and went into Teen Taal, and asked Pt. Pt. Shamta Prasad to play. I have been witness to this, this being in the 1960s.
Lakshan Bhattacharyay was a renowned Sitarist of that time, and produced many good students. None of them, however, made their mark later on. Lakshan Bhattacharya was addicted to a number of substances like Opium. Some common acquaintances often played host to him and kept him as a guest in their homes. But that could not draw him away from the addiction. Later he was known to have resorted to venom abuse from snakes. After that, he would not wake up for a week. A man like this, however, was outstanding while playing his instrument.
Once he was lying in Harish Park after having consumed some substance, and the police had taken him away as a drunkard to Bhowanipore Police Station. The Officer in Charge came and asked, “What is the matter?” And was told that he had been picked up as an inebriated person. But the OC recognised him and spoke to him in familiar terms, addressing him as ‘Lakshan-da’. “ Whom have you picked up?” he said, and took him home in a car. Many a time I have seen him lying on the side of the road, when he was staying nearby. He stayed near Kalighat, Kali Lane or thereabouts, at someone’s house or at his sister’s place. He died there too. This I know, but he was also an erudite man, and a great Sitarist.
I’ll tell you about one incident that happened at the house of one of his students. Lakshan-da was to play, and accompanied on the table by Firoze Khan. We, being young people, 20 or 21 years of age, had assembled there. This was at a small house on Mukherjee para lane in Kalighat in 1947 or 1948.Anyway, it used to take about an hour for Lakshan-da to tune his instrument. As he used to do, hetwiddled a matchbox, smoked a Beedi with a Mirzab on his finger, till the tuning was complete.All the while Firoze Kahn waited, rubbing his hands on ice, looking at his tabla. LakshanBhattacharyay started a Gat in Vilambit, with his head down, sitting upright, holding his sitar, not even looking Firoze Kahn in the face. One Avartan passed, two Avartans, then three and four, the Tabla was silent. After sometime, Khan Saheb found an opening and started to accompany. As he did so, Lakshanbabu put aside his sitar and embraced him, “Oh Ustad, you’ve found it at last!” Then he played for another three hours. I came home at three or four in the morning, and was rebuked for it, that I would come to nothing in life. This is the incident I remember, cannot remember what he had played though.
Pandit Abhijit Banerjee is a renowned Tabla player of Kolkata. He is a prime disciple of Pandit Jnan Prakash Ghosh. He has also learn Vocal from Pandit Ajay Chakraborty
1982, Chitresh Das, Sur Chhandam, Solo performance, Jnan Prakash Ghosh, Buddhadev Dasgupta, Kumar Mukherjee, Jodhpur Park, Nikhil Banerjee, Ravi Shankar, Amlan Dasgupta, Hiren Roy, Bacchuda, All India Radio, Indira di, Programme, Organiser, Sitar, Jhaptala, Rupak, Teen Tala, Accompany , Riyaz, Subrata Roy Chowdhury, Sitar player
There was an organisation called ‘Surchhandam’ and famous dancer Sri Chitresh Das and his friends were associated in this organisation. The year was 1982. Chitreshda and his friends knew me and they gave me an opportunity to play a solo there. This was my first major solo after I started learning from my Guruji Jnanprakash Ghosh and where personalities like Budhhadeb Dasgupta, Kumar Mukherjee were present.
Where was this place?
It was in Jodhpur Park. There was a person named Kalyanbabu and his house was the venue. Then it was a very popular programme.‘Surchhandam’ was the organiser and they did a big programme annually where Pt. Ravishankarji, Pt Nikhil Banerjee used to perform. We didn’t get a chance to perform at the annual programme but I heard Pt. Nikhil Banerjee there. I was telling you about my introduction to Nikhil Banerjee. The only reason I am narrating this is to show how great, how honest persons these people were. So, I had played this solo. Amlan Dasgupta, one of my professors, I mean who I was later acquainted with as a professor when I was studying English, had come to the performance. He was a great fan of table. He was accompanied by Bachhuda, the son of Hiren Roy, Sitar maker. This man, Bachhuda, was a student of Pt. Nikhil Banerjee and he told Pt. Nikhil Banerjee “I know a boy (me) who plays tabla well”.
I was not aware of all these, I had performed, and I still remember had got paid 100 rupees for it. I think my mother has still preserved that 100 rupees, this was the first time I received a payment for playing tabla. Except for All India Radio where Indiradi used to pay 5 rupees as a child artist. I got this money at an important juncture of my life, as my father was not in a financially good position. We had been financially quite well-off before, but at that moment father was without a job. That 100 rupees was a considerable sum for me and I asked my mother to use it to meet expenses. However, father told mother that it was a blessing and this small amount would not be of much good to serve the interests of the family. So, he told my mother to preserve it well.
Anyway, I went to college, after I met Amlan Dasgupta in the programme, the year was 1982. I was reading +12 in college and Bachhuda told Pt. Nikhil Banerjee about me. The next day I returned from college in the evening and my mother informed me that Nikhil Banerjee had called. I nonchalantly asked who Nikhil Banerjee?
Mother answered the sitar maestro Nikhil Banerjee. I was quite confident that it was not that Nikhil Banerjee, you heard it wrong, I told my mother. But she told me no, he gave me this number and asked you to call him. I told her ok, and after some supper I called on this given number.There was no mobile phone then. I forgot the number, 464 or something, a six or seven-digit number. I lived in Howrah then, and I dialled the phone. He picked up the phone himself, I did not recognise his voice, I told him that I want to talk to Nikhil Banerjee. I was quite sure that it was some other Nikhil Banerjee, perhaps some organiser who can give me some programme.
But instead, he said, ‘Yes, I am Nikhil Banerjee speaking, and I heard you play table well. Do you read in college?’ I answered that yes, I was reading in college. I was still so naïve, I could not understand. So he told me simply that ‘I play a little bit of Sitar, would you play with me? Come in the morning, we could rehearse from 9 to 11 then you can attend the college. You can come earlier if you want to, but remember you must continue your study, must attend college regularly.’ It was still unbelievable, I stuttered, ‘Yes yes, I mean’. He again confirmed that he played a little bit of sitar. The truth sank in, I started shaking all over, this was the legend Nikhil Banerjee, so easy-going, so conversational.
Anyway, I went to his residence next morning. I was hearing the sitar while entering, it was unbelievable. I am telling you that it was a prime experience of my life, the long years that I had spent with him, it was priceless. He was playing his instrument on the second floor of the house but the whole house was humming with the beautiful sound. It was one of the best sitar of India. Iwas listening to it while entering, it was mesmerising. This first encounter with the maestro was so awe-inspiring to me, I cannot express fully in words. My eyes always moisten while recounting this experience. He was a very reserved person, not much friends were there.I went to the second floor, he practised with me. I can remember, he played three talas Jha?pta?la, Rupak and lastly Tinta?la.
Then he remembered and asked me to go immediately, ‘You shouldn’t ignore your studies, go now, if you have time, come sometimes.’ I was like, ‘I would come every day, if you wish.’ He said, ‘No, you have to study first’. Then he chitchatted about my classes, class timings etc. What I am saying here, the whole story is about the gentle nature of this great man. This top-class person, he telephoned me himself, getting my phone no.and so on. In this age I have never heard a person of his calibre doing such things. I have never asked him about how he had gotten my number. No, wait I asked him about it much later. He got it from Subrata Roychoudhury, who also played Sitar. I used to practise with Subratakaku. He was so interested that he called Subratakaku then he called me. Nowadays everyone does these things through their secretaries. But he telephoned me himself and not only that, he picked up the phone himself when I called him back. It was a unique experience and I think today’s generation would never be part of such experience. Such a grand personality with so meek behaviour is really unique and it was a very important event of my life too.
I have always had the blessings of Khan sahib, I still do. Vilayat Khan is the main person. We used to live next to his house. One night, it was around midnight, my elder brother and I were practicing. My brother was playing the harmonium and I was playing the tabla. Suddenly we heard someone knocking on the gate. So we called out and asked who it was and what they wanted.
A voice answered, “People call me Vilayat Khan. May I come in?”
“Oh, Khan sahib, come in, come in.”
“Who is playing? They are playing well. I want to hear. May I come in?”
I had stopped playing.
“Oh, play dear man, play. I am like your elder brother. Play. Let me hear it. You play well. Who taught you?”
I answered him.
“Hm. He is a great master. Why don’t you come over to my place? Visit me sometime. I have a younger brother. Make friends with him and practice with him as well.”
That is how he invited me to his home. I began to frequent his place. I used to meet Imrat Khan. One day he said, “Come, play with me. This is the beginning for you.”
-Was this in late ‘50s? ’57-58?
-It would be…the first time I went with him was in ’68…so this should be around ’64-65.
– This was happening at Park Circus? The entire thing? Both of you lived their!
-We used to do riyaaz. Then once or twice he took me here and there – to Patna and Allahabad. One day he suddenly called for me (AUDIO UNCLEAR) “Shankha, Guruji is calling, what’s the matter? He asked, “What are your plans for next week?”
I said, “I have no plans. I don’t even have a job.”
“Take this money, go to Bombay. You’ll accompany me to London.”
“Oh, you just go. You won’t have to do a thing. You’ll buy the tickets with me and go to Bombay.”
So I went to Bombay. Then one day he said, “Shankha, you really are something. You’ve at least studied in a school or college. How will you get your passport made from here? You’ll have to go to Kolkata for that.” I didn’t want it, but he said, “Oh, Khan sahib does this all the time. Now see what I do.”
da in Kolkata He filled up the form in Bombay and sent it to Sona. he was a gazetted officer. He got my passport made, and sent it back. I went off to London. That was the first time. Thus it began. There are so many stories!
Translated by: Sarbajaya Bhattacharya
Picture Courtesy: Pt, Sankha Chattopadhyay, Google