Pandit Nikhil Banerjee. Photo by Bhaidu Sanyal.

Although he is not as well known in the western world as Ravi Shankar, any Kolkata resident will know the name of Pandit Nikhil Banerjee and his legendary status in Hindustani classical music. He sadly passed away 35 years ago today.

He was my great uncle and I called him by the Bengali term of Nikhil Dadu and I still have hazy memories of his face, his voice as well as his playing. His untimely death came when I was a child, but I remember his trips from Kolkata to my hometown of London to play in front of British audiences. I was too young to really grasp the essence of his music whilst he was alive, but listening to him as I have grown older has led me to understand his mastery of such an insightful musical genre. Today, when I’m surrounded by noise, from my environment or endless streams of thought, listening to the album ‘Lyrical Sitar’ sends me to that peaceful plain that I can only be transported to through music.

But it’s a form of music that is difficult to define. European scholars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who were fascinated with this genre, had attempted to create a system for the sounds. But the accuracy of it became lost in the complexity of the notes. The structure of western and Indian classical music seems to reflect the differences that exist between the two cultures: the western version demands order and discipline, whereas its Indian counterpart is less formal and highly spiritual. Dadu once said:

“My approach to music is very deep. I do not compromise. Indian music is based on spiritualism and was practiced and learned to know the Supreme Truth. A musician must lift up the souls of the listeners and take them towards space. This is the history of Indian music.”

It is also timeless, as the performer elaborates on the basic melody to create a distinct and individual sound. Ravi Shankar said:

“A raga is the projection of the artist’s inner spirit, a manifestation of his most profound sentiments and sensibilities brought forth through tones and melodies.” 
(Raga Mala: The Autobiography of Ravi Shankar, George Harrison, 2001).

Awakened strength

Nikhil Dadu’s late father, Shri Jitendranath Banerjee, was also a talented musician and introduced his son to the sitar. Dadu then honed his talents by receiving training from Ustad Allauddin Khan, who was a pioneer in this field. He had also taught Shankar, but in a very different way to Dadu, which brought out the individuality of each performer.

After Allaudin Khan decided to teach Dadu, he wrote him a letter, from which Anindya Banerjee quoted an excerpt in the Indian Telegraph magazine of 1986:

“Your playing is terrible, it simply cannot be listened to…but there is a strength which is hidden within you, which must be awakened.”

But there is also a marked difference between the way that eastern and western classical music are taught. In the UK, a student will generally attend lessons given by the teacher and follow sheet music, which is then practiced in the student’s own time. In India, the student looks upon the teacher as a Guru and the student is his or her Shisyha (disciple). Lessons are often taught sitting on the floor without reliance on pen and paper. A strong connection manifests in the Guru-Shishya spiritual relationship that transcends into the everyday life of both individuals. An intimate, lifelong bond had developed between Dadu and Khan during the course of their lessons.

Dadu’s talent blossomed from his early childhood. He was one of nine children and had a younger brother, called Tapan Banerjee, who was a gifted tabla player at just three years old. Tapan Banerjee would sit on two cushions in order for his hands to reach his child-sized tablas; his tiny hands were at odds with the immense talent that came from them. Together, the two brothers won Indian talent competitions. Very sadly, Tapan Banerjee died at just eleven-years old from typhoid and Dadu continued his career as a solo artist.

Born to play

Dadu’s elder brother, Dilip Banerjee, lived in London before passing away in 2017. He told me about a childhood memory that signified the early stages of Dadu’s talent. Their father was teaching a complex piece of music to a group of students. At just four years of age and considerably younger than the students, Dadu was able to recite the piece of music on his father’s sitar that overpowered his size but not his gift. My mother, his niece, also remembers a time when a prisoner on death row in Kolkata requested Dadu to play to him in his final moments, which was an intense experience in his life.

His father never failed to encourage him to pursue his extraordinary ability and Dadu showed exceptional dedication, nurtured by his close connection with Allaudin Khan. Dadu died at the age of 54 from a fatal heart attack on 27th January 1986 – regrettably on his youngest daughter’s birthday. To add to the tragedy, his daugher, Devdutta Banerjee, also known as Arya Banerjee, passed away last month. She would have turned 41 today.

From my faded early memories of my great uncle, he was a warm and entertaining character in front of his family, fondly remembered for his booming laughter. But he was a reserved man in the face of his audience. His sitar was his instrument of expression and he would lose himself in his music whilst performing. Music critic Nilaksha Gupta wrote in the Telegraph magazine:

“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 [musical intro] – 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.” 
(The Daily Telegraph magazine supplement, 23rd February 1986)

Hindustani classical music is highly appreciated by those that understand it, although the comprehension of it goes beyond description. Many students in London learn to play classical instruments, including the sitar, at establishments such as the Bhavan Centre, which showcases its talents during the year. Also, the Darbar festival of South Asian classical music in Leicester, England, creates a platform for up and coming classical artists.

Steven Baigal, an American independent filmmaker and photographer, created a documentary on Nikhil Banerjee entitled ‘That Which Colors the Mind’. The production will touch the hearts of all who remember Dadu and open the minds of those who are less familiar.

Unfortunately, I was too young to tell him this, but thanks to Nikhil Dadu, my appreciation of his genre stems from my early exposure to it and my ancestry is awakened on hearing its tones. Having heard a variety of styles of music in the UK, I have not found one with such endless depth and wonder, which also make it so uniquely Indian.

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