Guruji Pt Shankar Ghosh accompanying Late Pt Nikhil Banerjee. Guruji was very happy to see this picture
NIKHIL BANERJEE INTERVIEW 11/9/85
Interview by Ira Landgarten, the day before Nikhil Banerjee’s last U.S. performance at Carnegie Hall, New York (1986). From booklet accompanying Raga CD-207 (Purabi Kalyan). Copyright 1991 Ira Landgarten.
Interview posted to web by Steve Bahcall at eyeneer…thanks for giving us a web presence as long ago as August ’95!
Ira Landgarten: First of all, where and when were you born?
Nikhil Banerjee: I was born in Calcutta in 1931.
What is your background; do you come from a musical family?
I am from a priest class – Brahmin. I am not supposed to take music as a profession. But my father was a musician, my grandfather also used to play sitar, so it was in my family but we are not supposed to take it as a profession.
So they were not professional musicians; what particularly attracted you to sitar?
Because from my very childhood, you know, I don’t even remember, because from my very birth I could hear my father practicing. He used to practice daily; that attracted me.
Did he learn from his father?
Yes, and also from other great musicians.
Actually when and how did you begin your musical practice?
You know, it’s really a very big subject – you must know the background. First of all, in our family we are not supposed to take up music. So when my father used to practice, I was so attracted and at that time I was maybe four or five years old. I wanted to play but my father never allowed me during that time. And we had a joint family system, that means my father, his brother’s wife, grandfather, grandmother, we used to live all together in one house. My grandfather was against these things (music); he thought that if I took it very seriously my educational side would suffer. That was a great problem, so naturally when I actually wanted to play and to learn, everybody discouraged me, especially my grandfather. Being the head of the family each and every member of the family has to obey him. So for a few years I couldn’t play, I couldn’t touch the instrument. But all the time, whenever my father used to practice, I used to just sit in front of him. Then one day my father was very attracted, he said, “When all the boys are playing outside why are you sitting quietly, why do you listen to my practice?” Then I said I want to play and to learn the sitar. Then he bought me a small sitar when I was around 5 years old. I started learning but not very seriously. After one or two years, when I was seven years old, my father started teaching me very deeply and thought, “Yes, this boy is very much attracted to this music.” So then he started teaching me systematically with scales and everything.
I understand that you were considered a child prodigy, winning the All-Bengal Sitar Competition and at age 9 becoming the youngest musician employed by All-India Radio. When did you first perform publicly?
I had my debut at the age of 9. People used to call me a child prodigy; I used to broadcast from the radio, also giving concerts.
Did you tour around India as well?
Not very far, near Calcutta in Bengal State, because at that time I used to go to school and my grandfather was a very, very strict man who would never allow for a single day that I miss my study.
Ustad Faiyaz Khan
Do any recordings of you at that age exist? Were any waxes cut?
No, not at that age, not at 9 years. At that time tape recorders weren’t yet invented. Yes, I had a few wax discs in All-India Radio at that time, but you can play them only three or four times.
In any field of art, young artists are influenced by the work of other artists; who were some of the musicians – instrumentalists or vocalists – who influenced you during those formative years?
Naturally I used to go to all these music festivals in India, and I heard great, great musicians of that time. Each musician was simply great; I was very, very influenced by them. At that time it was very difficult to judge who is better and who is not, but each and every musician influenced me like anything! Especially, during that time I heard Omkarnath Thakur, Faiyaz Khan, Kesarbai, Roshanara, and in instrumental music naturally Allauddin Khansahib. But it was like a dream that I would be able to go very close to them because it was very unexpected during that time. My background was not from a professional musician’s family, so it was almost a dream!
Does your music today directly or indirectly reflect some of those influences?
Yes, of course! To be very frank, yes, I’m very much influenced by a few musicians. One thing my teacher Allauddin Khansahib used to say, he being a very conservative musician, but he always used to say, “Collect anything, good thing, from any music from anywhere in the world!” Allauddin Khansahib being such a strict and conservative type, every night I can very well remember, every night from 9 till 11 o’clock. All-India Radio used to broadcast Western classical music. And every day from 9 till 11 he used to hear that, and he liked that Western classical music so much that he used to say, “Just listen to this music, how much they have perfected a note! Each note correct and so much in tune!” In that respect he used to always say that you should collect and get whatever you get from anybody, from anywhere in the world. So naturally, I used to hear all kinds of music but two musicians have influenced me very much in my life: naturally one is Allauddin Khansahib; I consider him as really incomparable. Depth! It is all interlinked; as a man, as a musician, so kind-hearted to everybody, every animal, each thing was considered, and each thing has touched my heart. Such a great in every respect! I’m also very much influenced by, and have learned from Ali Akbar Khan. I consider him one of the greatest living musicians of the world! And in vocal music, Amir Khansahib.
Ustad Amir Khan
Many people in India have told me these things, but I know myself very well I am very much influenced by Amir Khan, because in my childhood, before I went to Maihar, he used to come to my house regularly to teach my sister. My sister perhaps is one of the oldest students of Amir Khansahib when nobody knew him! I’m talking about 1946-47; at that time Amir Khan was not very well known in India. But he used to teach my sister regularly, and when he used to teach, I used to sit there and I was very influenced.
Did you have any other teachers before you went to Baba? Pandit Jnan Prakash Ghosh has written in his music memoirs that you received thorough initial training from Mushtaq Ali Khan.
Padmavibhushan Allauddin Khan
Now let me tell you: we were almost you could say poor. I’m from a very poor family; poor means financially because we were twelve brothers and sisters, and my father was the only earning member, so naturally my father couldn’t afford much money to pay for my lessons. In my childhood, many of my father’s musician friends used to come to the house, and as I used to play as a very young boy, they used to say, “Come let us sit. Come, bring your instrument, let me hear what your are playing.” And he used to teach something; in that respect I have learned from many people, but not very seriously and not very regularly. I learned from Mushtaq Ali Khan for three months only. Though my father was an amateur musician, he learned from one of Mushtaq Ali Khan’s father’s students for some time-Ashiq Ali Khan. So when my father approached Mushtaq Ali Khan, first he agreed and then he actually said, “No, I’m not going to teach him.” Then I also learned tabla, rhythmic side, and some vocal from Jnan Prakash Ghosh. I also learned for quite a few years from one of the great amateur musicians, king of a state in India, Birendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury. He was a great musicologist as well as a great musician but he used to sing dhrupad only, and instruments sursringar, rabab, and sometimes been and surbahar.
Naturally, only old compositions and very traditional music, no gat with tabla or anything-the old dhrupad style. But he was very learned! Being such a rich man, he used to invite Ustads, great musicians from every corner of India, and said, “Come on, how much money do you want? Just come and stay with me and teach me. How much money do you want?” I have seen myself he used to invite great musicians, give a lot of money, a motor car, free shelter, free house to stay, and everything was provided. In that respect he collected compositions-I myself think he’s absolutely unparalleled! Nobody had so many compositions! In one rag, he could give you at least 200 old compositions, maybe from Tansen, Baiju, or maybe from Gopal Nayak, much older than that. All from great Ustads! He was such a great, and being an amateur musician and so rich, he never concealed anything from his students. Anybody could go to him and ask, “Sir, could you please teach this rag.” Okay, he will sing at least a hundred compositions! That means a hundred compositions from different gharanas, different angles, how everybody treated this rag, handled that rag. He was really incredible in that respect. I used to learn from him all these old compositions both vocal and instrumental, then after some time he thought that as he was not a practical performer nor expert in sitar technique and other things, then he actually suggested that I had better go to Maihar to Baba Allauddin Khansahib and learn from him. He first introduced me to him.
Had you already heard Allauddin Khan?
So at that stage in your life you were fully committed to pursue a music career?
Yes, and all credit must go to my father. When I was about 9 or 10 years old, one day my father told me, “Look at us, we are really amateur musicians. If you really want to learn this music you must take it as a profession, otherwise it will be useless.” But I can remember when he said this my grandfather and all other family members objected very strongly! They scolded my father saying, “The future of this boy will be completely ruined!” Another thing you must know: about 40 or 50 years back, in India music was not considered a very good thing. Let me tell you another short history of this thing. During the Moghul Dynasty, in the late 17th century, Aurangzeb, the last Emperor, prohibited music strictly and there was an order from the king that anybody practicing music will be killed immediately! This was a black period in the history of Indian music you can say. During his time music was completely prohibited in India, and the culture and music of India must be grateful to the prostitute class-prostitute is not the correct word, they were called “baijis.” They were the people who actually kept this art alive when it went underground during Aurangzeb’s reign. The baiji class preserved the music underground, and the result was that afterwards in educated and cultured families the attitude was, “Music, you can learn it, just learn it but don’t take it as a profession.” Because if you take it as a profession you’ll have to keep some sort of close contact with this prostitute baiji class, naturally your character will be spotted. And as I was from a priest class, therefore it was forbidden for anyone from an educated, cultured family to take music professionally.
Yet the origins of dhrupad were temple worship and music was considered a spiritual path…
Of course, but that is another side. You know this is a very important thing for Westerners to understand about Indian music: Indian music is based on spiritualism, that is the first word, you must keep it in your mind. Many people misunderstand and think it’s got something to do with religion, no, absolutely no! Nothing to do with religion, but spiritualism-Indian music was practiced and learned to know the Supreme Truth. Mirabai, Tyagaraja from the South, Haridas Swami, Baiju-all these great composers and musicians were wandering saints; they never came into society nor performed in society. This is the history of Indian music, and this music was learned and it was practiced in search of truth. This is the background of Indian classical music; you must keep it in your mind always. In the temples, this music was sung every day in front of the statues, the idols. In Mathura-Brindaban, the home of dhrupad, this music is still sung. Another technical point I can tell you here: you know dhrupad has got four parts, asthai, antara, sanchari and abhog. But if you go to Mathura-Brindaban, they have got seven parts, and you cannot deny they are the originals. After the evening worship of the idols they sing in a group, purely based on rag and purely dhrupad with seven parts. If you really want to hear that, you’ve got to go there to the temple. Our music was either practiced by the wandering saints or it was in the temple. This is the background of Indian classical music, it was coming like that for many thousands of years. Then during the Muslim invasion of India in the 12th century, the music was composed and was sung in front of the kings to entertain. Then the passion came in our music; actually it was not there before. Passion and the worship of kings-the king is next to god-the wording of many old compositions you’ll see, are all in praise of the king. And the king used to give orders, “Do this, do that.” So music became part of entertainment after the Muslim invasions, before that no, absolutely no. Old compositions are all about Lord Krishna and Radha, their eternal love, all are based on this love affair, but when the Muslim invasion started then it took a dramatic change.
From the 12th century Indian classical music was bifurcated-one went to the North, one went to the South. The South preserved this rigid orthodoxy; it’s still a long argument but they claim that they have maintained the purity of Indian classical music. If you keep something from any touch of the outside world perhaps that sanctity is there but it is like stagnant water. That broadness doesn’t come, whereas in North Indian music, after so many invasions from Persia, Greece, Afghanistan, and so many other places, it was enriched with different combinations. That is one of the reasons why this music being so old still has got its power, whereas in Japan, China, Korea, and all these places with old civilizations, it has almost dried out. The North Indian music is always flowing, and still today also it is flowing very nicely, like “a rolling stone gathers no moss.” It is very crystalline, and still full of power. Indian musicians have heard many other kinds of music, and have tried to take something from other music also, and they’re still seeking. That’s a very good point, I think. I like this. Unless you take some ideas from different cultures or different people, how can you really enrich your own ideas? If you do not expand, that means death and stagnation. So what happened to our South Indian music is really a great point to think about. Nowadays there are many great musicians, of course, but many of them are trying to take something from North Indian music. But perhaps you know many great musicians who often visit the U.S. are not accepted there in South India. Why? Because they have gone to the West, because they have heard other music; it’s a very orthodox style. However, in North Indian music that constant flow is there.
Let’s get back now to 1947, when Birendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury introduced you to Baba (Allauddin Khan); what was your first meeting with him like?
(Laughs) That was another story, big story! First, actually he used to give concerts 3 or 4 times a year in Calcutta music festivals. Each time I used to go and hear him. He used to stay in a hotel and every day I used to go there, every day and so many people were there, it was a big crowd. All the time he was surrounded by so many big, rich people, great musicians, and I was a boy about 14 -15 years old, nobody took care of me or noticed. So every day I used to sit there, I used to listen to their conversations and then I used to come back. Then after so many days, one day he just called me, there were very few people in the room, he just called me and said, “I am watching you. Every day you come and after some time when everybody leaves this room you go back. Why do you come to me? What for?” He was a man of very, very strict principle: “So long you are alive, you must practice.” This is simple, a very simple thing; no time to talk, no time to sleep, no time to eat-if you practice 24 hours a day, he will be happy! And actually he was that type of man, he knew only music! He thought, “You have come to this world, you have nothing else to do except practice! Don’t waste a single moment chatting and talking!” He was a man of extremely strict principle! So when he called me he said, “Why do you come to me?” Then actually I cried, I touched his feet, and said, “Please, if you don’t teach me, I will just commit suicide! Because I don’t like to hear any other music!” He just threw me away! He said, “Don’t disturb me any more! I am an old man, I have got no energy left in me to teach any other students.” Because Ali Akbar Khan is there, Ravi Shankar is there, his daughter Annapurna, Pannalal Ghosh, Timir Baran-whomever it may be, if he accepts someone as a student, he will make him into something. I hadn’t heard or seen anybody like that! Anything! If he picks up anything, he will do something. He was that type of man. So he told me, “I have created all these students, I have no more energy left. I cannot afford such energy and I have got no time; I want peace now, I want to take rest, I want to relax. I am about 70 now, so don’t disturb me any more, just leave me alone.” But I cried and cried, and said, “I won’t leave you until, unless you tell me something.” He also kicked me that time! However, I used to broadcast for All-India Radio, Calcutta, then he thought and said, “Okay. I have got no time today and tomorrow I am leaving Calcutta, when is your next radio program? You write to me and I will hear it in Maihar.” And that I did; I wrote him that on such-and-such day I am going to play. After that he wrote me a very nice letter; he told me, the first line was, “I have heard your program, what you have played was rubbish! Hopeless things! Top to bottom it was full of-nothing was correct! Very incorrect rag! Everything is incorrect! You don’t know where to put your ornaments-you have put bangles on your hair, hairpins on your feet!” Something like that; it was a very nice letter! “However, this much I can tell, you have got a hidden power in you-that thing has to be nurtured. So I am happy and if you like to come, you are welcome.” Naturally, the next day I just left for Maihar.
NIKHIL BANERJEE INTERVIEW continued (Part 2)
So you became part of the household there?
Right, that was the old system, you have to stay with your teacher like one of the family.
What was life like for you during that period?
You have to just practice, forget the whole world! That training period is very, very rigorous and very strict. You have got no time for ANYTHING! Just practice, just practice 14 hours a day minimum, just practice! And all the time he’s giving you guidance. It’s not like you come to me from 7 to 8 o’clock, one hour teaching, it is not that-24 hours the guidance is there! You know this is a very great question: who is guru, and what is guru? I cannot be a guru, because, you know there is an old story: A person went to a great spiritual man, he was suffering from some disease, and that great saint told him, “You come to me after seven days, then I will tell you some medicine.” After seven days, the student again went to him, then he said, “Don’t take salt. You completely forget about salt, you must not touch salt again.” Then the student said, “Excuse me if I ask one question, why for this simple medicine, you said to come after seven days?” The teacher replied, “These seven days I didn’t take salt.” So this is the thing: if I say something to you, if I don’t follow that thing-I must know the result and the reaction. This is called the teacher, the guru. Guru can see you from the inside, he can channelize you-which way is suitable to you. I’ve been asked, “You and Ravi Shankar being disciples from the same person, why are both your styles and approaches to music different?” This is because my teacher understood. The first time when I went to Maihar, the first thing my teacher said, “I will channelize you in a different way, I will put you in a different way than Ravi Shankar. There will be no similarity.” Of course, the basis is the same, about the rag and how we will handle the treatment of the rag-it is all the same, but the exposition is different, the style is different. Now I can understand but at that time I couldn’t understand. The first thing he said, “I will take a different way for you. Your way will be just completely different from Ravi Shankar.” Because he could understand. Now I can follow that my approach to music is completely different than Ravi Shankar’s-everybody’s got a different approach because the level of mind, the line of thinking is different. I can still remember he gave me these compositions-the first time I was so astonished, I thought it was impossible for me to play! Completely different style, completely different! I was not acquainted with that sort of thing. He said, “This is your way, you must follow this way. This is the style for you; it suits your mind.” Now I can understand but at that time I was so bewildered I said, “What is this? It is a completely different thing for me, I won’t be able to play!” He just told me, “If you can’t play, just leave me alone and go back to Calcutta now!” However, what I want to say is that guru can see you, whether you believe it or not, from his experience and maturity. Perhaps you have seen a good guru, and if you haven’t seen one, then I really feel pity. Guru doesn’t just mean teaching music; guru actually molds you, your everything, each step, how you behave, how you react. Each step he’ll follow you, guide you, he’ll see you, he’ll watch you from a distance. It’s a very vast subject, guru, who is guru. I cannot be a guru because I am not so much truthful to myself, that means I don’t always do what I say. But guru is something else; if guru says, “Practice 16 hours today,” that means he has practiced, he knows the result. What you should practice, what will suit your temperament, your emotions, that he can understand just by watching you, your movement, your behavior, your reactions. Only guru can know because he’s so pure from inside. Oh, yes, to find a real guru is a blessing!
Ho, ho, ho! One day he told me, “Don’t play alap; alap is not meant for you now. When you’ll be 40 years old, when your nerves and everything will calm down, because alap is such a thing, your mind and concentration-until you calm down very peacefully to that level, you cannot play alap! Alap means that each note you’ll have to feel it in your mind! Each note! And it will take a long time.” Actually, alap is taught at the last stage. In the beginning you just practice different scales, different rhythmic patterns, different techniques for at least 20 years. You learn different compositions, you play so many things, but alap will be taught at the last stage. But I was so tired-one day I was just playing in my room, I closed the door and I was playing a little alap. Suddenly he came to my room and opened the door and said, “Just pack up and go back to Calcutta! I will not teach you any more!” However, there was a long hassle, he was so obstinate, he wouldn’t hear a single word. “Just pack up and go! I won’t hear a single word from you!” He was a very, very strict man. He told me not to play alap but I was so tired; tired of playing these techniques and scales-I was playing very softly, as if I didn’t hear him tell me not to play alap. Now I understand but at that age-he was very, very strict!
I know he had a legendary temper; did he ever actually lose his temper with you and scold or beat you?
Yes, yes, he has done it to everybody. Even, you know, he was a court musician of Maihar, a small state, he used to teach the king old dhrupad compositions, and one day he actually threw the tabla hammer at him, at the king! He was such a man, he knew only music, nothing else! If you make any mistake, naturally as a human being, how could it be possible each time to immediately pick up whatever he says? Sometimes because of lack of concentration or something. But he will not repeat anything twice or thrice! The first time he sang, you had to pick it up! If you said, “Sorry, I have missed that,” he will just immediately kick you! He was an extremely strict man! But besides all these things, can you tell me in the history of Indian classical music any great musician who has created so many good students? No other than Allauddin Khansahib; he’s the only person in the history of Indian classical music to produce great exponents like Ali Akbar Khansahib, Ravi Shankar, Annapurna-devi, Pannalal Ghosh, Timir Baran, all these great musicians and each one is top in their field. He was such a great man. And as he was not a traditional musician, he was completely different than any other traditional gharana musicians. He used to say, “Whatever I have learned, I am ready to give you. If you’ve got the power, just pick it up from me.” But all his students will know it was so difficult. He was so vast-how much you can learn. He was exceptionally great, exceptionally great but with very, very strong and strict discipline. Nowadays it’s hard to imagine! During your training period, you’re not supposed to go to movies, not supposed to read any books, you have hardly energy left for any other activities! Practice starts from four o’clock in the morning and it ends at eleven o’clock at night. There is a little break for breakfast, a little break for lunch, a little for dinner, a little for washing and other things, but we actually played from four o’clock in the morning till eleven o’clock at night. So hardly any energy was left.
How could your fingers manage that?
Oh, oh, no! When I first went there it happened to everybody-your whole hand, your fingers were cut and sewn up! And he used to tell us, “As long as you are alive you have to practice! If you die, I’ll be happy! Better you die, but as long as you’re alive you’ll have to practice, you cannot stop!” But now you can see how much love was there. Why he did all these things, why the strictness was there-because he used to love me! He used to think that, “Now you must do something! As you have taken this subject, you cannot leave this, you must do, you must leave behind some mark!” The training period was very, very rigorous-and I myself think even the world is changing, this country is so advanced, but there is no second way. Really if you want to play music or anything, you’ll have to forget the world at least for four or five years, and just concentrate on music. You play music, you think music, dream music, eat music-just live in music! That’s all! I think there is no other way if you really want to become a great musician. It’s not only Indian music, it’s everywhere, all over the world.
Precisely how long did you stay with Baba in Maihar?
About five years, but naturally from 1947 onwards till his death, all the time I was-I was giving concerts, but all the time, whenever I had the chance. He was such a person, suppose I would meet him on the train, on the road, on the bus, anywhere, immediately he would talk about music! “Do you know this thing? Do you know that thing? How it comes, just see. Listen.” He’ll immediately start teaching! Naturally, I was a little advanced at that time. He actually wanted to live in music, always in music. He would never talk about politics, nor talk about how far America is from Maihar-he never knew all these things; he would not talk, he would not listen.
It’s been written that after that period of formal training with Baba, you also received guidance from his daughter, Annapurna.
Yes, I still study, you know. Whenever I get time, whenever I go to Bombay for concerts-she lives there-I just go to her. Being the daughter of Allauddin Khansahib, she’s also very strict. Whenever I go there, I sit with her, I ask her anything and she will also tell me. I haven’t heard of many people that studied with her-Hariprasad (Chaurasia) mentions her. Hariprasad also learned from Annapurna-devi. She has taught Ravi Shankar also. She’s a great, great musician.
Jnan Prakash Ghosh has also written that you had some years of intensive training with Ali Akbar.
Actually, when Baba became very old-Ali Akbar Khansahib also loves me very much; I also stayed with him about four or five years in Bombay and learned from him. One more thing: during that training period, it is just like when a small tree is growing up, right from the seedling. You put some sort of fence around it so that the bad influence of weeds or crushing is avoided. When it grows up then you remove the fence. During the training period, you are not supposed to play in front of even your close relatives, and not in front of any outsider, or anybody else except your parents. You are not allowed to listen to any music, anything, and at that time you’ll be completely secluded. You will not hear anything, you will not play in front of anybody. That means he’s molding you; the full light and concentration on music, and the guidance will be there. He will actually cover you up during the training period. Before I went to Maihar I used to give concerts here and there, but the moment I reached Maihar he said, “Now from today everything is stopped!”
Ravi Shankar has said that though Baba played many instruments, sitar was one instrument that he didn’t play. Did that have any effect on your technique?
My technique was formed at that stage. In the beginning stage it was alright, my fingering, placing of the hands, holding the sitar-it was absolutely correct. Mostly, his way of teaching was singing; he used to sing and we used to follow on our instruments. Sometimes, naturally, we couldn’t follow so technical disadvantage was there, but we were not allowed to ask him. He would immediately say, “Find out your own way. You actually consult your brain and your intellect. Don’t ask me.” So you just go and think how to tackle this thing, this phrase.
That way helps you develop your own personal approach to music.
Right, right. It develops you, and I think this is the correct way. If everything is taught, then you will be very much influenced and covered up. Your individuality, your personality must grow up along with this music.
How would you summarize Baba’s contribution to Indian Classical Music; how did he influence changes in sitar and other instrumental playing styles?
One thing I must say: Baba Allauddin Khansahib has made a great contribution to Indian classical music, especially string instruments. The proof is there-records you can hear from about 40-50 years back of how sitar and sarod used to be played. Hear all these old records-they used to concentrate only on particular portions, they never used to go beyond that. Previously there was no alap on sitar; mostly all the phrases and tans used to be played “diri diri” only. There were no sapat tans, there were no long meends and other things. If you don’t believe it, listen to records-they are available in India, in Calcutta. Before Ali Akbar Khansahib, nobody used to play sarod like that. I never liked sarod before-with metallic sound and only “diri diri diri diri” only the right hand, no other things. No long meends or other techniques were used. But Baba contributed because he actually introduced to sitar and sarod the style of sursringar, surbahar and veena. I can tell you in every phrase in our style of playing-students of Allauddin Khansahib-that this has been derived from veena, this is from rabab style, this is from sursringar, this is from surbahar. We have amalgamated all these styles, and now in what we play on sitar, you will see all these phrases. That is why the horizon is bigger than it was before. This is the greatest contribution of Allauddin Khansahib.
Would you say there have been any changes or improvements in sitar construction?
Mainly, I will say that Allauddin Khansahib is the person who actually introduced the kharaj (bass) string on sitar. Nobody used to…
Ravi Shankar says that this is something that he created with sitar maker Kanai Lal.
No, no, absolutely wrong! It was Allauddin Khansahib who told that you must put one extra thick string so that you can have your bass sa.
So how does the instrument you have now differ from the type you originally played?
The construction and the shape is a little changed, but because we play these kharaj strings, the shape of the tumba, or gourd, is a little bigger and the shape is also a little bigger, otherwise you cannot hold the thick strings; it would bend the neck.
Is there an improvement in the string quality available now? What type of music wire do you use? And what gauges do you use?
Yes, we use a little thicker string now, for the tone. I prefer English wire. German wire is a little thinner, and strength-wise, I think English wire is better. The English steel wire is better, but America produces better phosphor bronze strings. I use #4 steel wire for the ma string; that’s very heavy. I don’t know the gauge measurements of the others; one of my students in California used to give them to me.
Who built your concert instrument and when was it constructed?
The instrument I’m now playing was made by Hiren Roy, about 30 years back.
Is this the only instrument you perform on?
Yes, solely on this. I had many sitars, but you know, I think you should practice on one instrument so you know each fiber of it.
I notice that your sitar has a small, secondary bridge up at the top of the finger board. Is this you own innovation? What is its purpose?
Actually, I wanted to do something for the continuity of sound. Previously, continuity of the sitar sound was missing. In my playing you’ll see a touch of vocal is there-when I’m playing alap or slow compositions, I like some sort of very bold, deep sound. Whereas for speedy playing I need a little sharper sound. Both are not possible for sitar, so to be very frank, in my whole life I didn’t get a good instrument to my choice! But I tried many, many instruments and lastly, what I’ve got now I’m happy with, it’s OK. But not very happy – I didn’t get an instrument according to my own choice.
Have you discussed this with Hiren Roy perhaps to develop something further?
I’ve discussed it with him but he’s so busy he’s got no time for any research work. So much demand is there he can’t even fulfill so many orders. He’s got no time to manufacture so many instruments; he’s got no time to think and research how to develop the sound of sitar.
Aren’t there any other craftsmen there in Calcutta seriously pursuing this research?
No, nobody. You can understand India is a poor country so everybody wants to earn money. Who can afford that much time to think, research and develop? Who will support him? Then Hiren Roy is still the leading sitar craftsman? Of course, of course, he’s number one in India. But in my childhood the best sitar that I have seen was made by the elder Kanai Lal. When I was about 5-6, he died and to me he was the greatest but he didn’t teach anybody! Today Kanai Lal’s shop is there-his brothers and his grandson, but he never taught anybody so now what’s coming out of that shop is not at all satisfactory. Now the standard has definitely gone down. Kanai Lal was really an incomparable manufacturer; after his death the standard has fallen down and now Hiren Roy is the best.
Often one sees on record liner notes and in books that sitars are constructed from teak-wood; aren’t most in fact made from toon-wood?
Yes, toon actually. Previously, Burma teak was very good. Now in India you cannot get good wood; after Independence you cannot import anything from Burma, and Burma teak was the best. And now in India the woods are not properly aged so the quality has deteriorated. Nowadays it is really difficult to get a good sitar. Hiren Roy himself says the materials he gets are not at all satisfactory. We don’t get good quality wood, bridges or anything so nowadays it’s hard to get a good sitar.
Talking about bridges, how do you deal with maintaining jawari?
This is a big question; it’s always a problem! I’ve got some knowledge but my eyesight is not very good; you must have very clear eyesight, then you can do it yourself. It’s a very, very fine job, very painstaking, a lot of patience is required. As my eyesight is not very good, I face a lot of trouble!
How do you manage when you’re touring outside of India?
I do a little myself; little things, I don’t take much risk but a little bit I can try.
Is it possible to have Hiren prepare several jawari bridges and take them along?
I’ve also tried that but it doesn’t help much-because of the climatic conditions, it doesn’t sound nice. You can take three or four extra bridges and put on another new one, but the moment you change it, maybe because of the height or climatic changes it doesn’t sound nice. A little touch, a master’s touch is required.
The particularly charming quality of the sitar’s sound, the harmonics and overtones, unlike any other instrument, is so closely related to that bridge…
Yes, yes, of course.
What direction did your career take after leaving Maihar? What was it like reentering the performance world after years of seclusion?
After Maihar, I knew that I would have to concentrate more and more on the sitar. But you cannot afford to give so much time because once you start performing you become busy. Now I really think that if someone supports me with money someday and my family is provided for, I really want to practice! I really want to practice now! I love music, it is endless, so the more you practice, the more you are in the Deep Ocean-you don’t know where to go; you’re in Space! Of course, I had confidence after learning from Allauddin Khansahib but there was a great point in front of me: Vilayat Khan was there, and Ravi Shankar-ji was there, Ali Akbar Khansahib was there, and all these great stalwarts just in front of me! Until I’ve got some sort of individuality, who will listen to my music? After coming from Maihar, I was a little nervous for some time and I was really searching for a way to cut my own path because these three great instrumentalists hadn’t left a single point through which to take up and dig out your own way. For some time I was really very much disturbed in my mind, “What should I do? Which way should I go? Which will be the correct way?” Of course, the teaching was there and what Allauddin Khansahib has given was there, but still in the practical world when you are actually struggling, that was a time-for many years I was really searching. As a whole performer, how to place your individuality in front of these great instrumentalists? These three great instrumentalists have not neglected a single phrase or portion of Indian classical music; they’ve got their own individuality and are really great.
You then went through a period giving jugalbandi (duet) performances with Ali Akbar?
Yes, I have played many, many-maybe a thousand concerts with Ali Akbar Khan.
When did you first begin touring outside of India?
I first came out in 1955. I was in a cultural delegation from the Indian government to Poland, Russia and China; that was the first time I came out of India, then of course I toured Afghanistan, Nepal and other places. But big and regular tours started in 1967; that was when I first came to the U.S.
You also became involved with U.C. Berkeley and the ASEA; what was that like?
I used to go there regularly every year for three months during the summer season. It involved teaching, performance and lecture-demonstrations.
Did you have any private students?
No, no private students. Actually, I don’t like teaching.
But do you enjoy coming here to the West to perform?
Yes, it’s a very nice country, nice people. So for a change, variety…
Do you feel that the non-Indian Western audience understands and appreciates your music?
Now it is definitely improved but when I first came it was not there. Still it was a kind of challenge for us.
Do you think that the Western audience has grown, shrunk or remained the same over the years?
That’s another big point. One thing I can say, during the late 60’s, early 70’s there was the hippy movement in this country, then the Beatles and some sort of guru phase. I’m really sometimes very much amazed! This country is advanced, it’s the biggest, most advanced country in the world in every respect yet one side is so foolish! I really don’t understand! America is an intelligent nation but how can they become involved with these Indian gurus like Rajneesh? They react so unexpectedly! I’m not saying anything bad against anybody, no. I don’t know how Indian music got involved with the hippy movement, Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles, Mia Farrow, John Lennon and all these great pop star heroes. Sitar became very popular. “What are you doing?” “I am meditating by playing sitar!” However, it really became a craze for a few years then suddenly the Beatles separated, that craze was gone, the Beatles, pop stars and film actors and actresses started saying that all the spiritualism in India is hopeless and bogus, nothing is true. And the next morning, sitar became unpopular! That craze is gone now, and it’s a very good sign I think. That madness is not there; now really genuine lovers are there. Real lovers of music and fine arts, and those who respect other cultures. Indian music is now adored and respected among the genuine music lovers. It’s a good sign, it will stay.
Since you mentioned other cultures, what do you feel about the definition some people have of Indian classical music being “ethnic music?”
Heh, heh, heh! I have got strong objections-I really dislike this word “ethnic” because India is one of the world’s oldest civilizations and this music is also one of the oldest musical systems in this world. I don’t know why the Westerners call Indian music “ethno-music”-in that respect, we can also call Western classical music “ethno-music!” Actually, it should not be used, we never say it. Yes, perhaps you can call Rajasthani folk music and dance “ethno-music” or “ethno-arts” but there are only two established classical musics-one is Western classical music, the other is Indian classical music. Vast, old and many contributions to world music are there. It’s beyond all these labels!
Do you think it is possible for non-Indians to master sitar or any other aspects of Indian classical music?
Yes, the first example is Jon Higgins. Yes, but that love should be there, that love and respect. Anybody can learn-music, culture, literature, art-they have no country, caste or creed, it’s much, much above these things. For instance, if you want to become a good cello player, you can’t ask, “How many years will it take to become a good cello player?” This is a very foolish question. It’s a whole life’s job! If I really love that instrument, I will have to devote my whole life to it, learn from a good teacher, and practice my whole life, then perhaps I can become a good cello player. It is just like that, anything is a whole life’s job.
Do you know of any serious, talented Western musicians who are now practicing Indian classical music?
To be very frank, I feel that one thing is lacking in these Western people-that is patience. Patience means when you say that you want to learn Indian music or any music, that you must go deep into it. For a few years you learn it, practice it and one fine morning you just give up. No! Then you cannot expect anything. I know because when I used to teach here there were many great talented boys and girls. They were doing very well but after 6-7 years they used to practice very hard, they used to devote and concentrate very hard, and they learned nicely. One fine morning, they say, “Now I must learn some Korean music!” OK, it’s up to you. That perseverance and strength of mind that I will stick to one point is not there. There are two or three ways: if you really want to become a performer, is one point; “I want to have some idea about Indian music,” that is another point; and “Just for the sake of my own pleasure I want to learn,” is still another point. I’ve seen myself there were quite a good number of boys and girls who used to play good sitar or sarod. There’s a practical side also: you must think about your future. If you’ve got that strength of mind, that you really love this music and you will really do something, just practice and concentrate, then definitely you can become a good musician. You have to have a real guru, of course, and hear good musicians. It’s a full lifetime job. You listen, you practice, you think, how to improve, again you listen to good musicians. In that respect, anybody can learn and play good music. Like Peter Row in Boston, though for the past 5 or 6 years I’ve been out of touch with him, but before that he used to play quite nicely. He could reproduce the sentiments and emotions of rags very nicely. There’s a boy at Khansahib’s school, George Ruckert; one boy in Basel, Ken Zuckerman-he’s a very good musician, he plays very good sarod. He actually plays lute. They’re both American. If they really learn from Ali Akbar Khansahib, he’s the best teacher they can have, and if they practice, think and listen, they can become good performers.
Ali Akbar certainly can’t be as strict as his father!
Heh, heh, heh! Of course not!
How do you feel about “fusion” music and the use of Indian instruments with jazz and rock music?
If they take some scales or some rhythmic patterns from Indian music, and use it, OK. But if they say, “I’m doing some Indian music,” mixing up Indian music with pop music, rock or some sort of fusion music, that I really don’t like; it’s not a good thing. The basis is different.
Have you ever experimented with any music outside of the pure, classical realm?
No, but I keep my heart always open. I hear all sorts of music of the world. I like pop music also to some extent; I like some compositions. But I am against mixture-you do your music, I do my music; I like your music, you like my music-that’s all. But to mix-up – I don’t like this idea!
Pandit Ravi Shankar has done some interesting experiments with his Sitar Concertos, using symphony orchestras and such.
No comment, no comment. But I definitely didn’t like that duet with Mr. Yehudi Menuhin, “East Meets West.” No, I’ve heard Yehudi Menuhin many times; in Western music he’s a different giant, but when he’s playing some Indian music it is just like a child. For a stunt, it’s OK, but I really disagree, I don’t like this idea. You cannot mix up everything! It is not possible.
What do you think about the state of classical music appreciation in India at present?
Naturally, India is a poor country and classical music has got a limited percentage of listeners. It was in the old days also like that, and now as well. Not all the Indians love this classical music; it’s very deep music, you know. Pop or film music is the popular music for everybody in India, but classical music is not for everybody.
Do you think there’s enough of a solid and educated audience that there is a promising future for classical music?
It is there, and it will be there. Certain people are mad for classical music, and their sons and daughters are also like that. It’s growing up, sure.
NIKHIL BANERJEE INTERVIEW continued (Part 3)
Are there promising young artists-vocalists or instrumentalists-with the potential to become great masters?
There are many talented boys and girls, vocalists and instrumentalists, but nowadays it has become a craze in India not to devote much time to practicing and learning. After learning a little bit, they want to come to America to earn money, going for name and fame. This has really spoiled the atmosphere. Like in our time, you know-that strictness is not there, that type of guru is no more, and nowadays young talented boys and girls are learning, they’re doing well but after 4 or 5 years they want to earn money, they want fame, they want to come to America. That is a very bad sign. To be very frank, I don’t find anybody now. When we remember our old days, that potential-no. Of course, money is required but to me, first my music then everything else; everything is secondary. First I want to improve, I want to love my music, I want to go deep into music! That approach is missing. I will not blame them always; it is the atmosphere of the world. Nowadays every boy and girl is bombarded with problems, so many problems, economic problems. So I understand it’s difficult to devote and concentrate so much, but still there are a few people who can because they have got some sort of financial support, and yet, that atmosphere is missing. One other thing: TV is actually spoiling-because during your training period, there should not be any sort of diversion. Now it’s hard to find a place where you can be separated from this world. Either video, or television, or radio-the whole atmosphere is very unpeaceful in the world-the political situation and other things. Maybe it’s a passing phase, and again a good time will come.
Why do feel that instrumental music has had broader appeal in these times-particularly in the West? It seems all the really well-known artists are instrumentalists even in India where vocal music traditionally was always held in the highest regard.
Because it is appreciated all over the world, sitar has become an international instrument. Vocal music is suffering, of course. Few people are learning dhrupad nowadays; it’s almost dying out, there’s not much demand.
So there’s definitely a decline in the art of vocal music?
Yes, of course, it’s declining yet still there are quite a good number of vocalists in India; they are appreciated. But it can be said that this is the Instrumental Age. Before our time, about 50 years back, instrumental was considered secondary-vocal music was maximum, yes, it was at the top. There were some good instrumentalists but still vocal music was appreciated more than instrumental.
Perhaps then Allauddin Khan was really the forefather of instrumental musicianship’s popularity in this century?
Definitely. Not only has he created many great instrumental exponents, but his contribution-actually he has broadened the space of instrumental music, he has opened up new horizons. That was his contribution.
What are you feelings about recording Indian classical music? You’ve recorded many LPs, do you think recording has an important place in keeping your tradition alive?
I think when any musician is recording, he becomes self-conscious and he cannot give his best. But it is also true that we have lost many great musicians; now at least the next generation can get some sort of idea of their music from these recordings. Very recently the CD has become available, you can record about one hour; it’s a good thing. I don’t know why but I myself become very self-conscious when I record, and naturally when you become self-conscious you cannot give your best.
What about recording live concerts?
I think that’s a much better way. The minimum time should be about one hour; otherwise you have to edit.
Do you think that the Gramophone Company of India is doing a proper job with regard to recording and promoting classical music?
No, no, not at all. Everybody is after money; in this age, everybody’s going after money and fame. Business! I understand, of course, when you are investing money it is a business, you want some return. It is all understood, but still they are doing well, they are concentrating more on light music, film music. Very good, they are getting their returns nicely, a good sum of money but what are they doing for traditional music? No, they’re doing nothing!
Have you been satisfied with the LP recordings you’ve done to date?
Suppose when I’m in a very good mood I think it will come out nicely, then technically it is not perfect sound-wise or something. I’m not very satisfied, but I’m partly satisfied with one recording company-Sonodisc in France. Their recording quality, sound-I’m happy with that. I’m quite satisfied with one of my Sonodisc LP’s, Rag Monomanjari. That’s my favorite so far.
Do the ragas that you’ve recorded on these LP’s represent a central core of your repertoire? How do you choose what to record?
That’s a difficult question! (Laughs) I tried, that’s all. It’s difficult to say. In the particular moment, at the time of recording, what you feel like doing comes out.
With all the existing ragas, you are still credited with creating new ones!
Yes, I still like to do that if something comes out of my mind. I always like to do that. Art is the medium; you want to express everything through this medium.
Following your guru’s dictate, do you still practice regularly? How many hours a day?
Oh; of course, without fail! You have to! I practice about four hours a day. There is no other way; no short-cut, no compromise! Until your last breath, you’ll have to practice.
How do you prepare for concerts-do you work out ahead of time large portions of the ragas? How much is improvised, how much spontaneous?
I think about a few ragas as a preparation for the concert. It’s very difficult to explain! We try-suppose we choose something, some rag, before the concert, we play it, and after starting we feel that it’s not the correct rag in this atmosphere, it’s the wrong selection. So in that respect, it’s very hard to say! But still what I do as a preparation is think about a few ragas according to the time of the concert. Around 8, 9, 10 o’clock, I try to think for some time, and keep it in front of my mind, wait for some time and if the acceptance comes from inside-sometimes it doesn’t come; sometimes I think, “No, perhaps this will be better. This raga I haven’t played for a long time, I want to play this raga.” Then I select that during the concert.
In that respect, I sometimes really enjoy my playing in the U.S. People may not always understand what I’m going to do but the atmosphere, the hall, acoustics, and the people listen so quietly-that encourages me very much! Quiet atmosphere, good sound-this is expected.
Your music is particularly known for its poetic, meditative approach as well as its technical virtuosity-do you practice any form of yoga or meditation?
I practice hatha yoga-postures-just to keep myself fit. Music is such a thing that through your music you can be judged. It’s not any particular way, it’s from the experience because through music you express yourself. My approach to music is very deep. I do not compromise with anybody or anything else in the world. I do not care, I don’t care if anybody appreciates it or not; I don’t care. When I start I always like to play better, nice, good, heavenly music. I want to really go beyond this materialistic world towards Space-there, no compromise. I really want to know-not for the sake of enjoyment, entertainment, no. In the beginning portions-naturally, with tabla, that’s another chapter, a completely different chapter; the intricacies and mathematics are there. A musician must lift up the souls of the listeners, and take them towards Space.
Photo:coll. John Campana
Several years ago, when I spoke to you after what I thought was a spellbinding performance, you said, “Yes, but I want to pluck on the very heart-strings!” I was very impressed with your intention to literally alter the consciousness and raise the audience.
Actually, that should be the motto, but who am I? Now, I actually feel sometimes I am nothing! If I say that, “Yes, I am a good musician,” then every time, each time I will play better. I can’t, I can’t-nobody can. You have got no control over this thing. Technical virtuosity is everything but you know music is such a thing you must first practice technique, then you must forget it. Then only can you break the fence around you and go beyond. Until and unless you can really go beyond this fence and go towards Space, everything is useless! What’s the purpose of music? It is not that you just play the notes, some combination, some permutation-no! Each note that you strike in your mind becomes alive! Then you’re successful. Tagore has written a very nice poem on these things; I like that poem and it touches me very much. “Whom I cannot see I cannot touch, my musical notes can touch thy feet.” That’s so true! A real musical atmosphere is when for some time you forget yourself, for some time you are lifted so high! Like if I give you a good slap, you will cry, and good musical notes and phrases also bring down your tears. Why? What are those tears? That means your body needs food but your mind needs that thing, that esthetic side of this art. When I went to the Louvre in Paris and saw that famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci-the Mona Lisa-I cried for several minutes! It touched me so much, and when I hear some good Western music I become very emotional for a few moments-not for a long time. If it happens for a long time, then you are above, above everything. It doesn’t stay for a long time, but for a few moments good music, good literature, good poetry, a good picture, lifts you up and you forget your whole body and surroundings. That is the purpose of the art! That it will take us up towards God, you could say, or towards Space, beyond all these things. That’s the purpose, and there, you are nowhere as a musician! You do, you try to do, you start! You are a starter! Then something happens. Allauddin Khansahib was not an educated person, he was very simple, but he used to say always, “Listen, when you play, you’ll start and you’ll remember your guru. He will come inside you and he will push you, and create good music.” That was his saying, so always before he started, he used to remember his guru for about a minute, on the stage. With tanpura only, before he plucked his instrument, he would just close his eyes and remember. It’s a belief, you know. It’s a very controversial thing. In this 20th century you may not accept it, but you cannot create this music-something comes from maybe within or from outside. That creates it! If you say, “Now I am creating,” then do it now, each time can you do it? No! You cannot do it each time. That is the purpose, and it’s so vast, so much in the Outer Space. Most unpredictable things!
You have such a wealth of music, such a treasure, how are you going to share your technique and knowledge with future artists? You stated that you don’t care to teach, and I don’t know of anyone who claims to be your disciple. Do have any disciples, do you have any intention of training any in the future?
Yes, I’ll follow my teacher’s way; I like that way. Now I’m performing, and that’s another very big point-why I don’t teach. I like to teach but now I am not capable of teaching. Second, I have little time. Teaching is not a very easy job-don’t think you will come to me and I’ll give you Darbari Kanada, or Nayaki Kanada and one composition, you are happy, “I have got this rag!” This is not at all teaching; that type of raga you can create yourself. Teaching is something else; teaching means guidance, constant focusing and guidance which I consider a very, very deep and responsible thing. If I accept you as my student the whole responsibility is mine! If you say, “I can’t see any way in front of me, I can’t improve,” everything is my responsibility. Definitely you’ll improve, definitely, if I have learned correct music, definitely you will know it. But the teacher has to work harder than the student, because he’s all the time thinking about how to create interest. It is not just give some compositions, everything-your body, your mind’s appetite-everything is concerned. I will follow my teacher’s way, that is after another 5 or 6 years, when I’ll be older, then I’ll give fewer concerts and move around much less. Then I will concentrate, and pick up a few students. I will keep them in my family, I will feed them, give them clothes, I will give them everything. But I will keep them under lock and key, and I will say, “These four years you cannot see a single movie, you cannot see any television. All the time, I want to hear that you are practicing in this room.” If I pick up someone as my student, then it’s my responsibility and I will do something, and he will become something. Definitely I will not just pick up somebody from the street-I must see that you have got the talent or really want to work hard; a really strongly built boy who can practice 12 hours a day. Considering all these things, once I pick, I will say, “You have nothing to think about for the next 5 years. All the responsibility is mine. Everything will be provided-your comforts, your food, clothing, everything will be provided! You don’t have to think anything about this world-just practice!” Naturally, my guidance will be there all the time. I think this is the best way and I will do it. I will find some students, young-8 to 10 year old boys-and I will keep him in my family, in my house. Then I know I’ll have some good music to listen to as I get older! (Laughs) I think this is the best way. If you really want to teach someone your techniques, just pick someone and keep him always with you-in your morning walks, in your concerts, everywhere, all the time. Keep him with you because you are molding him, you are focusing on him. He will know only you, nobody else. No diversion, nothing. (November 9, 1985)