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.