photo: John Wilton

Interview with Manilal Nag

West Hurley, New York · November 1994
By Ira Landgarten. Copyright 1994 Ira Landgarten

Ira Landgarten:
First of all, about your background, where and when were you born?

Manilal Nag: I was born in Bankura town, of the Bankura district of West Bengal in the year 1939, on 16th August. Then I came to Uttarpara with my father. Uttarpara is near to Calcutta, in the Hooghly district. Uttarpara was a very cultural town-once upon a time many, many big men visited Uttarpara like Madhosudan Dutta, Ram Mohan Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, Dr. B.C. Roy. At that time, my father, the late Sri Gokul Nag, lived in the jamindar bari, that means the house of the jamindar [landlord], as a music teacher. The children of the jamindar learned some music-sitar, vocal-from my father.

My father could play all kinds of instruments, many, many instruments like beena, surbahar, esraj, sitar, sarod, tabla, tabla taranga, harmonium, jaltaranga, nastaranga, kasturtaranga (made from wood). Due to that reason Uday Shankar, the great, famous dancer of that time, visited Uttarpara and listened to my father perform on so many instruments. He was surprised how it was possible for a man to play so many instruments! Then Uday Shankar requested my father, "Please join my party as the music composer."

photo by Ira Landgarten
Gokul Nag

My father agreed, and he visited all the country, all over India many times with this party. Then within a year or two Uday Shankar requested him to visit abroad. My father told him, "I need to take permission from my father." But my grandfather didn't agree; in those days those old-fashioned Indian old men didn't allow their children to go abroad. So my father didn't go and Uday Shankar invited Ustad Allauddin Khan (photo) to join his party as music composer instead. Then my father lived in Uttarpara, and he admitted me to the school but my father didn't like that I will study and do any job, as an engineer, as a doctor, or a lawyer. Why? At that time the musicians were much welcomed by the maharajas, rajas and jamindars, and they loved musicians. They invited him as the court musician and honored him very much. My father always used to take me along for practicing sitar.

When did you actually first start your real practice?

I remember when I started at the age of 5 or 6. First my father taught me vocal-dhrupad-and I sang about 14 years, but after that due to the problem of tonsillitis I didn't sing well, and after that I practiced much on sitar. When I lived in Uttarpara I loved very much to play football and cricket like other boys, but my father at all times watched me and told me, "Please come here, take your sitar!" and he himself would take me and play sitar. I practiced minimum 8 to 10 hours every day! And believe me, I practiced only paltas, mir, gamaks and exercises of different types more than 3 or 4 years. After that he taught me only two ragas: one morning raga, Bhairo [or Bhairav], and a night raga, Sohini. Only two ragas, and those two ragas I practiced, you believe me, for two years! Nothing, nothing, nothing else. Sometimes I felt bored, and sometimes I listened to the radio, many music concerts, but when I listened to the radio, immediately my father came to me and turned off the radio and snapped at me, "Why do you listen?" Because if I listen my mind will be 'fickle' and I can't do good practice. At that time, the musicians knew, but at present the students don't practice paltas, gamaks; they want to become artists within 4 or 5 years. How is it possible? It's not possible! Anyway, after those 2 years every day my father gave me different ragas, many ragas within 3 or 4 years, mostly all the common ragas I could play. After that he asked me to listen to the concerts. When I started music, for at least 7 or 8 years he didn't allow me to listen to any program, not even to the radio. He started to take me to different concerts to listen, and from my very childhood at the age of 12-13 I have listened to many musicians with my father. I listened to Ustad Faiyaz Khan (photo), Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, and I have often listened to Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, Vinayakrao Patwardhan, Narayanrao Vyas, Kumar Gandharva, Gangubai Hangal, and in Benares, Rasoolanbai, Siddheswari Devi, Hirabai Barodekar, so many artists I don't even remember all the names now!

Due to the blessings of God I had the opportunity to accompany with the great maestros of tabla, tabla wizards, stalwarts of tabla like Ustad Ahmedjan Thirakwa, Pandit Kante Maharaj, Ustad Majid Khan. Naturally, the general public will not believe this because these artists are like my grandfather! How is it possible they accompanied me? I'm telling you frankly-when I was 12 or 13 years old I went to Benares with my uncle, and at that time I was accompanied by Ashutosh Bhattacharya, the great tabla player, and he was the student of Pandit Kante Maharaj. After listening to my recital he was very happy and told his guru, Pandit Kante Maharaj, that a boy, the son of Gokul Nag is here and played very nicely. Then Kante Maharaj told him, "Please, come with him here." And I went with Ashutosh Bhattacharya and my uncle, and Kante Maharaj said, "Ba, betam, bejao." It was just a homey atmosphere, and he took his tabla and I played near about half an hour, and he blessed me very much, "Acchaa! Very nice! Ba, beta!" When I was in Bombay I got the opportunity to play with Ahmedjan Thirakwa in the residence of Nikhil Ghosh; just half an hour I played with his accompaniment there.

What about Majid Khan? Majid Khan was the father of Ustad Keramatullah Khan, and Jnan Prakash [Ghosh] is his [Majid Khan's] disciple. What happened? When Sabir was born, after 6 months, his father Keramatullah said, "Manilal, come to my house with your sitar and you will play here for this auspicious occasion." I went with my sitar to Keramatullah's house, and Ustadji, Majid Khan told me, "Please come" and he took his tabla and started to play with me. I got these opportunities due to the blessings of God I think; very few musicians had these opportunities. And I'm so lucky: when I sat for the audition for All-India Radio, Keramatullah Khan accompanied me. This is a really very historical matter! Ustad Keramatullah Khan didn't accompany just any new musicians for auditions! This is due to the blessings of Baba, my father, and God! After that, my father always told me, "When you will play in any music concert, don't play with ordinary tabla accompanists. At all times try to play with the top-most artists."

From my boyhood I got the opportunity to play with Pandit Shanta Prasad at the All-India Music Conference in 1953 at the Roxy Cinema Hall, Calcutta. He accompanied me nicely and he was very surprised, and D.V. Paluskar listened and praised me very much. After one month in Calcutta there was a very big conference-nine nights-called Rag-o-Roop. The vocalist A.T. Kanan was very young and he was volunteering to perform for very cheap. The first day I accompanied with a new tabla player of similar age, Maharaj Banerjee, the son of Mantu Banerjee who was a very great harmonium player in Calcutta. When I played, so many musicians-Ustad Allauddin Khan, Pandit Kante Maharaj, Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan (photo), Omkarnath, Vinayakrao Patwardhan-were seated in front, and after that program every musician was very glad. Suddenly Vinayakrao Patwardhan came to the dais and took the microphone and personally announced, "Tomorrow Manilal will play again with Pandit Anokelal." Then there was a lot of applause! But I'm very sorry there was no opportunity to take a picture or tape record. Nothing! But I remember! I was very lucky-next I played with Pandit Anokelal, the great maestro of Benares tabla. In 1954 I auditioned for All-India Radio and was selected as 'A Grade' artist. next page....