India Currents, February 1990

Master of the Meend

Live performance tapes of Nikhil Banerjee on KPFA
By Sujata Desai

THE KPFA TAPES - BERKELEY 1967 & 1968 (two tapes). Nikhil Banerjee. Cassette 101 (also on CD201); cassette 102. Raga Records. Available by mail order from Raga Records, P.O. Box 635, Village Station, New York, NY 10014

Talking about Nikhil Banerjee (1931-1986), Robert Palmer of the New York Times wrote, "The extraordinary fluidity and assurance of his rhythmic ideas and phrasing set a pace and a standard that would have left most of the international stars of Indian music far behind."

Nikhil Banerjee was one of the three outstanding sitar players who dominated North Indian music for almost 30 years. Ravi Shankar became famous as the first to expose the West to Indian classical music. The other sitarist of this trio, Vilayat Khan, represented a long and distinguished gharana of instrumentalists.

While Ravi Shankar was the modernizer and Vilayat Khan the traditionalist, Banerjee chose a path somewhere in the middle. While always a purist in music, he performed internationally from the beginning of his career to the end.

Banerjee's relationship to Ravi Shankar was that of guru-bhai ('brother' by way of a common teacher) as they had both studied with the late Allauddin of Maihar. He also learned vocals and tabla with Jnan. Prakash Ghosh.

Banerjee spent five years in strict training with Allauddin Khan. "What is interesting is that Baba played many instruments, but sitar was not one of them. Mostly his way of teaching was singing; he used to sing and we used to follow," Banerjee recalled in his interview with Ira Landgarten.

Banerjee was a master of the meend, the bending of the string over one fret to produce an entire musical phrase with one stroke of the plectrum. In the slow movements of a sitar recital meend is prominent, particularly in the alap and vistar section of the slow gat.

"When any musician is recording, he becomes self-conscious and he cannot give his best," Banerjee used to say. "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. I think that recording live concerts is a much better way."

These two tapes from Raga Records capture the ambience of a live performance (on the air) with the sound quality difficult to achieve in a concert hall. These historical archival recordings date back to 1967-68, when Banerjee came to the West Coast, sponsored by the American Society for Eastern Arts. These .concerts were broadcast live by KPFA Radio, Berkeley.

The first tape from 1967 features two ragas. It opens with an alap in Raga Chandrakauns, a midnight melody. The gat that follows is also a night raga, Khamaj, in a rhythmic cycle of roopak tal (seven beats) and teental (16 beats).

Raga Monomanjari on the second tape is Banerjee's own creation. He combines two popular but contrasting ragas, the joyful late night Kalavati, and the somber early evening Marwa, with great delicacy and grace.

Tabla accompaniment by Pandit Mahapurush Misra (1932-1987) is of the highest quality. Pandit Anokhelal, Misra's guru, was renowned for the clarity and sweetness of his tabla solos and accompaniment.

These tapes are not like other commercial recordings you may have seen. These are audiophile reproductions produced by lovers of Indian music for the discriminating listener.

If you are interested ask Raga Records for their 1985 interview with the artist conducted by Ira Landgarten. It provides a fascinating look into the personality and music of Nikhil Banerjee in his own words.

© 1990 India Currents

Cassettes: 101 \\||// 102 \\||// CDs: 201 \\||// 202