Ira Landgarten

From March/April 1992 Volume 15, Number 4

NIKHIL BANERJEE. The hundred-minute raga; Purabi Kalyan. Nikhil Banerjee, sitar; Swapan Chaudhuri, tabla. RAGA 207 [ADD]; two discs: 47:58, 52:17. Raga Purabi Kalyan.

The fundamental premise of Raga records is the presentation of live recordings of Northern Indian classical music. Despite numerous excellent recordings available from many artists, few live recitals have been published. Considering the importance given to spontaneity and improvisation, the recording process can be a hindrance to the flowering of a work. Raga's philosophy is surprisingly simple and absolutely essential in an age of vanishing Indian musicians. Banerjee's death in 1986 helped this realization crystallize in the mind of John Wilton, the founder. He has focused on Banerjee's art and is responsible for the previously released 1967 radio recital (Raga 201) and the remainder of the concert (Raga 204) heard on this box set.
It will be a new experience to those readers unaccustomed to concerts of Indian music to absorb the breadth of a hundred-minute composition. What one could find until now is aptly termed in the accompanying text as "bleeding chunks": ragas in which the performer not only had to triumph over the sterility of the studio, but to truncate works which should be offered beyond any time limitations. Therefore the uniqueness of this raga as explored and rendered by the great Banerjee without constraint is not only rare as a document, but an important experience to those wishing to Indian classical music at its fullest.
Banerjee was a disciple of Ustad Allauddin Khan, the famed teacher of Ravi Shankar and his own son Ali Akbar Khan who lived ten years past his hundredth birthday and was able to play most instruments at virtuoso level. Allauddin Khan holds a place in music as a great innovator who combined various vocal styles and projected his own originality into a tradition otherwise adhering rigorously to whatever lay within its confines. Banerjee's playing is therefore a synthesis not only of his teacher's, but a further development of his master's playing by contributing his own insight. Allauddin Khan forbade Banerjee to play or practice the Alap, the initial raga section in which the sitar plays unaccompanied without a rhythmic pulse, until he neared the completion of his rigorous studies which lasted for some five years, during which Banerjee practiced some fourteen hours daily (as did most of Allauddin's pupils). His Alap style resembles that of his colleagues (Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan) but has certain personal elements, one of which is heard here and quite breathtaking: The entire twenty-nine-minute alap seemed rushed with impetuous and rapidly articulated sparse motifs of several notes. This creates considerable tension as the raga unfolds itself within a chaos of fragments which have an outer serene expressivity while cloaking seemingly unrelated gestures and patterns. With the smooth transition into a rhythmic pulse, the jor, the rhythm supports, clarifies, and resolves the suspended array of material which took nearly half an hour to expound. This way of establishing an arc of details into a cleverly woven massive structure with retrospective resolutions is masterly and something which cannot exist in an abridged format. The raga progresses to its conclusion with the introduction of the tabla, its final sections an increasing acceleration in tempo.
Equally fascinating and indispensable is the thirty-two page booklet reproducing a lengthy interview with the artist in which he describes his musical formation and approach. Along with Ravi Shankar's autobiography, written at a time when he was introducing his music to Western listeners, Banerjee's rare interview offers a candid passageway into his discreet art. Raga (John Wilton) is to be congratulated for having found a way to convey the full grandeur of the raga in the art of Banerjee. Those readers unfamiliar with Banerjee's playing are urged to hear each and all of his Raga recordings; while his studio recordings were never fully satisfying to him, the salvation of these live performances does him full justice. Raga plans further releases of Dhrupad singing and other North Indian masters, past and present. This writer hopes that live performances of Allauddin Khan on the sarod or violin might surface, offering a perspective of the guiding genius behind Banerjee and so many other of the finest sitarists we know. Incidentally, the quality of the recording should shame most Western classical music engineers, whose digital equipment has yet to project the naturalness and balance heard here. (Raga Records, P.O. Box 635, New York, NY 10014.) -- Allan Evans