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?

Yes, earlier.

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?

Nikhil Banerjee

(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.

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