c43ab926703917a25b85b557bd5ad892-3If asked to name the top sitar players of the mid-20th century, most Indian music connoisseurs would name Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, and Nikhil Banerjee. Although the first two had numerous disciples and students, there are very few sitar players today who play in Banerjee’s style. Like Shankar, Banerjee was a student of Allaudin Khan, but Baba Allaudin deliberately taught Banerjee to play in a very different style from Shankar’s. Banerjee once said that Baba Allaudin taught him to play in the sitar style of Nawab Kutubudaulla Bahadur of Lucknow, a player not otherwise remembered today. Perhaps this was because Baba Allaudin knew that Shankar’s and Banerjee’s personalities were very different, and thus each needed different techniques to express themselves.

Banerjee was a great virtuoso, but he lacked Shankar’s exuberant showmanship and joi de vivre, and he used his technique to express a more introverted and thoughtful nature. Shankar, particularly in his youth, relied heavily on different kinds of sitar bols (picking techniques). Banerjee’s style relied more on meend, (bent strings) and certain ways of constructing taans (improvised phrases) that were derived from vocal music. Banerjee, in fact, was an important counterexample to the stereotypical assumption that the students of Allaudin Khan played in tantrakari style (instrumentally based) and students of Vilayat Khan played in gayaki style (vocally based). Banerjee studied extensively with the great vocalist Amir Khan, who inspired him to develop a style that was vocally influenced, but nevertheless very different from the gayaki style associated with Vilayat Khan.

Unfortunately, Nikhil Banerjee died in his mid-50s, at just the time when he might have been able to devote himself more extensively to teaching.

There were many who had lessons from him, particularly during a brief period when he was teaching at the Ali Akbar College in Marin. But only one person had the kind of extensive contact that could create something like the traditional guru-shishya relationship. Partha Chatterjee worked as Banerjee’s assistant for 12 years, and became deeply spiritually connected to him. Chatterjee handled Banerjee’s correspondence and travel plans, played tanpura during his concerts, and was able to sit silently as the master practiced and explored new musical frontiers. This kind of daily contact created a bond that gave Chatterjee a unique awareness of Banerjee’s musical essence.

c43ab926703917a25b85b557bd5ad892-2Today Chatterjee is both a sitarist and teacher who carries on the spirit of Banerjee’s music, in his classes, his own performances, and the performances of his students. Like his guru, Chatterjee had strong influences from both instrumental and vocal traditions. From his mother, Rama Chatterjee, who was a regular performer on the radio and television since the 1950s, he learned vocal music. This gave him the right foundation in the study of bandish raga—development and structural knowledge. His father, Late Sri Prabir Kumar Chatterjee, an amateur sitar player, gave him his initial lessons in sitar and subsequently took him to Nikhil Banerjee. Today Chatterjee is one of the very few sitar players to perform vocal ragas like Kedar, whose long subtle ornaments are traditionally thought of as being idiomatic to vocalists.

Chatterjee’s greatest triumph as a teacher is his son and student Purbayan, a child prodigy who today combines a mastery of the Banerjee technique with his own youthful exuberance.

But Partha Chatterjee’s own sitar playing is in many ways closer to the thoughtful and introverted mood of Banerjee’s original style, with the same sense of how to unfold a raga so that each step seems a necessary consequence of what came before. This sense of how to unfold a raga—how to improvise an entire performance on the spot so that each moment seems as inevitable as the movements of a symphony or sonata—is perhaps the hardest thing to learn about performing Hindustani classical music. It requires an awareness of the present that continues unbroken for an entire performance, so that each moment is informed by both its past and its future.

G.S. Sachdev, who is especially good at this, once said, “I do not unfold the raga—I let the raga unfold itself.” There are people who have learned compositions and exercises in hundreds of ragas who have not learned how to give their performances this inherent musicality. There are also people who know relatively few ragas, and have only a moderate amount of technical virtuosity, who have learned how to use what they do know so that it possesses this kind of musical integrity. Partha Chatterjee has the rare ability to not only play this way himself, but to pass this ability on to his students. This is one of many reasons I would strongly recommend the course he will be teaching at this year’s Berkeley Summer Session, assisted by his longtime sitar student Srinivas Reddy.

This class will not be exclusively for sitar players, or even exclusively for musicians. There will be extensive lectures on the history of Indian music, starting with the pre-Vedic period and continuing through the epic and medieval periods into the development of modern Karnatik and Hindustani music. The last week will be a survey of regional and folk traditions, such as Sufi music, Baul music, and bhajans. But there will also be listening sessions built around great recordings, as well as live performances and demonstrations on sitar by both Chatterjee and Reddy. Ragas will also be taught by singing, for Chatterjee is also a fine vocalist. Will the seven hours of lecture and two hours of discussion section per week give some small sample of the total immersion of the traditional guru-shishya relationship? It is probably the closest most of us will get in this day and age, and for true devotees of Indian classical music, it is an opportunity not to be missed.

Berkeley Summer Session class “Music of India.” July 2-Aug. 10. www.srinivasreddy.org/partha/summer.html

Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.
Share this: