by Mohan Nadkarni
First Published: The Illustrated Weekly of India, Issue dated: March 9-15, 1986
Comparisons are odious and invidious too and much more so in a field like music. At a time when most of our maestros merrily stoop to dissipate their music in playing to the gallery in the name of popularity, Nikhil Banerjee was one maestro who had no use for catchy, theatrical elements to compel wild, lusty applause from today's motley audience.
Nikhilbabu was a serious and exceptionally gifted artiste who could win over his listeners by persuasive music and pleasing dignified manner. He showed equal concern for form, design and content and, for all his supreme virtuosity, his music never shed its contemplative character which, incidentally, distinguished the approach of his great mentor, Acharya Allauddin Khan of Maihar. This is why his art was more dignified, more ennobling, more fulfilling than that of any other virtuoso we have today. One could even unhesitatingly rate him the best sitarist of our time.
But he was a musician ``out of tune", so to speak, with his times, for the reasons mentioned earlier. Till the end, he preferred to stay away from the limelight. Playing essentially to further his art, he conducted his career with quiet dignity.
Born in Calcutta in 1931, Nikhilbabu had his early lessons in the sitar from his father, Jitendranath. He made his debut on the public platform while only nine years of age at an all Bengal music conference. Later, he had the benefit of studentship with the celebrated mentor Allauddin Khan and his worthy son, sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan. The rest is musical history.
Come to think of it, Nikhilbabu's singular distinction lay in the way he enriched his inheritance, In doing so, he achieved an uncanny fusion of two musical streams: Maihar, pioneered by Allauddin Khan, and Etawah, founded by Imdad Khan, of which Vilayat Khan is the reigning master today. This was a bold, attempt at synthesising what are regarded as two contrary paramparas where reconciliation, let alone fusion, would have been a pipe-dream. And as we know it today, Nikhilbabu's approach proved to be the kind of venture that set our gharana-conscious diehards a thinking. Strange but true, he did it with the blessings of his mentors.
Nikhilbabu was proud of his sitar. He called it the most versatile of all other string instruments. He once demonstrated how no other fretted instrument could hold a candle to the sitar in point of instrumental expressiveness, how it could conjure up the tonal abstractions associated with other musical media like the surbahar or the sarod or the surshringar.
Nikhilbabu had permanently settled in Calcutta since 1956 as vice-principal of the Ali Akbar College of Music. Although he undertook frequent concert tours all over the country and abroad, his stage appearances in Bombay were rather few and far between. Fewer still were the occasions when one could meet him amid his hectic schedule. And for one not given to talking about himself, even a suggestion for a formal interview seemed out of the question. But he was amenable to conversation and, on such occasions, he would reveal himself as a perceptive observer of the contemporary musical scene and also as a man, of firm convictions. His sudden death at the early age of 54, on January 27, 1986, was truly tragic. Had he lived longer, his music may well have served to eventually demolish the myth that still revolves - albeit tottering -- around two sitar maestros with international eminence. Still more ironical is that despite the world acclaim he earned in his own right, he did not receive the recognition richly due to him in his own country. A Padma Shri in 1968, and a Sangeet Natak Akademi ward in 1974, were all that came to him in ''recognition" of his contribution to Hindustani music.