Abhijit Banerjee

ABHIJIT BANERJEE in conversation with Suresh Ramaswamy

The music of rhythm

Abhijit Banerjee, an accomplished tabla player and academician, has been a disciple of Jnan Prakash Ghosh, and learnt vocal music from Ajoy Chakraborty and the violin from Annapoorna Devi. His concert experience includes accompanying such maestros as Ravi Shankar, Nikhil Banerjee, Parveen Sultana, Pandit Jasraj, and Shiv Kumar Sharma. He has collaborated in several fusion efforts and has his own touring ensemble named Tarang besides being a member of the raga-jazz group, Arohi Ensemble. He teaches tabla and percussion in general at the Dhwani Academy of Percussion Music which he founded. A graduate in English literature and post graduate in Journalism, Banerjee spoke to Suresh Ramaswamy on a recent visit to Chennai.

SR: Your early years and taleem?

AB: I was attracted to music from a very young age. My neighbour, Tushar Kanti Bose, noticed my ability to replicate musical phrases and offered to teach me. He was my first guru. I learnt the basics from him. He in turn, led me to Manik Pal, a student of Jnan Prakash Ghosh. After ten years of training with Manikbabu, Jnanbabu accepted me as his disciple.

About your guru Jnan Prakash Ghosh?

Jnanbabu was a great teacher and an academician Even though he was proficient in vocal music, he was not a performing vocalist. His main love was tabla. He used to host great ustad-s at his residence, learn from them and film or tape their performances. He was the first programme director of AIR-Kolkata. Credited with creating a culture of tabla playing in Bengal, he was a great influence on Bengal’s music. During his stint as director at AIR-Kolkata, he struck a balance by producing and broadcasting music in classical, popular and light classical music forms.

The role of a tabla player as an accompanist?

When tabla artists like Anindo Chatterjee or Kumar Bose are accompanying, you realise they have retained their stylistic signature but have also modified their style to suit the main artist they are accompanying. This is very difficult as you have to satisfy the needs of the main artist and at the same time win the appreciation of the audience. On top of this, you need to keep your gharana style intact. You not only need to know about the music but also the limitations and the capability of the instrument such as the sitar, sarod or the sarangi. For example, noting the position of the hand of the sitar player at a point of time during a melodic exposition of the raga can help anticipate and judge the length of the taan or the tihai. Developing this sense of  anticipation is crucial to be a good accompanist.

“You need to know about the music and understand the instrument you are accompanying"

Your stylistic approach to accompanying the main artist?

As an accompanist you try to replicate the main musician’s idea and provide some variety to the lay listeners. Another practical perspective is that while providing some relief to the main musician, you give some percussion based relief to the audience, which has been listening to the melodic exposition of an idea for a long time. What you do has to be musical and not different from the current Theme or the melodic idea the main artist is exploring. If you are a good accompanist, you will not only complement the main artist but also boost it by offering some new thought or approach on which the main artist can expand further.

Your approach to solo playing?

In Hindi we say: “Gharana hi aapka pehchaan hai” (The gharana is indeedyour identity). When Amjad Ali Khanplays the sarod, he maintains the stylehe has learnt from his guru but alsodoes his own innovation. When wetabla players accompany artists, we donot get to play chakradhar, kaida, paran,gat and other elaborate compositions.We do get to play tukada and rela tosome extent. In a tabla solo, you canhighlight your taleem, tayyari and yourown innovation.

It is difficult to make a tabla solo interesting for both the connoisseur and the lay public. The audience can get bored easily with one tone or sur. It is attractive, but after a point of time, can get monotonous. You must then choose bol-s and a tempo that the ordinary listener can relate to. Even as you do this to satisfy the lay listeners, the connoisseurs can judge the extent of the taleem you have been able to assimilate.

The solo can also be musical as it is not only about plain speed and sound. Just as a sarod player gives opportunities to the tabla player to improvise, the tabla player should provide instances for the accompanying sarangi player, who provides the lehra, to elaborate on the raga. This will provide melodic relief to the audience and make it more musical. Suresh Talwalkar uses vocal accompaniment, somebody else uses a sarangi or a harmonium. A tabla solo does not mean rattling of compositions one after the other. It is not your last concert or your only concert! It is very important to give the accompanist a chance so that it makes the whole thing musical. Even while playing laggi at the end of the solo, give the accompanist a chance to improvise on the melody.

The eminent tabla player Shankar Ghosh is of the view that we need not physically practise for 10 to 15 hours. We can practise with the tabla for about three hours but need to spend the rest of the time thinking, counting beats, reciting the bol-s, he says. What is your approach to riyaz?

Riyaz is mainly for speed and perfection. During practice it is important to focus on perfection of bol-s. Some may have the capability to play at a fast pace while others may not. Riyaz can help you attain a certain speed but not beyond that. We should not try too hard and push on this front. “Mazaa”, not speed, is the ultimate thing.

There are two important aspects of practise. Firstly, through the right guru, if you are lucky, you will get good guidance and can develop a reasonably high speed of playing the bol-s. Some bol-s should be played fast to sound good. This is the process of keeping the hand ‘ready’. Two to three hours of riyaz is necessary but not ten to fifteen hours. If you do that there is a chance you may injure your nerves. The human body has its limitations. Riyaz is done to increase your stamina and capacity to play for long hours. Ideally practise up to four or five hours, give a break and then practise again. In the olden days, people used to do chalisa/ chilla (the process of taking a vow to practice a certain phrase or a set of phrases for a specified number of days, usually 40 days).

Secondly, you can practise not only with your hands, but also by thinking. This is similar to a musician playing alap, developing a raga instead of just playing taan-s. For instance, if you do your riyaz in the morning, you can practise peshkar in the evening by developing around a theme. You can also think about incorporation and division of phrases and other tala-s to your repertoire.

If you play the tabla long enough, thinking unconsciously about the table will happen automatically. You will not be able to stop it, you will think of it even while walking.

Madhusudan Datta was an eminent poet in Kolkata who wrote wonderful English poetry. When people asked him how he could write such good poetry, he said that you need to think, eat, sleep and drink English as it is not your mother tongue. Tabla is an external language that you are trying to master. So when you play the tabla and keep thinking about it, you will suddenly get an idea, say a chhand when you are walking, driving or travelling in a train. You will not be able to stop it and at that point of time, you will understand that you are into it.

Music is a bad subject! Once you are engrossed in it, it is very difficult to come out of it. It can consume your whole life. Even if you are educated and have other things to do, at some point, you will feel that you should do only music. So riyaz is of two types – hand and mind. The “hand-riyaz” is to ensure that you can translate your thoughts through your fingers. But the “mind-riyaz” is an unconscious process that keeps going in your system for 24 hours. It probably cannot be called riyaz as such.

Your foray into fusion music and your music band called Tarang?

When you play an instrument, you are aware of its limitations. To overcome it, you borrow from the idioms of other instruments, their jhalak, and try to incorporate that in your playing.

I am a trained singer and can play the violin as well. I also accompany a lot of instrumentalists who play the sitar, sarod and listen to a lot of music of Ravi Shankar, Amjad Ali Khan and Vilayat Khan. As a result, sometimes a certain bandish or a gat keeps playing in my mind. Because of my training in singing, i ventured into music composition. Since childhood I have been travelling extensively to different countries. I have come across many great musicians, worked with them and have also learnt from them. The people I have worked with are very receptive and try to understand what we are doing in Indian classical music. This set the stage for my fusion music experiments. It was not a deliberate attempt, but happened automatically as with all things in my life. I never thought I would be a tabla player.

I composed a song when I was working with a group in Germany. A record company manager was impressed and asked me if I could compose a set of songs. He offered to finance the project as well. I then worked on it and the compositions were recorded as an album. This was the starting point of my fusion experiments. Tarang has a group of musicians. We work in a studio for 15 days or more at a stretch for an album or a project. As a result, we tend to think as a group and exchange a lot of ideas. Although I am the leader of the group, all the members participate in music making. This band has become a creative outlet for whatever I learnt, not just tabla but vocal music and other instruments.

I have experimented with a wide variety of music. In our country, fusion normally means East and West. But there are various combinations – East and Far East, North and South East, North and South, folk and traditional. It struck me that there are so many folk instruments in India which are not well known. If you bring them to the forefront, even for a brief period to showcase their beauty and uniqueness, it will sound good. India has so much variety in music, there can be a beautiful fusion of Indian raga-s and Indian folk tunes. Since I am from a classical background, whatever I do, I cannot stray away from the framework of raga and tala. There is a person in our group who has learnt Western music and he does the Western music arrangements. Sometimes we do pure Eastern music as well.

When I travelled to Bali and Indonesia, I realised that Indian music has had a tremendous influence on music forms in those countries. It is a mixture of Chinese and Indian music, and I started experimenting with that. If you go to a Balkan area like Bulgaria or Sofia, that is the place where Indian music has a lot to do. Their music is little different. They use a lot of Deepchandi type chhand with seven beats (dha dhin dha dha dhin/ Ta tin dha dha dhin). I feel the regions of Punjab, Baluchistan and adjoining regions are connected through the same type of music, but have undergone changes based on the influences of that particular region. As I travel, I observe and think about all these things which trigger experimentation. Even though I experiment a lot, it is rooted in the framework of Indian classical music. I cannot go far away from it. I don’t try to, but even if it happens, our music pulls me back. I feel I should not go out of it.

As Pandit Ravi Shankar says, “Even though a Westerner plays the sarod, it will not be the same as a person from India, living in India, playing it. It is the same for a person who lives in the West and plays jazz or Western music”. Music acquires the fragrance when you belong to a particular area and you have lived there for generations. I love experimentation, Tarang is one of them.

Abhijit Banerjee had throughout his interview respectfully suffixed the honorific ‘saheb’ or ‘ji’ while referring to other musicians.

(Suresh Ramaswamy is a Chennai-based tabla artist)