It’s a funny thing. I’ve been hungering for some sitar music recently, in the same way I hunger for a good Goan beef curry. The sensation is a physical one and it builds slowly over a few days until finally the cast iron comes out along with the spices and it’s off to the races. An hour or so later the kitchen is an accident scene, the kids who I’m to be minding can’t believe they’ve been allowed to play with the iPhone for so long and there are a couple empty bottles of beer on the counter. But the curry is made and at last that gnawing excitement in the gut can be satisfied.
The need I have been feeling for sitar music is not quite so dramatic but it is just as demanding. It creeps in and persists in hanging around until it gets what it wants.
A double slather of sublime sitar plucking is the focus of tonight’s post. One from Pakistan and the other from India.
First up, from the good folks at Radio Pakistan, the second volume of ragas from Ustad Mohammad Sharif Poonchwaley. The maestro from Kashmir starts with a live version of the evening raga Shyam Kalyan, which he and his tabliya play with fierce intention. The midnight raga Kirwani follows next. Raga Kirwani is a south Indian raga, one of the 72 melas in the Carnatic modal scale system from which many other ragas originate. Equally popular in the northern classical tradition, its treatment there has always been of a romantic and passionate nature. A late night raga, Kirwani’s creative challenge has inspired numerous interpretations, and Poonchwaley’s is one of the best. The final raga, Bahar, is amongst the popular seasonal ragas of Hindustani music. The word "Bahar" is of Perso-Arabic origin, and connotes flowering. The raga itself could also be of middle-eastern inspiration. Appropriately, the raga is associated with spring. One view of the time-association is that the raga can be performed at any time of day or night during the spring season. Another view suggests that it is ideally performed after mid-night. A third view is that it can be performed at any time during the spring season, after the sun has crossed the zenith.
Contemporary practice tends to reserve this raga for performance well after sunset during the months of February and March. This seems reasonable because Bahar is a member of the Kanada family and ragas of this family are generally performed closer to midnight than to sunset. (http://swaratala.blogspot.com/2011/06/raga-bahar.html)
01. Shyam Kalyan
Across the border in India, the late Pandit Nikhil Bannerjee, while not as well known as Ravi Shankar, is to Western audiences, is considered by many to be of the finest sitar player of his generation. Born in Calcutta in 1931 into a strict Brahmin household pursuit of the sitar was something Bannerjee’s parents discouraged. It was considered morally tainted; something suitable for dancing girls. Of course, his father played the instrument and young Nikhil, like all kids, did as daddy did and not as daddy said. So talented was he that in 1940 (age 9) he became the youngest artist to be broadcast on All India Radio.
Nikhil wanted to study with the greatest classical musical teacher of his era, Ustad Allaudin Khan (father of Ali Akbar Khan) but the great man scoffed at the young virtuoso’s radio performances. But on repeated listening he was able to find something that attracted him to the young man’s playing and he relented. Allaudin Khan was also the teacher of Ravi Shankar. The two masters are an interesting study in contrasting styles coming from the same guru. Bannerjee’s sister studied singing with Ustad Amir Khan (as you do) and the vocalist’s singing style proved to have a deep influence on Nikhil’s sitar playing. Indeed, Bannerjee learned as much about how to play his instrument from many of the great singers of his time, including Agra gharana grandee Faiyaz Khan and the one and only Omkarnath Thakur. His playing is often compared to the singing styles of these eminent mentors and heroes.
Sadly, Panditji, died prematurely at the age of 54, leaving the world of Indian classical music deeply bereaved. He was awarded the high honour of the Padma Bhushan posthumously in 1986.
This recording is a recently released title from the Indian National Centre for the Performing Arts archives. Recorded in December 1975, Bannerjee is accompanied by one of his favourite tabla players, Pandit Anindo Chatterjee. The greatest part of this fantastic recording is the rarely heard raga Maluha Kalyan, a raga favoured by the Agra gharana of singers, who were among Bannerjee’s favourite.
01 Raga Maluha Kalyan - Alap
02 Raga Maluha Kalyan - Jod
03 Raga Maluha Kalyan - Teental
04 Raga Nat Bhairav