Niladri Kumar’s first-ever Dhaka concert, featuring Vijay Ghate, was aptly titled "A Voyage of Strings." It was nothing short of an early Pirates of the Caribbean movie, when the series used to be a great concoction of nautical fantasy, swashbuckling heroism and seafarer’s quips in salt water.
It began with raag Shree
. Technically, at half past seven in the evening, it was not that late for Shree
. But for a Friday evening jaywalker, it was a bit of a bolt from the blue (Niladri
, in Sanskrit, means blue mountain). Shree
— it is painful to see each time I type the name of this rarely performed twilight raag
, my word processor autocorrects it into ‘three’ — is the ultimate breakup song of Hindustani classical music; it is extremely sad and, at the same time, violently angry.
The half an hour of Alaap
(elaboration without percussion) was nonetheless captivating. Shree
has a vast minefield in its Aroha
(the ascending set of notes on a scale), the widest possible forbidden territory in a raag
, falling between Komal Rishava
and Tivra Madhyam
. Its distinctive meend
(glissando) from Komal Rishava
is an even longer flight. Kumar landed perfectly. The repeated alternation between re-pa
exposed the furious restlessness of Shree’s nature. And then there was ma-pa-dha-pa-ma
(Madhyam sharp, Dhaivat flat), a five-note chromatic series, creating a haunting air. Speaking of haunting, I remember one of the spookiest Tagore songs, “Kaar Milan Chao Birahee,” is based on that raag
To comment on Kumar’s Raagdari
— how he evoked the soul of a raag
— would be beyond my capacity. But what intensified the aura of mystery was the timbre of the instrument modified by Kumar himself. It’s hard to express what happened, but think of a scenario where you hear a sound and then hear the echo (an overtone, one octave higher), but the echo creates its own life out of the dying sound and extends itself. It was nothing miraculous, and I am sure some theory of harmonics can explain it, but let’s keep it this way: it was the scuttle of an unshackled echo.
This is why, while listening to Kumar, some might have wondered “Ye kiska baaj baajate hain” — “who’s sound does he play?” — a time-worn query, fitting for a feudalist under a classicist’s robe. This baaj
is not the tone, nor the tune, but rather the acoustic of the instrument rendered through some signature techniques. And then questions like “what percentage of him is tantrakari (instrumentalist) and what percentage is gayaki (vocal-like)” could also have arisen. Such questions aiming to categorise an artist, however, can purely come from an innocent pursuit to understand him/her.
Niladri Kumar’s forefathers, sitarists for two centuries, were from Dhaka. The Mughal city was one of three centres of sitar in Bengal, along with Vishnapur, and British-founded Kolkata. The first Dhakai sitarist, who’s name music historians know, was Haricharan Das (~1813). He learnt sitar from somewhere and attracted the Nawabs of Dhaka. Haricharan’s son Chaitanya Das and grandson Bhagwan Das (1852) were famed sitar players.
The first among Kumar’s forefathers to take up the strings was his great grand father Indra Mohan Das was, and it is quite possible he was somehow connected to the aforementioned Das sitarists. Indra Mohan Das’s son Mihirlal Das and grandson Mangal Chandra Das were settled in Dhaka. Mangal Chandra Das’s son Pandit Kartik Kumar, Niladri Kumar’s father, is considered as one of the greatest disciples of Pandit Ravi Shankar. So, along with Maihar gharana schooling, Kumar certainly received a few cheezes
(hereditary compositions) from his forefathers. One such cheez
, a gat
, something so beautiful I haven’t heard in days, followed the previous Shree
"It was", Kumar informed, “a vintage tantrakari gat
” (a composition meant to be played on a stringed instrument; tantra
means string) he obtained from his grand father.
“I was only 15 when my grandpa died, so I couldn’t acquire much from him. He would hand down notations to my mother and told her to teach me between breaks of my playtime. This Jhinjhoti
is one of such. At that time, Jhinjhoti
was also called Jhinjhit
While playing the obligatory dha-sa-re-ma-ga
— he played that perfectly — Niladri gave the typical phrase a Khamaj
, and it worked really well.
The next performance of the night was “Evergreen”, from “Chillout Forever”, his 2014 album. Few minutes into the intro, he finally shifted to his red-hot Zitar, the electronic instrument he carved for himself. The tune, like few others from the same album, was ghazalesque. A Ghazal
aficionado later told me she found some affinity between that piece and “Kisi nazar ko tera intezar aaj phi hain,” the famous Bhupinder-Asha duet from “Aitbar(1985)”. But Kumar was not really keen to hold the ghazal
fervour (think of Suresh Oberoi singing and Dimple Kapadia, as Raj Babbar’s wife, in love with him, my my!), and went on playing multiple strings at a time, and/or putting his pedal on some harmoniser effect, and then among other things, shifting from the brazenness of rock to the solemnness of a church-organ. I was really excited to see more light classical tracks coming, but they did not come, and the show ended rather abruptly.
After two and half hours of fiery gamaks
(sliding between notes), laykari
(variations in rhythm and tempo), and frequent trips to the domain of gayaki
and a range of electronica, Kumar only confirms what Bob Dylan, the one-time Nobel winner said: the order of tantrakari
(stroke pattern based plyaing) vs gayaki-ang
(vocal-style playing) is rapidly fading.
Kumar is one of the flag-bearers of the Maihar school of innovation. How can we forget the great Vasant Rai (who died at the age of 43 in 1985) who invented a sarod
-style fretless guitar and performed in New York, or Purbayan Chatterjee (now 40, just as young as Kumar) who has his own electric sitar he calls Seetar (his one is transparent) both with roots in Maihar.
Kumar is a great pitch-bender too. I can understand, gayaki
is more than pitch bending. It is a recreation of khayal, vistar
(expanding phrases, each time with variation), an architecture of human uttering: words. But I would also say, gayaki
is a loaded epithet because it’s impossible for human voice — and that’s the irony — to recreate those 8 beats, 12 beats stretched quivering or many other intricacies rendered through the incredible motor skill of the great Khan Saabs of Gayaki
. No vocalist would dare attempt that!
Aninda Rahman is a communication design consultant