When I think of the music of Budhaditya Mukherjee, what stands out for me, among other fine qualities, is the passion in his musical expression. It is reminiscent of the glory days of Hindustani music in the 1950s and 1960s, the tail end of which Mukherjee was fortunate to witness as a young boy. There was a dynamism to the music of this period, as Hindustani musicians transitioned from inhabiting exclusive aristocratic salons to being public performers. A dynamism characterises Mukherjee’s music too.

My engagement with the music of the trailblazing sitarist, who has been conferred the Padma Bhushan, goes back several decades. When I was six, my parents and the sarangi master Dhruba Ghosh took me to a performance of his at the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay in 1986. Another seven years later I made my first conscious acquaintance with his music through a long-playing vinyl record, which had been released in 1977, when the artist was 22 years old. Even then I was oblivious to the precociousness of his talent. But his music spoke for itself and remained with me through the years that followed.

Video courtesy: bjmmax/YouTube.

Far from being Ekalavya, as described by writer Namita Devidayal, Mukherjee is a product of what he describes as “careful and systematic but compassionate” pedagogy of his father, the late Bimalendu Mukherjee. The senior Mukherjee was a distinguished geologist who eventually rose to serve as the general manager (ores, mines and quarries) of the Bhilai steel plant. He also had an instinctive flair for music. A talented sitar player, his vast knowledge from the tradition of Ustad Enayet Khan, one of India’s most influential sitar players, made him an important figure in the close-knit music community in the Central Provinces (now Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh) from the 1950s till the early ’80s.

To truly understand his musical lineage, and in turn his son’s, one must first understand the socio-cultural climate of rural East Bengal in the 1930s, when the zamindari gentry sat atop a complex hierarchy.

Finding his mentor

Mymensingh town was the headquarters of the district it lent its name to. To the north of the town were dense forests and the Garo Hills, and in all other directions riverine plains. Numerous zamindari estates sprouted in this beauteous landscape. The zamindars lived with all the royal trappings that they could afford (and couldn’t afford), and music was certainly one of their passions. They patronised musicians, but perhaps because of the language barrier between them and the Hindustani-speaking ustads from the North, most amateur musicians from Bengal took to instrumental music, particularly to the sitar and the sarod.

The ustads who found steady patronage amongst the zamindars of East Bengal were Kasim Ali Khan (sitar/surbahar – Bhawal estate, Comilla), Abdullah Khan (sarod – Dhaka and later Talanda/Rajshahi), Ameer Khan (sarod – Talanda/Rajshahi), Sakhawat Khan (sarod – Bhawal estate) and, most notably, Enayet Khan (sitar/surbahar – Gauripur estate, Mymensingh).

Such was Enayet Khan’s fame that there was an unspoken rivalry amongst zamindars as they vied for his time and attention. While the Mymensingh zamindars were truly passionate about music, few of them, with the exception of Birendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury, possessed either the talent or the tenacity to truly absorb and internalise what was on offer. Finding favour with the ustad of their choice was more of a vanity contest for them.

Photo courtesy: Paramparik, Kolkata.

In this milieu, a young boy of 10 or 12, named Khoka, found himself in great demand for his extraordinary musical memory and ability to transcribe the music he heard. “Khoka’s job was to sit in on Enayet Khan sahib’s lessons with various zamindars and their progeny and to break down, from memory, to these students, what Khan sahib had taught that day, once he had retired for his rest,” said Mukherjee. “Khoka’s job” brought him into close contact with Enayet Khan and the ustad became fond of him. This association continued for two years until Enayet Khan’s death.

Khoka was none other than Bimalendu Mukherjee, whose father Satish Chandra Mukherjee had arrived in Mymensingh around 1936 as the district’s Civil Surgeon. According to Mukherjee, Satish Chandra Mukherjee was a “sitar lover”, and his wife Pratibha “sang beautifully”. Both traits were passed on to the young Bimalendu Mukherjee.

After Enayet Khan died in 1938, Bimalendu Mukherjee polished his sitar-playing skills under the guidance of Jitendra Mohan Sengupta, Niroda Kanta Lahiri Chowdhury and Birendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury.

Diverse strands

When time came, the father began to mould his son. At the age of five, Mukherjee was gifted a sitar and recordings of the masters of Hindustani music. At the time, it was meant to be a joyous hobby. “I listened attentively to all those recordings hundreds, if not thousands, of times,” recollected Mukherjee. “Over time, the music of Ustad Vilayat Khan [son of Enayat Khan] came to occupy a very special place in my musical worldview.”

Did this mean that he was encouraged to, and did, copy Vilayat Khan’s music? Mukherjee denied this emphatically. His father, Mukherjee said, would encourage him to replicate any piece of music he liked, and to bring it to a level of finish, which the young man would then find enjoyable. “I did not know it at that time, but in his own compassionate way, my father was teaching me how to be my own teacher, how to learn,” said Mukherjee. “Let me be very clear about one thing. One needs a guru to learn how to extract all the information present in a piece of music one comes to love, and then absorb and internalise it. A very young person cannot do this alone.”

Video courtesy: NAAD foundation Indian Classical Music in Amsterdam/YouTube.

What he admittedly adopted from Vilayat Khan was his tonal quality (or something close to it), and his unique manner of articulating notes. “Since I always wanted to present my music within the sonic ambience of this great Ustad, it was but natural that my musical desires would be inspired by him,” said Mukherjee. “And if I reach out for a particular melodic craving in my mind and this happens to coincide with something Khansahib might have done, it is just as natural that my technique, in some aspect, would shape itself after his.” To achieve this sound, Mukherjee spent 15 years researching the construction of sitars before he finally created one that he felt matched his musical vision.

But while Mukherjee maintains the general sound and style of Vilayat Khan, the content he plays is a mix of pre-Vilayat Khan and post-Vilayat Khan influences, and not the actual gats and taan material that Khansahib performed. Involved listening certainly vindicates this observation.

“The taan patterns of Ustad Bundu Khan, the great sarangi nawaz of Delhi, and most importantly, the seemingly endless and organic flow of ideas, one growing out of the other, have had a lasting impact on my musical thinking,” said Mukherjee. An admirer of the sarangi and the musical possibilities it embodied, Mukherjee was also greatly influenced by sarangi masters like Ram Narayan and Gopal Mishra. The music of Jagdish Prasad, he said, was the primary inspiration that drove him to play the difficult tappa form on the sitar.

Video courtesy: tripmonk0/YouTube.

True legend

Of all the greats, Vilayat Khan has had the most widespread influence on sitar music in the recorded era. The “singing sitar” sound and idiom he created has the most followers amongst sitar players worldwide. But to characterise Mukherjee, a professed worshipper of Khansahib, as a mere follower would be a grave injustice to both Mukherjee and to sitar music. Careful listening to his recordings reveal a musical mind that has absorbed a variety of influences, largely vocal, into a composite musical worldview.

Mukherjee grew up in Bhilai, an industrial town in Chhattisgarh. Those years spent in an early hub of Indian nation- building – which was a melting pot of various regional cultures – meant that Mukherjee’s consumption of music as a young student was fairly broad-based and devoid of regional biases. He was as comfortable with the wonders of Kumar Gandharva’s music as he was with the joys of hearing Bade Ghulam Ali Khan or Rasoolan Bai. He was an early product of the post-Independence spirit of national integration, and as a result, his music has something to offer for everyone who enjoys Hindustani music.

Bengalis, always on the lookout for a hero to worship, take pride in his ethnic origin, people of the industrial “rust belt” identify with him as one of their own, and even the concert-goers of Maharashtra, highly parochial in their musical associations and parsimonious with praise, find something relatable in his music.

Video courtesy: First Edition Arts/YouTube.

The word legend is often bandied about loosely in the world of Hindustani music today. In the early to mid-1970s, when both Ravi Shankar and Vilayat Khan were at the peak of their success, Mukherjee rose rapidly to the top of the Hindustani music pyramid and carved a niche for himself. Given his meteoric rise at such a young age, the fact that he performed at every conceivable global public platform and that he was considered one of the legends in the field – all before he turned 50 – it begs the question: what now?

While Mukherjee does not practise on the sitar anymore (in the conventional sense, working towards the acquisition of further control on the instrument), he plays music for his own pleasure. He also listens near obsessively to his own recordings, carefully scrutinising every little movement, and looking for areas which might still be improved upon. “Where is the room for boredom when one’s creative mind is always occupied?” he said.

What I find most remarkable about Mukherjee is his integrity and the respect he has for his listeners. At 63, having achieved everything a professional Hindustani musician seeks to achieve in worldly terms, and some more, Mukherjee still takes his own enjoyment of music – and consequently that of his listeners – very seriously and continues to perform with utmost focus and sincerity. In my view, it is a rare good decision by the Indian government to award the Padma Bhushan to one of the greatest sitariyas of the post-independence generation.

Arnab Chakrabarty is an accomplished sarod player who occasionally writes about music.