Having played the sitar on numerous Lata Mangeshkar hits for close to four decades, Kartick Kumar believes that the singer deserved to be hailed as nothing less than a goddess.
“She is devi to me,” the 86-year-old sitar player told Scroll.in. “And put the devi before her name rather than after, which many singers do. She is someone everyone in every street, city, village knows.”
Kumar’s association with Mangeshkar, who died on February 6 at the age of 92, began when she was at her professional peak in the 1960s. Kumar played the sitar on Piya Tose Naina Lage Re, a nearly nine-minute-long tune from Guide (1965).
“We musicians in the studio would exchange greetings when she would come to record,” Kumar recalled. “Beyond that, I didn’t have much interaction, but seeing her sing was nothing short of inspiring.”
Kumar went on to play the sitar for the who’s who of Hindi film music composers, among them SD Burman, RD Burman, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Kalyanji-Anandji, Naushad, Madan Mohan, Vasant Desai, Ravi, C Ramachandra and Khayyam.
“Mumbai is a tough city and it made sense for a classical musician to play for films to survive,” Kumar observed.
A fourth-generation sitar player who toured with Ravi Shankar and George Harrison in the 1970s, Kumar was born in Dhaka in undivided Bengal to sitar player Mangal Chandra Das in 1936. His great-grandfather Indra Mohan Das introduced the sitar to the family.
Kumar’s brother was the hansa veena player Barun Kumar Pal, who died in January. The sitarist’s son, Niladri Kumar, created the zitar, a blend of the electric guitar and sitar, and has been a part of several Hindi film soundtracks, including Laila Majnu (2018).
The family moved to Kolkata in 1950. Trained by his father, Kartick Kumar began performing extensively in the city. He later received sitar lessons from Manoranjan Mukhopadhyay, who had been trained by Enayat Khan of the Etawah gharana. Kumar received a gold medal on winning a national competition held by the All India Radio in 1957. In 2015, Kumar was honoured with Sangeet Natak Akademi Award.
In 1958, Kumar met Ravi Shankar, who took him under his wing for two years. When Shankar moved to Mumbai, Kumar accompanied him. In Mumbai, Shankar continued to give Kumar sitar lessons in the Maihar gharana. For Kumar, his mentor is a global gemstone, a “vishwa ratna”.
“Very few know how helpful and generous he had been to so many musicians,” Kumar said. After Shankar founded Kinnara School of Music in Mumbai, Kumar began assisting him as a teacher. He accompanied Shankar on film projects and concert recordings.
Kumar was a part of Ravi Shankar-George Harrison’s 1974 North American tour, which culminated with two shows in Madison Square Garden. The tour included rock n’ roll and blues greats such as Billy Preston, Tom Scott and Robben Ford, along with then-rising stars from Indian classical music, such as Alla Rakha, Hariprasad Chaurasia and Shivkumar Sharma.
“We stayed at seven-star hotels and drove in Cadillacs,” Kumar said. “It was here when I saw a violin concerto and thought of doing something similar with multiple sitars”.
While Indian ragas can be challenging to arrange as Western harmonies, Kumar orchestrated a 31-sitar orchestra. The album Ritu Samhaar, in which the orchestra plays six ragas, was released in 1978. In 1986, he released the album Om Ecstasy and Symphony, which had him returning with an 11-sitar orchestra.
Kumar doesn’t differentiate between film music and Indian classical music, despite the belief that the former is a corrupting influence on the latter’s tradition, as suggested by recent productions such as Bandish Bandits and The Disciple.
“All music comes from the seven notes,” Kumar observed. “The great film composers I worked were all skilled in Indian classical music, which showed in their work. The greatest classical musicians worked in movies, from my guruji Ravi Shankar to Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, Ustad Rais Khan and Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan. Living in Mumbai as a musician and not performing for films is tough.”
For session musicians like himself, Kumar said, a hit song and a blockbuster film meant success.
“Recognition wasn’t important here,” he said. “Who cares if I played the sitar or Samta Prasad played the tabla Gopi Krishna choreographed Hema Malini’s dance in Mehbooba? Does anyone ever know the names of the 100-plus musicians involved in an orchestra? Our value and happiness lay in being able to help execute a larger vision and create magic through that.”