Abhijit Banerjee’s skill on the tabla makes him one of the most in-demand soloists and accompanists in Indian classical music. In his career spanning 20 years, Abhijit has accompanied many stalwarts of both Hindustani and Carnatic music, apart from innumerable solo performances in India and abroad, including recitals at the Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Centre in the United States, to name a few. In addition, the artiste has many crossover albums to his credit, in which he collaborated with the likes of Ry Cooder, Larry Corrywell and Trilok Gutru, among others. Prompted by his father, Viswanath Banerjee, Abhijit began learning the tabla at the age of four under Tushar Kranti Bose and Manik Pal, and was later accepted as a disciple by the late tabla maestro Pandit Jnan Prakash Ghosh. In between he took a break from performing and armed with a degree in literature began working as a journalist with The Telegraph in Kolkata before getting back into the concert circuit. The artiste, who won a national award for documentary music for ‘The Trail’, was in Thiruvananthapuram recently, for a programme organised by Samudra Arts International. Excerpts from an interview…

On coming back to tabla

Coming from a middle class family, taking up a career in music was not an option at that time…or perhaps you could say that I didn't know any better then. So I resolved to be a good student and I was a good one at that. I even won the gold medal from Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan for journalism. Nevertheless, all throughout college and while working as a journalist, I played the tabla often. In fact, I started accompanying sitar maestro Pandit Nikhil Banerjee whilst in college and went on many international tours with him. When he died, I too lost interest for Kaka was a big support to me. Then in 2001 out of the blue I got a call from Begum Parveen Sultana who requested me to accompany her for a concert in Kolkata. That was my first major concert. Soon I began getting more and more concerts and I came to realise that this is exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

As a solo performer

Thanks to the likes of Ustad Zakir Hussain, the tabla has now become a symbol of Indian music and culture and there are now a lot of opportunities to give solo concerts. As a solo performer you have to really think about the audience because there is no other tune or variation save for your instrument plus tala and laya, of course. And with just that you have to capture their interest. A soloist has to make the concert enjoyable to the audience, the majority of whom may not necessarily be knowledgeable about the instrument. At the same time there will be those connoisseurs who want something more. It's all about balancing the two.

As an accompanying artiste

I have accompanied legends such as M. Balamuralikrishna, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, Begum Parveen Sultana and Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, to name a few. The one thing I watch out for whenever I accompany someone is that he/she [the main artiste] should be comfortable. I have to be in sync with him/her when and wherever needed. Yet it is also an opportunity to display my skills so I have to figure out a way to do just that without upsetting the dynamics.

Hindustani vs. Carnatic concerts

I am at home with both Hindustani and Carnatic music. My base is in Hindustani, but as a tabla artiste I am every much influenced by the Carnatic system of laya and tala. In Hindustani the bols are more important while for Carnatic it is the mathematics that is the key. I try to blend the musicality of the bols of Hindustani with the mathematics of Carnatic music to make it more interesting. To present this blend in a simple way is the real challenge.

Collaborations

I enjoy collaborating with other musicians. That's why I founded Tarang – a touring ensemble with Somnath Roy (ghatam, thumba, Nepali madol), Rajshekar (morsing), Snehashish Majumdar (mandolin, banjo) and Gautam Shome (keyboard). A lot of our work is inspired by folk music. We released a CD of the same title. I am also a member of a jazz group called Arohi Ensemble. I also enjoy experimenting with music styles of the East and Far East. I am looking forward to a concert in August at the University of Hawaii along with Latin American percussion stars and Kenny Endo on the Japanese Taiko drum.

Nurturing new talent

I started Dhwani Academy of Percussion in Kolkata to explore and promote the richness of Indian percussion. Now Dhwani has branches in Chennai, Los Angeles and New York. We give classes on tabla, Pakhwaj and South Indian percussion and also hold music appreciation courses and workshops by eminent musicians. It is very important – and also very hard– to keep children attracted to our culture and music. So we give them a lot of opportunities to present stage shows and encourage them to experiment. The students of Dhwani, Kolkata even have their own ensemble.