Niladri Kumar is best known as a maverick sitar player and zitar innovator. His latest album Sur Yagna is yet another experiment.

Niladri Kumar likes to call himself a ‘bandit’ among the pandits. Maverick musician, zitar innovator, sitar maestro and child prodigy, Niladri’s brilliance is delineated with a unique musical repertoire, innovative skills and the dexterity of swift, agile fingers which have mesmerised orthodox and progressive music lovers alike.

Niladri started learning at the age of four under the guidance of his father, Pt. Kartick Kumar and gave his first public performance at the age of six in Pondicherry. “I do not believe in gharana. I am the son and disciple of Kartick Kumar and that's my identity. Gharana is a little passé,” says this musician who has played for many film composers such as Pritam and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy in films such as ‘Bunty Aur Babli’, ‘Gangster’, ‘Life in a Metro’, ‘Dhoom 2’ and ‘Dabang 2’. Recently, he was appointed brand ambassador for Taj Mahal Tea, the only classical musician to receive this honour after Ustad Zakir Hussain.

Excerpts from an interview:

Do you think of yourself as a classical musician or a fusion artist?

I am a musician who studied the sitar under Pandit Kartick Kumar and will continue to do so. I the fifth generation sitar player in our family. I would like to think of myself as a musician who plays both the sitar and the zitar.

You never prefix ‘pandit’ to your name. Is that to maintain your youth connect and project yourself as a new age classical musician?

The title ‘Pandit’ has been thoroughly misused and lost the respect and dignity it once commanded. I grew up seeing how people started referring to my father as panditji and promoters, connoisseurs and music critics would use the title only after you had rightfully earned their respect. In today’s time and age, that part is extinct. Hence, almost forcefully at times, I reiterate that my name should be written as only Niladri Kumar.

How is ‘Sur Yajna,’ your latest album different from others?

All my albums are different. Even my compilation album 'Plucked' is different from the original albums from where the tracks were plucked out to create the compilation. ‘Sur Yajna’ is a classical sitar/tabla album with five separate tracks based on four different ragas. I hope to achieve a certain kind of loyalty and love from my audiences where they accept all that I have to offer in terms of music and otherwise for me to be able to survive the economics of doing this traditional form of music. Hence although Sur Yajna is another drop in the ocean, I hope it still quenches my thirst and also that of the listeners.

It is widely believed that Ustad Zakir Hussain has promoted you. How do you react to such statements?

To say Ustad Zakir Hussain promoted me is actually belittling the enormity of the task. It is because of him that I saw the world and music in a way I was not exposed to earlier. He has not only promoted me but several other musicians for some decades now. He is a guru, guide, role model and God in Motion to me. But I must also tell you that since childhood, it was my father who taught and encouraged me by taking me along to play with him. Then as a young adult, it was Pandit Jasrajji who also encouraged me a lot.

The zitar is your baby. Do you see it growing? Are other people also playing it?

The zitar is an electric sitar and not a cross between sitar and guitar. It has seen unprecedented growth which came as a surprise to me after the kind of criticism it initially received. I hope and pray that musicians who are taking to it will back it up with sound knowledge of both technique and tradition put together.

You are considered a youth icon…

No, I don't think I am a youth icon. If that was true, I would not be asked upon arrival by Airport Customs in India what is the instrument I am carrying and the woes don’t end here. After mentioning that it is a sitar, I am also quizzed about where I bought it. I travelled quite extensively this March/April in the U.S. and almost everyone there recognised the instrument for the size and shape and the few who didn’t, after being told what it is knew, it’s from India. So there is an ocean of work left to be done to actually penetrate the youth in the true sense.

We hear you have launched your own music label, Niladri Kumar Music. What prompted you to do that?

No, I have not launched a music label.I have performed, produced and borne all the expenses for ‘Sur Yajna’ and not recovered a single penny yet. I have got someone to distribute the album and it’s important that I succeed in this model so that I can keep producing albums from the money recovered from its sales. This way, we musicians can come out of the strangle hold of larger music labels. For now, I would like to produce my albums and control the rights of it. ‘Plucked’ was the first step in that direction. It is a compilation of some of my best work and I redid those tracks, mixed and edited them differently. Imagine if I had done this ten years ago, today I could have produced another zitar and sitar album from the money recovered. If this is successful, I dream of producing music of young and old musicians who I think should be heard and recognised for the simple reason that they are just very good.

What is the future of the sitar?

The future of the sitar is directly related to my future and hence, I hope and pray it’s brilliant. As long as there is knowledge, skill, technique, hard work, passion, sincerity, patience and most importantly a compassionate heart beating inside the performer, the sitar and its music will prosper and grow manifold.

What do you like to do besides music?

I love trying out different cuisines, watch football and cricket, am interested in the science of mechanics, Formula1 Racing, cars and watching biographies (not much of a reader), spy and detective movies.