‘A true musician does not draw lines’


BREAKING BARRIERS Niladri Kumar   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Ahead of his performance in the city, Niladri Kumar, noted sitarist and inventor of zitar, talks about changing definition of classical music in a fast-paced world

For Niladri Kumar, the eternal question which may forever remain unanswered is, “why, in music something works and something doesn’t. This is something every musician has to try to work out for himself; and this question leads to another – who says what works, and what is not working?” Is it the lay listening audience, the discerning critics, or your own heart?

Perhaps the answer lies in all three; if something in the music touches you, it has worked. Be it in films or concerts, Niladri’s music works. It was a pleasure getting this articulate, keenly thinking, highly innovative artiste to open up on his music.


As a musician, you have been termed a rebel...

What have I rebelled against? The “genre-ising” of music disturbs me. What is classical music? Is it what you hear today, or is it the music style of bygone masters who have not been recorded? The media has set segments, it has drawn lines within music. A true musician does not draw lines, he cannot. Only a theorist draws lines, and tries to create boxes and genres. This is a concern for me. Many people in my generation don’t think like this, as I never seem to read any interviews voicing this concern.

What I usually play at a classical concert, is in my opinion, not strictly speaking classical music. The traditional perception of a classical music concert is basically the format – the slow elaborate aalap, the jor, the jhala, the gat – that’s only the packaged product of classical music. How exactly a master like Ustad Inayat Khan or Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan played is not known to any of us. The three-minute recordings we hear of Ustad Inayat Khan cannot tell us everything about his music. These masters we are told were totally immersed in music – 18-19 hours only music, one never hears of a materialistic lifestyle, or other distractions. What do we know how long they played a raga? The depth their music had, can we imagine the way they usually played a raga?

I believe the concert format today has over the years been condensed to suit the needs of the time. So today, if I am accused of not playing strictly classical music, I am like, who is to say what is strictly classical? Who is saying what I play or don’t play?

I remember hearing of a time when Pandit Ravi Shankar was accused of tampering with classical music, with condensing, with packaging his concerts – today the same man in our times is regarded as the epitome of traditional classical music.

My journey as a musician seems to have unsettled a lot of settled people; there is a pocket of people, who, may be due to jealousy, harp on my so called ‘unconventionality’. My journey has not been planned or is not deliberate. Where my music took me, I went. I had no intention of trying to break barriers, or get out of the so called boxes we have been slotted in.

So you think the audience judges your ability as a musician?

You may meet 30 people who have been trashing me and my music for years; at the same time there have been 1000 people in the audience who stuck with me, heard the experiments I have over the years tried out with an open attitude – these are the people whose opinion I respect.

To the audience who keep harping on what they heard in the past – I say, if you really want to hear Ustad Amir Khan’s Marwa, why not just hear the tape you heard as a youngster? Why go to a concert today? I feel the audience itself should look at it itself. You heard something great as a 14-year-old, today as a 60-year-old; you have to know the difference in your own perception! How can you imagine you will hear the same music today? When you try to recall the Gauri Manjari you heard years ago from Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, you cannot even perhaps recall what phrase you miss hearing today; but the point is you should not even try to compare!

Would you say your attitude to classical music is conventional?

Anyone who knows me intimately knows that my attitude to traditional music and senior musicians is of the greatest respect. No one could be more humble than me in this regard. In fact, I feel that unless you have the inner honesty and integrity to acknowledge what is of worth in someone, regardless of the tradition to which they belong, you can’t really evolve. In our world of music there are several superficial attitudes, thinking, if you speak ill of someone of another gharana, you are going to be liked. I find these groups awful. I have to be faithful to the subject of the sitar. I have to answer to my father. Till now, I am answerable to my Guru, my father.

I can tell from my father’s face if ever I am straying from the correct path of music he has set me on. Even though I am 44, I am fully aware of my boundaries. Classical music is where I started from; it’s where I am today. It has given me the base from which I can today improvise in a jazz format or do an Aashiqui 2 song, yet not falter from my roots. Classical music gives me the freedom to explore, within certain guidelines. It’s the only thing I know. It gives me the ability to explore, it’s an endless expanse. For me, a thumri phrase can be adapted in a ghazal, a film song, a dhun, or a movement on the sitar, when it’s slowed down, can even come into the realm of khayal and dhrupad….

Tell us about this new combination you have been playing, which you say is not yet a new raga.

Look, I have never said that I know many ragas, that I am learned. Sometimes, a certain musical idea grips you, and you think there is a potential here…. I visualised this combination of raga Nat and Tilak Kamod, I felt it’s got feeling, so I played the “nat” phrase to a cousin who lives abroad to get feedback. It has slowly developed into something that may become a raga – for me to say I have made a raga, is too big a thing, I am such a novice in music yet. A raga is not just a tune you know.

For almost 25 years, I have played a baithak concert at a friend’s place on Ganesh Chaturthi, and I played it first there, in front of my father. He liked it and said go ahead. I don’t know whether it will actually ever become a raga, so I haven’t even named it Tilak Nat or Nat Tilak Kamod – I think it has a feeling that it can became a Raga…let’s see.

Your Delhi concerts are comparatively rare...

Maybe this is a recent phenomenon! I have actually played quite a lot in this city. Spic Macay concerts, Vishnu Digambar, Shankarlal, also lots of closed door corporate events. I remember Shankarlal used to have an overnight concert, I remember playing there once, I recall Kishori Amonkar ji was the last performer.

(Niladri Kumar is playing this evening at the Vishnu Digambar Jayanti-2017 at Kamani Auditorium)

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Printable version | May 27, 2020 6:51:57 PM |

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