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Pandit Santosh Banerjee: Like a banyan tree...

Role model: Pandit Santosh Banerjee (1931 – 2019)

Role model: Pandit Santosh Banerjee (1931 – 2019)  

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Known for his self-effacing humility, Pandit Santosh Banerjee always strived to practice what he taught

A fatal fall, followed by a cardiac arrest, and almost two days of struggle between life and death came to a halt in the early morning of 19th October as Pandit Santosh Banerjee left this world of mediocrity and set out on his eternal journey in the quest for purest music – his life-long mission.

A typical Bengali, frail, fair man who had striking similarity with the matinee idol Uttam Kumar’s good looks and the only surbahar and sitar maestro belonging to Senia Rampur Sahaswan Gharana, was too fast for his darling daughter Sahana Banerjee, an eminent sitarist in her own right, and a clutch of doting disciples who were trying their level best to bring him back; because for his followers and connoisseurs this epitome of self-effacing humility was like a banyan tree under whose shades the pure veena-based tantrakari of yore thrived so far. But it was not to be.

The century-old house on the Kali Temple Road, adjacent to the world-renowned Kalighat Mandir of south Kolkata, had always seen streams of visitors who came seeking musical knowledge from both, the Sangeetacharya and his erudite life partner Chhabi Banerjee, daughter-disciple of Kashinath Chatterjee belonging to Rampur Sahaswan Gharana. Their residence, which always reverberated with classy vocal and instrumental music, was submerged in hushed silence despite the presence of musicians belonging to every possible genre. All came to bid adieu to this renowned sitar-surbahar player, formerly a member of faculty and head of the department of Instrumental Music, Rabindra Bharati University and a sought after guru, who was known for his dogged devotion towards the traditional ethos of his style, handed down to him by his loving ustad, Dabir Khan, grandson of Ustad Wazir Khan, descendants of the daughters’ family of Miyan Tansen.

Ustad Wazir Khan, the legendary beenkar had groomed immortal stalwarts such as sarod legend Ustad Alauddin Khan, sitar maestro Ustad Mushtaq Hussain Khan and several others; but never let them in the secret world of veena – an art reserved for the family only.

Ustad Dabir Khan (1905 – 1972), a beenkar and vocalist of high repute, came down to Calcutta in 1935 and settled in Rippon Street. Like his grandfather, he too chiselled generations of great musicians such as sarod maestro Radhika Mohan Maitra, Birendra Krishna Roy Chowdhury, eminent playback singer Manna Dey and a host of others. When a teenaged Santosh Banerjee went to learn from him at Bhowanipur School, he found that the ustad did not play the sitar; he always sang; even to teach instrumental music!

Ironically, as a young student of music, Santosh always believed that there are many intricate nuances that are impossible to express through vocal music; only instruments could do justice to these. That is why he was keen to learn sitar and began his musical journey pretty early under the guidance of Aparesh Chatterjee. His father was interested in music and drama. He encouraged his son to pursue his passion but along with the proper support of scriptures. This ignited an unquenchable thirst in his young mind for the underlying philosophy of music. Captivated by this quest, Ustad Dabir Khan, on his own, asked him to learn the veena, separately at his Kali Temple Road residence. This was a huge step – a departure from an age-old tradition of Senia beenkars.

By this time, Santosh Banerjee was an established sitar exponent who also developed unflinching faith in vocal music. He started taking vocal taaleem from Kashinath Chatterjee. His ravishingly beautiful daughter Chhabi was a serious student of music and this developed in a special bond. After the untimely demise of his guru, Santosh married his daughter and despite his conservative background encouraged her to continue with her art.

His own melodious sitar renderings, blending emotion and skill, were noticed by high officials of All India Radio and he got chain recitals all over India. Veena lessons added depth to his playing but, unfortunately, the myth – that ‘veena is not meant for everyone’, proved true in his case.

Despite his devotion, veena eluded him and he suffered ill-health. He could not play even the sitar for over one year. The undeterred Ustad gave him another option - surbahar. And this worked. He taught the entire gamut of dhrupad-based been-anga baaj to his favourite disciple.

This technique was uniquely different from the widely heard rudraveena based on gayaki anga. The Senia Rampur style of alap consisted of sthaayi, antara, sanchaari, aabhog followed by jod replete with twelve segments, tarparan with pakhawaj and thhonk jhala. During their association as the guru and shishya for over two decades, the ustad gave him as much vidya as possible. To this Banerjee added the intrinsic essence of his soulful romanticism. As such their jugalbandis on rudraveena and surbahar became very popular in Calcutta circles. In 1969, the ustad-shagird duet at the Tansen Sangeet Samaroh, Gwalior turned out to be a great success. With passing years, in the twilight zone of his life, he could not manoeuvre this majestic but heavy instrument; but played the sitar with the zest of a youngster.

Grooming torchbearers

Despite his success as a performer, Banerjee loved to teach – the way his ustad did. He could never appreciate the materialistic mindset of the artistes and ensuing compromises with one’s art. He preferred 'manmauji' or moody artists to calculative ones. Moreover, he wished to groom worthy torchbearers who would carry the legacy of his Gharana. He always strived to practice what he taught. As a living role model he inspired and mentored many learned musicians like (the late) sitar maestro Deepak Chowdhury, surbahar exponent Ujjwalendu Chakraborty and several others including Sahana Banerjee who incorporates a lot of veena tantrakari elements in her sitar playing.

Albeit very happy with his daughter's and disciples' dedication, he often lamented the decaying musical culture in the absence of devoted gurus and diligent pupils. With his sudden departure, this diminishing clan has received yet another severe blow.

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Printable version | Dec 15, 2019 11:45:42 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/pandit-santosh-banerjee-like-a-banyan-tree/article29786182.ece

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