String theory

Sitar player Sahana Banerjee opens up about cliques, the need to keep performing, and the gender bias in music.

April 12, 2014 03:43 pm | Updated May 21, 2016 10:55 am IST

Sahana Banerjee. Photo: Special Arrangement

Sahana Banerjee. Photo: Special Arrangement

She is perhaps one of our most accomplished sitar players, but few people know of or have had the opportunity to hear Sahana Banerjee. Besides coaching aspiring musicians and spearheading a movement to offer a platform to female instrumentalists, Sahana also plans to revive the surbahar, a close relative of the sitar. “Surbahar is a dying instrument. My father (veteran sitar and surbahar maestro, Pt. Santosh Banerjee) is a living legend and also my guru. I have learnt to play the surbahar. Many of his disciples are performing and trying to uphold the tradition. I am waiting for his permission to begin riyaaz and perform on concert platforms if given a chance but I would like to think that times are changing and things will improve for the better.”

Sahana’s unique renditions reflect the traditional Veenkar Dhrupad style of Rampur Senia Gharana along with her own aesthetic blends of Gayaki. Her family belongs to the illustrious Rampur Senia Gharana of Mian Tansen. Sahana has played at the usual music festivals, performed abroad, released a CD and received glowing reviews but lives in relative obscurity in Pune, touted to be the stronghold of Hindustani classical music. She says, “There are very few practising female instrumentalists today because it has been ingrained in our mindset that instrumental music requires more physical strength. We are also considered secondary to our male counterparts. It pains me to see reviews of my concerts where a certain concession is offered by the generous critic on grounds of gender. I think it is outright discrimination; not a holistic response to my music. Many great talents have been systemically wiped out because of this gender bias but still some remarkable musicians like Vidushi Jaya Biswas, Vidushi Kalyani Ray and Vidushi Sharan Rani Mathur, who held on to their turf amid great odds, have become our inspiration. Please do not teach only vocal music or dance to your girl with the single-minded agenda of improving marital prospects.”

Talking about the music festival circuit, Sahana comments, “It is a clique. For important festivals, only a few big names are invited regularly. Where is the scope for musicians like us who lack PR skills? This is a very discouraging trend. Is it insensitive to ask for a stage to present my music? For any performing musician, the biggest reward is the appreciation of her listeners. When a musician does not perform, she is forgotten. It is a brutal way of silencing her voice, marginalising her presence. Sadly, I have come to realise that only riyaaz (practice) and taalim (training) do not make good artistes any more. We are proving traditional wisdom erroneous.”

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