Nikhil Banerjee was one of India’s finest sitarists. A student of the Maihar Gharana, he received the Indian civilian honor of Padma Bhushan.
Born on 14 October 1931 in a Bengali Brahmin family in Calcutta, Banerjee was attracted to music from a very early age. Jitendranath Banerjee, his father was an amateur sitarist and he was the person who inculcated the love for music in him. At the age of five, his father bought Nikhil Banerjee a small sitar and he began practicing with it- under the initial training of his father. The instrument was still so big compared to him that his father would hold it for him while he would play it!
Banerjee was a child prodigy. He won an all-India sitar competition and at the age of nine, became the youngest musician employed by All India Radio. Before becoming the disciple of the legendary Baba Allauddin Khan, he took early training from Mushtaq Ali Khan, Birendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury- the zamindar of Gouripur in present-day Bangladesh and Pandit Radhika Mohan Maitra- the famous sarodiya of the Shahjahanpur Gharana. Amir Khan- the Indian classical vocalist also influenced his playing to a large extent.
In 1947, Nikhil Banerjee met Ustad Allauddin Khan, who later became his main guru. He also learnt from the Ustad’s son, the ‘Swar Samrat’ Ali Akbar Khan, and his daughter- Maa Annapurna Devi. He went to Allauddin Khan’s concerts and was desperate to have him as his guru. Ustad Allauddin Khan was reluctant to take on more students, but changed his mind after he came across one of Banerjee’s radio broadcasts. Nikhil Banerjee went to Maihar to learn from the Ustad. Allauddin Khan was his primary guru and after he left Maihar he also learnt from Ali Akbar Khan, Allaudin Khan’s son, for many years. In Maihar, Banerjee underwent intense training- his practice would start at four in the morning and, with few breaks, continue to eleven o’clock at night.
Nikhil Banerjee has a peculiar style of playing- which was distinct from that of the other two stalwarts of sitar who were playing at that time- Ustad Vilayat Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar. From the somber, deeply revealing ‘alaps’ to the dazzling and speedy ‘taans’- his technical mastery over the instrument was undoubted. Devoted to the learning of music all through his life- Pandit Nikhil Banerjee serves as an inspiration for budding musicians till date.