Manilal is a living repository of the Bishnupur Gharana of which he has been a lifelong proponent.
As a disciple of the Bishnupur gharana, I evidently had my disciplined tutelage under my father Sangeetacharya Gokul Nag.
Had your father toured abroad, do you believe things would have changed for the Bishnupur gharana?
In the early and mid-twentieth century India, Bishnupur Gharana was well-known.
What does the future hold for Bishnupur gharana?
Sitar maestro Pt. Manilal Nag recently turned 79. Some of his admirers, students and family converged at his North Kolkata residence to convey their greetings to the maestro, who prefers to live in relative seclusion. Almost eight decades immersed in music, Pt. Manilal is a living repository of the Bishnupur Gharana of which he has been a lifelong proponent. Numerous performances and several top honours later, little is known about the man and his music. In a rare interview, Pt. Nag opens up about his musical choices, memories of a life that was and some disappointments. Excerpts:
Today when you reflect on this long journey, what do you cherish the most and are there any regrets?
It’s a long journey indeed. From a small town called Bankura in West Bengal to almost every major part of the world, a fantastic musical journey. Mine was a different age altogether. Travelling by air and going overseas was looked upon as something out of the ordinary. And that too, being a musician. I cherish those moments on stage with tabla maestros such as Pt. Samta Prasad, Pt. Kishan Maharaj, Pt. Anokhelal, Ustad Keramatullah Khan and Pt. Mahapurush Mishra. I fondly recall my close association with stalwarts such as Ustad Amir Khan, Girija Devi ji, the late Pt. Ratanjhankar, the late Pt. Vinay Rao Patwardhan, the late Pt. Ramashray Jha, the late Pt. V.G. Jog and many others. I live like a recluse today and I have no regrets.
Bishnupur Gharana is one of its kind in West Bengal. Why?
In the early and mid-twentieth century India, Bishnupur Gharana was well-known. However, it lost ground to the khayal gharanas, which gained popularity. In the instrument field too, Maihar and Etawah gharana musicians rose to fame with royal patronage. Bishnupur musicians, since the time of Rabindranath Tagore, remained somewhat within West Bengal and did not try to get opportunities to perform at the national level. As a gharana, it experimented and assimilated musical styles and introduced the first notation system in Indian Music. It is not as obscure as you would like to believe; rather people talk less about it as they focus on popular artistes who receive more media attention.
Your father, Pt. Gokul Nag, declined to tour abroad with Uday Shankar because your grandfather did not allow him to. He was eventually replaced by Ustad Allauddin Khan. Had your father toured abroad, do you believe things would have changed for the Bishnupur gharana?
Of course. Baba Allauddin Khan became famous when he travelled and indeed he was a fine musician. In our country you are not eligible for recognition until you have visas for different countries. We do not know how to acknowledge our own talent unless foreign scholars and listeners appreciate our music. There is an ingrained admiration for anything colonial, which is disheartening.
Why does this generation know so little about your music?
They don’t care to know; it’s what they find served that they make palatable. There are innumerable sources to know the past. Majority is driven by media trends and media manipulates.
Pt. Ravi Shankar and Ustad Vilayat Khan were your contemporaries; but you have a special affinity for Nikhil Banerjee.
The tone of his sitar, his mood, the integrity with which he played charmed me to a great extent.
Also was it a conscious effort to create your own style and how did that happen?
As a disciple of the Bishnupur gharana, I evidently had my disciplined tutelage under my father Sangeetacharya Gokul Nag. I worked a lot on the improvisational style of Benaras during my long association with Pt. Kishan Maharaj and Pt. Shamta Prasad. I think my jhala is quite distinct. And, of course, I had my own way of thinking which helped me evolve my approach to music.
Do you listen to other sitar players?
Yes, indeed. Budhaditya Mukherjee, Kushal Das and Nayan Ghosh are excellent performers and there are many more in the younger lot also. But somewhere there is more of imitation than originality. I sense there is an inclination to make music more cerebral than soulful. Such playing is usually characterised by immense speed, but less melodic expression.
Your daughter, Mita Nag, is one of the foremost representatives of your gharana but is there a general apathy towards female instrumentalists?
Its changing. Women are not left behind any more.
You were felicitated with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award but the Padma laurels have remained elusive. Any comments?
I have never tried getting an award for myself or requested anyone to recommend my name. Music is the ultimate recognition perhaps. You need to do all sorts of things to get awards and I will never resort to such tactics.
What does the future hold for Bishnupur gharana?
To tell you the truth, I have no idea. My daughter has some scholastic projects lined up. She trains students from all over the globe and works hard to infuse the Dhrupad spirit. But, being a professional artiste, she too has her original ideas that may sometimes dilute the excessive restrained rendition of a performance.
The writer teaches contemporary literature at FLAME University, Pune and writes on art and culture
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