In 1986, sitar maestro Pandit Nikhil Banerjee cut short a late-night performance at the Dover Lane Music Conference and apologised to his audience. Two days later, at age 54, he was dead of a cardiac arrest.
Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, who accompanied Banerjee on the tabla for that concert, recalls how worried he was about the maestro’s evident unease as he took the stage, and how he stopped playing the tabla in order to force Banerjee to stop playing, too.
Chaudhuri’s reminiscence is one of several poignant moments that Steven Baigel captures in That Which Colours The Mind, an 80-minute documentary on Banerjee, which is likely to become one of the very few pieces of research conducted on the life and music of the reticent sitarist.
For Baigel, it is clearly a labour of love. He describes the documentary as “work in progress”, because some amount of fine tuning, such as colour correction and audio mixing, remains to be done. However, he is in town to screen the film, looking for financial support as he seeks to transfer the film to a DVD, with help from sur sringar exponent Anindya Banerjee, who was closely associated with Banerjee and his family.
Having begun work on the documentary over a decade ago, Baigel, who himself never met Banerjee, is conscious that had he been alive, he would never have agreed to be thus publicised. His own introduction to Banerjee’s music came through a friend in the US. “I had heard Ravi Shankar before that. But Nikhil Banerjee’s music changed my life, I had no idea music could be so spiritual. I just kept listening,” he says, his emotions evident.
Baigel has spent “thousands of dollars” on the project already, but the exorbitant cost of the footage featuring Banerjee’s performances in India and abroad, footage that he would like to include, will require massive investment, and he needs solid financial backing if his dream is to come true.
Also on his list of concerns is the fact that he has to strike a balance between Indian and Western audiences. “When Anindya saw the film, he asked, ‘Why have you only included afternoon ragas?’ No Westerner would ask me that, and the answer is that this is all I have,” Baigel explains.
The documentary editor and occasional documentary maker and producer is, however, determined that his viewership should be as wide as possible, clearly in the hope that their lives will change the way his has.
“Having spent a series of evenings at classical music concerts in Benaras in the 1990s, I bought myself a sitar and started learning. I love Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, Ali Akbar Khan… but Nikhil Banerjee’s music touched me so deep. I couldn’t get enough of it,” he says.
Baigel has already met a few potential sources of support, though the outcome is not too hopeful. But, having come this far, he will not let his tribute to the forgotten genius fade into darkness.
This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times, Kolkata, on February 4, 2010