Tunes of change through ‘Zitar’

In an exclusive to CE, Niladri Kumar talks to our columnist about his association with the sitar and music.

Published: 02nd February 2017 03:55 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd February 2017 03:55 AM   |  A+A-

Pandit Niladri Kumar with his father Pandit Kartik Kumar.

Pandit Niladri Kumar with his father Pandit Kartik Kumar.

Express News Service

CHENNAI: I  love to eat at New Woodlands and stroll along the Marina. do they still sell fresh fish fry there?” asks Sitar maestro Pandit Niladri Kumar, who will play along with Zakir Hussain in Chennai for Shakthi Foundation on February 11.

“I perform at least one concert annually in Chennai with Vikku Vinayakram and others; so the city is quite familiar to me, though this is the first time I’m performing for the Shakthi Foundation. They are doing a great service to children and physically challenged people”.

The genial tone in his voice flows as mellifluously as the strings of his sitar or the ‘The Zitar’, as he calls it! Niladri has created his own five-stringed red-hued musical instrument out of the traditional 20-stringed sitar, where the sound is more like an electric guitar mixed with the vibrations of a sitar when he plays in both classical concerts and fusion-music shows. “I just wanted the sitar to reach out to a wider spectrum of audience in my country first. To my generation.

We arrived at the Zitar after a lot of experimentation. You see, legends like Pandit Ravi Shankar, who had George Harrison as his student, had already popularised our traditional music to the western audience. I wanted to sound adaptable and fresh to our own Indian audience first,” says Niladri who has been playing the sitar since he was four.

His father Pandit Kartik Kumar was his first guru, who was a student of Pandit Ravi Shankar. Niladri now plays with Zakir Hussain and the two of them have come out with a musical DVD of their latest recording called ‘In Session’.

When did you realise you have a gift for the sitar?

Well, that kind of realisation is yet to occur! (Smiles) Applause is like an addiction, there is a lot of happiness in performing for a live audience, but realisation may mean different things at different points in time.

At 15, you may realise something while performing and it changes by the time you reach 30 and now at 44, I realise I really cannot define a precise moment of awareness about my skill. I’m just fortunate to be playing with legends. I see their aura and it humbles me. For instance, performing with Zakir is a blessing and the entire credit for our magic goes to him. He is a unique luminary in music who makes the person performing with him sound more beautiful. He has that gift in his music and personality. That and the unconditional love I’ve received from Pandit Jasraj and other maestros is what I consider to be my biggest gift in this world.

When and what propelled you to reinvent the sitar?

I can’t put a date to the ‘invention’ (laughs). The Zitar is just a result of how I led my life doing what I was doing from when I was a kid right through to when I became an adult and a professional sitar-player. I wanted to appeal to the younger generation. Sonically, when you play a musical instrument louder than the human voice you want to be heard at the right volume. I wanted the sounds of classical music to reach the ears of those exposed to a variety of music. I also wanted to have the flexibility to play the sitar for all genres of music. My need is basically home-grown. You have to constantly be part of the younger generation’s language to be absorbed well by them. I only had exposure to the music I grew up with in India, which was basically Pandit Ravi Shankar, Allah Rakha Khan and other great talents. I wanted our music (with Zakir Hussain) to be relatable to the audience in my world first, and then wanted to make a mark outside.

You played your first solo concert in Pudhucherri when you were six. Do you remember your moments from then?

Oh yes! In fact I was two-and-a-half or three-years-old when I started reciprocating any rhythmic phrase by banging the tabla or strumming the sitar strings. I used to accompany my father to his concerts as well. My first solo concert was at the Pondicherry School of Harmony. I’ve played there for 10 years now. And the Ashram always provides us with the much needed ambience for a classical music concert over the years. My earliest memory on the extent to which my music was well-received was meeting this gentleman Champaklalji, who stopped speaking to people after Aurobindo passed away. He was on ‘mouna-vrath’ but whenever he used to see me perform, he would clap his hands and make all kinds of sounds to express his happiness. This is my favourite memory — as the best moment of reaching out to another human being through my music.

You’ve played the sitar for films and a lot of it was for AR Rahman...

(Starts talking with enthusiasm) Oh it’s always pure joy to collaborate with Rahman. We did our version of the Jana Gana Mana for the album Vande Mataram. I first met him in a studio in 1999. The next day there I was playing for Rahman for three different projects for which he was composing music! One was the Hindi film Taal (1999), the other one was for a Mani Ratnam film and another was for Rajiv Menon’s Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000) (pronounces it totally right!). Our recordings happen in Mumbai. I wish it was all in Chennai then I can come here more often.


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