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Budhaditya Mukherjee: Stradivari of the sitar

The Indian sitar player who made history, twice, but has received little recognition in India

Pandit Budhaditya Mukherjee engineering his sitar. Photo: Courtesy Veejai Sai
Pandit Budhaditya Mukherjee engineering his sitar. Photo: Courtesy Veejai Sai

On 30 June 1990, while history was being made in the world of Indian classical music, India remained completely oblivious. For the first time in the British parliament, an Indian musician had been invited to perform. That it was a classical sitar maestro should have been a matter of great pride for us. However, Kuldip Nayar, the high commissioner to Great Britain in 1990, who wrote for news agencies that several papers in India would source from, decided not to write about the performance. Precious cultural history was lost.

The only trace of this event was preserved in a few images and a letter written by the British member of parliament Keith Vaz to the sitar player: “As you may well know, this is the first performance of its kind in the House of Commons and undoubtedly a historic moment in British Parliament. I am exceptionally pleased that this historic moment was met with such a masterful and exquisite performance by you."

The instrumentalist was none other than Budhaditya Mukherjee, the unparalleled sitar genius.

Budhaditya, 62, belongs to a family of musicians. His father Pandit Bimalendu Mukherjee, who held a full-time job as a general manager with the Bhilai Steel Plant, was a versatile musical genius. Growing up in an industrial township, Budhaditya began taking lessons at an early age, and first performed when he was barely five years old. The music fraternity recognized him as a child prodigy. Among the dozen-odd instruments Bimalendu could play effortlessly, he was the best on sitar. And it was the melody of the Sitar that Budhaditya took to from an early age. His father found a mentor and a guru in the great Ustad Vilayat Khan (1928-2004) of the Imdadkhani gharana. The ustad is credited with having promoted his gharana, not just through technical innovations on the sitar, but also by passing down his learning to a number of students who continue to spread his music.

Budhaditya’s early introduction to the ustad’s music (through his father) changed his life. And the consistency with which he pursued his music that held everyone in awe. As a teenager, Budhaditya was billed alongside great music veterans, while he participated in prestigious national and international festivals. In 1977, after graduating with a first class in engineering, with a specialization in metallurgy from Ravishankar University in Raipur, he gave up a lucrative career for music.

It is not often that child prodigies retain and enhance their musical brilliance. Many of them burn out at an early age. Many more end up changing careers. Budhaditya, however, belongs to the rare league of prodigies whose music has matured with age and time.

His relentless ambition for aesthetic musical brilliance has seen him create some of the finest sitar music of modern times. He is also a master of the surbahar. Often, Budhaditya’s concerts have seen him performing with both instruments, back to back. If he explores the aalap through his surbahar, he delves into the depths of a raga with his sitar.

The Imdadkhani gharana technique of playing is acknowledged for its technical brilliance. While that is an aspect many performers in this style are capable of, very few bring in the balance of aesthetics that Budhaditya does. In fact, in 1985, The Times Of India reviewed his performance, recognizing him as “perhaps the best and most imaginative sitar player". And it is in this middle ground of consistent equilibrium that he is hailed as the greatest living maestro of our times, not just by fellow instrumentalists, but even by members of his own gharana.

It is said that Antonio Stradivari, the 17th century genius who created the modern Western violin, worked hard on the quality of music his instruments could deliver. Today, the Stradivarius violin is considered to be the best in the world. Budhaditya’s work on the sitar can be compared to the brilliance of the Stradivarius. For instance, his sense of engineering and highly innovative mind have seen him attempt several modifications to improve the existing sound of the sitar. From changing the quality of the metal strings to rearranging the fret-board to enable smoother playing flexibility, minute technical changes have made a huge impact on the quality of the music his sitar produces.

So far, however, whenever Budhaditya has performed at an event that should go down in history, it has gone unnoticed.

For instance, 1988 was the bicentennial year for Australia. The great sitar maestro Vilayat Khan was scheduled to perform. However, he was unable to make it and a quick replacement was needed. George Lascelles, the earl of Harewood, was flown from London to India to personally pick this replacement.

The earl, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, was known to be a patron of music, instrumental in presenting some of the finest Indian classical musicians to the West—he also presented M.S. Subbulakshmi at the Edinburgh festival in 1963. The young Budhaditya was auditioned at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai. The earl heard him perform for a few minutes and selected him. His performance at Adelaide won him rave reviews in the world press, but found no mention in the mainstream Indian press.

Today, the soft-spoken genius of the sitar stays clear of the limelight. He hasn’t received much recognition, and prefers living the life of a recluse and dedicating his time solely to the service of his sitar.

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