Sitar exponent Niladri Kumar on legendary artistes, his invention of the zitar and music that crosses age and time

Harsh Shukla

Sitar exponent Niladri Kumar

Sitar exponent Niladri Kumar performed on the final day of the 67th Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav in Pune. Kumar is a fifth-generation sitarist trained by his father, Pandit Kartick Kumar, and the legendary sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar. He collaborated with various national and international artistes to compose fusion music. Kumar invented a musical instrument called zitar, a five-stringed electric sitar. In a candid chat, he talks about his journey, experiments in fusion music, his memories of music legends, and Bollywood music.

How do you define your four decades as a musician?

The past doesn’t matter much. What you do with the experience and training of the past is crucial for me. Even today, I feel nervous before a recital like I did for my first performance.

You were not allowed to listen to Bollywood music as a child, and now you are composing music for movies. How did that transition happen?

I was never allowed to listen to Bollywood music in my childhood. RD Burman sahib was our neighbour, who stayed just two blocks away from us. I knew him only by his name as my father worked with him, but I didn’t realise that he was a genius music composer. When I did, it was too late. The journey from composing classical music to Bollywood music has been quite exciting. The process is like watching your child grow. You create a song from nothing, then the song takes form on screen. In the past, it used to be organic, but now it’s electronic, but the process is the same.

Tell us about your first memory of Ustad Zakir Hussain?

My first memory of Zakir sahib was when I used to go and listen to him with my father. I never thought that I would perform with him on stage. He is someone who played the tabla with musicians of four different generations. I have been playing with him now for almost 15 years. Yet when I sit with him even today, I feel like I am learning something new from him, every time.

How did you see the need for the zitar?

There was a time when the dhoti-kurta was everyday wear, but now we wear kurta and jeans, which is a fusion of western and traditional styles. Our food choices and lifestyles have changed, so then why not our music? The main thing is that every generation brings their ideas in every field.

The zitar is an expression of reaching out to the younger generation. It is the need to connect people to a music that is alien to them. If we can influence people who are listening to other genres of music, then it will be great.

What do you think about the younger generation’s interest in Hindustani classical music?

When I was performing at the Sawai, I saw from the stage that the majority in the audience were youngsters, and for them to listen for eight to 10 hours for five days straight, is quite encouraging and joyful. I believe that the affection for Indian classical music is beyond the boundaries of age and generation.

You are here performing at the Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Mahotsav. What’s your best memory of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi?

Which memory should I share? When Panditji was in his prime, if I remember correctly, there was a programme called ‘Triveni’ at Shanmukhananda Hall in Mumbai, where Pandit Jasraj, Pandit CR Vyas, and Pandit Bhimsen Joshi performed turn by turn for almost four hours. There was no space to sit in the hall. So, we were seated on stage, and the way Panditji sang that day, the audience was listening to them with such devotion as if they were praying in a temple. I never witnessed anything else like that in my life.