Subhankar Banerjee: Tabla wiz who left too soon

Banerjee scaled the peaks of Indian classical music, and was one of its most sought-after names
Last Updated 27 August 2021, 18:31 IST

First the shock. Then memories came flooding. “Subhankar-da no more”, screamed a WhatsApp message. I froze.

Pandit Subhankar Banerjee, tabla virtuoso, succumbed after a two-month post-Covid battle on Wednesday, August 26, leaving the classical music world in shock and despair. Just 54, and at the peak of his career. This was no time to leave.

Subhankar, as he was fondly called by the fraternity, was a musical representation of modern India. Firstly, he did not come from any known musical family. He had no star guru. It was only the sheer brilliance of his playing that took him from his modest station to the peak of classical music.

The first time I heard Subhankar play, and got hooked to his music, was at the Dover Lane Music Conference in Kolkata. Vocalist Kaushiki Chakraborty was to begin her recital. “We are waiting for Subhankar-da to come and accompany me. He’s on his way from another concert. Please be patient for a few minutes,” she pleaded.

And the audience waited for a good 20 minutes for Subhankar. Years later I recounted this to him during a friendly chat. His first reaction was an apologetic, “O my God, that day!” He then remorsefully explained. “I had told Kaushiki to get some other tabla player as I had a concert that afternoon with Shiv-ji (Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma), and you know how bad traffic can be. But Kaushiki just wouldn’t listen.”

That was Subhankar. A solo performance in the morning in Lucknow and another as an accompanist to Ustad Amjad Ali Khan in Delhi the same evening. The next day, onward to Bengaluru to play with Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, and then off for a concert tour of USA and Canada with Ustad Rashid Khan. Subhankar became one of the busiest artists in the classical circuit both as a soloist and an accompanist for vocalists and instrumentalists. But the path to that achievement was arduous.

Born in a modest Bengali household, his mother, Kajalrekha, a singer, became his first mentor in music. At four, Subhankar started learning the tabla. He trained for some years under Pandit Manik Das of the Benaras Gharana, and thereafter for 25 years under Pandit Swapan Shiva of the Farukhabad gharana, one of the oldest gharanas for the tabla. Then came the challenge. Stepping into the world of classical music with its illustrious lineages, Subhankar only had his musical virtuosity to stand on. His talent proved explosive. He became a phenomenon.

Subhankar was a star attraction, and his command over the instrument was legendary. He blended various sounds — rounded, bold, and clear – into a unifying whole. Sometimes his tabla would whisper lovelorn swishes into your ears, and then come back with the thunderous sharpness of a tehai. His repertoire of rhythmic patterns was oceanic. But what endeared him most to the great musicians was his sublime sense of music. Amjad Ali Khan is euphoric about Subhankar’s musical samajhdari. His tabla would blend seamlessly into Chaurasia’s silky notes of Jhinjhoti, and similarly resonate with the depth of the night while accompanying Rashid Khan’s baritone rendering of Darbari.

Subhankar had collaborated with great musicians the world over. John McLaughlin, Cheeko Freeman, Gill Goldstein, to name a few. He had played at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert, and with the London Symphony Orchestra. The list is, well, endless. World Music became richer with his albums like Tabla Tale and Calcutta to California. Sacred Drums of India, his ensemble of Indian percussion, has performed throughout the world.

As I write, memories gush in and choke me. No, Subhankar, this was no time for goodbye.

(The author is a Bangalore-based software entrepreneur. He writes on travel, music, and culture)

(Published 27 August 2021, 17:54 IST)

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