By Sandeep Hattangady
Pt Nishikant Barodekar opened up in a discussion of his life and views on a variety of topics around Indian classical music as he arrived in North Carolina (USA) for the grand inauguration of my music school, the North Carolinian chapter of the Guru Krupa Music Academy. The school was originally founded in New Jersey by Shri Prabhakar Betrabet, a Gandabandh Shagird of Tabla Nawaz Ustad Shaik Dawood Saheb and his illustrious son, Ustad Shabbir Nisar.
Born in Pune into a family steeped in the tradition of Hindustani music, young Nishikant took up vocal music under the tutelage of his grandmother, the legendary vocalist of Kirana Gharana Smt. Hirabai Barodekar, who trained him intensely for nearly a decade. As fate would have it however, a severe case of tonsillitis struck the throat and thus began his long and fruitful association with Tabla.
Armed with basic Thekas taught by a loving grandmother and a visiting accompanist, Sri Vasantrao Shirodkar, Nishikant commenced formal lessons with Ustad Ghulam Rasool Khan of Pune for the next eight years. Based in Pune, the Ustad was a prominent disciple of Ustad Amir Hussain Khan Saheb with excellent command over the Delhi, Ajrada and Farrukhabad styles of solo playing. Under his tutelage, Nishikant also received a National Scholarship for 3 years. However, the Ustad’s frail health ultimately resulted in Nishikant seeking guidance with the renowned Ustad Allarakha Khan Saheb of the Punjab Gharana, fondly known to everyone as Abbaji. He began traveling to Mumbai every day for lessons. He recalls his first visit to Abbaji’s residence, the “Shimla House” -
“As I knocked on the door of the house, Abbaji himself opened the door and invited me inside. I sat down in front of the Tabla with my books and pen. Abbaji asked me, ‘Are you going to college?’. I replied, ‘No, these are my Tabla books’. Abbaji then said “From today, we will leave the books outside our class. We will learn, absorb and retain the lessons in our minds.”.
As shocked as young Nishikant felt upon hearing this, that was the day he literally stopped writing his lessons down in the book. It later turned out that though Abbaji was not against writing lessons, he always encouraged the students to remember their lessons and play with a sense of alertness and awareness as opposed to peering into a notebook to render the compositions.
For the next three years, Nishikant traveled every day between Pune and Mumbai for his lessons. Observing the pains that he was taking for his lessons, one day Abbaji suggested that he stay with him in Mumbai and learn. Thus began Nishikant’s training in the Gurukul sense. Considered like a part of Abbaji’s family, he would stay with him all 5 days of the week, returning home only on the weekends. Tabla had a presence in the house all the time. Even during lunch or dinner, Abbaji would talk about Tabla or begin reciting a composition to the students and then the discussion would go on for 2 or 3 hours right at the dining table. Practice went on at all times, sometimes with other students, other times in private in other rooms or sometimes even the garage. Nishikant played alongside the other students at the time including Pt Yogesh Samsi, Ustad Fazal Qureshi, Ustad Taufiq Qureshi, Ashok Godbole, Anuradha Pal and Aditya Kalyanpur. He recalls with amazement the moments when Abbaji would sit to play with Ustad Zakir Hussain and he would recite a composition and before he was done reciting it, Ustad Zakir Hussain would have already picked it up. As he looks back on those times, he recalls Abbaji –
“I traveled with Abbaji to many of his concerts. He was always very punctual. He would question, ‘What kind of a Tabla playerwill you be, if you are not punctual?’. Abbaji taught Tabla at his institute in Dadar between 5:30pm and 9pm and he would always be there on time.”
Shimla House was a place to visit for many great musicians at the time. Students living there at the time would get to listen to and interact with them. Often, Abbaji would say “Nishikant, go hold the Theka” when any such musician was playing. He thus got to accompany many leading musicians of the time including the great Ustad Salamat-Nazakat Ali Khan brother duo! Such experience in accompaniment was a natural extension of his Tabla lessons and before he knew it, Nishikant was accompanying leading names of the time on stage including Pt Jasraj, Ustad Shahid Pervez, Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Pt Sudhir Phadke (Sitar) and Pt Bhimsen Joshi! He vividly recalls a memorable incident that occurred as he was just starting his career. At the prestigious Dagdushet Ganapati Music festival in Pune that ran for 54 days, Nishikant got the opportunity to accompany Ustad Vilayat Khan Saheb. As nervous as he was to accompany an artist of such high stature with many other renowned musicians in the audience, he went on stage and commenced playing. In the Madhyalaya segment, Ustad Vilayat Khan Saheb suddenly stopped playing, looked at him and said “Mere saath hamesha bajaya karo!” (Always play with me). There is perhaps no greater compliment that one might strive for! He indeed accompanied Ustad Vilayat Khan Saheb many more times since then.
Nishikant had always been a long time devotee of Sri Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi and been a visiting artist at the Satya Sai Mirpuri College of Music established there. Upon His personal invitation in 2006, Nishikant shifted his base from Pune to Puttaparthi to take up a teaching position, armed with an Alankar (M.A) from Gandharva Mahavidyalaya and an A-grade rating from the All-India Radio (Pune).
In the College of Music today, students of various levels of expertise are trained for vocal and instrumental including training for Sitar, Veena and Mridangam. Besides weekly opportunities for stage performances, regular lecture demonstrations are held and ideas are exchanged between various disciplines and genres of music. On the topic of Gurukul style of learning and teaching in today’s world, Nishikant says -
“Gurukul does not only mean living in an Ashram with a Guru and doing the chores while absorbing knowledge. Gurukul is an idea that mainly reflects the seriousness of learning and the time a student gives to studying that discipline. Today we have infrastructure and technology to enable us to advance our learning. We must make full use of it. Teaching is earning and learning. It motivates us to be creative and opens avenues to explore ideas that come out later on the stage during the performance. The experience of teaching infuses the quality of freshness while performing on the stage.”
Besides accompanying Hindustani musicians, Nishikant has also performed with well-known Carnatic musicians including U. Shrinivas, Malladi brothers and Pt Ramesh Narayan. In fact, he has learnt the Mridangam under the famed Vidwan Umayalapuram K. Sivaraman and sees a lot of scope for collaboration from both sides.
“A real Jugalbandhi in a piece such as Thaniavarthanam between Hindustani and Carnatic is where each side borrows concepts and compositions from the other side and it looks like an equal exchange of ideas and excellent collaboration. To achieve this in our college, we teach Carnatic concepts and compositions including Korvais to Tabla players while we teach Chhand (poetry) of Tabla alongside its compositions such as Chakradhars to Mridangam students. Artists such as Vidwan Umayalapuram, Kakaikudi R. Mani and Pathri Satish are already doing it! It is time that this became the trend and we phase out any one side dictating the presentation style for the entire item”
Nishikant is proud of the younger crop of musicians he has trained including the engineer-turned-musician Rahul Pophali, Jim Di Dispirito and Rupak Desai. Nishikant says that youngsters today must first decide what they want to do. Once the decision is made, they must stick to it come what may. Those that decide on music as a career choice should create time for it, practice hard and wait patiently for the results while always listening to the inner voice of perfection. They must neither expect quick results nor give up the pursuit. Most importantly, they must learn to adapt with the times.
Meanwhile, the ensemble recital at the inauguration function is about to begin. I must take my place on the stage between my students and our conversation draws to a close.