Tribute to Subhankar Banerjee

The tabla exponent, who passed away recently, was known for his sensitive accompanying style and composing skills

Tabla exponent Subhankar Banerjee’s untimely death to post-COVID complications has left the music world shocked and deeply saddened. What brought Subhankar close to every music-loving person’s heart was his sensitive art of accompaniment, which brought him immense success within a short span of time. His exemplary tabla solos, versatility as a vocalist as well as composing prowess made him a complete artiste.

The annual event that he organised under the aegis of his Kajalrekha Music Foundation in aid of the differently-abled showed his compassionate nature and the ability to reach out to all. The event was in memory of his mother, who had a physical disability due to polio.

Gentle and ever smiling, Subhankar always made time to greet and meet people, which added to his popularity as a musician. His father, a government employee and amateur tabla player, introduced him to tabla while his mother inspired him to pursue music. Subhankar learnt the finer nuances of the art watching his vocalist-composer mother rehearse at home with other musicians.

His parents were delighted with his deep interest in music. When he was four, they sent him to their neighbour, Manik Das, who belonged to the Benaras gharana, to learn to play the tabla. Later, he came under the tutelage of Pandit Swapan Shiva of Farukkhabad gharana and trained for 25 years. Simultaneously, he also began to accompany the exponents of Bangla gaan. Banerjee once said, “So-called light music gave me a clear insight into the numerous shades of bols.”

Soon, he got an opportunity to travel abroad with senior sitar artiste, Pandit Shalil Shankar. During this nine-month tour, he learnt many music lessons the hard way since the senior musician was a tough taskmaster. This exposure made him understand the requirements of each musician he accompanied. He also began to listen to archival records of tabla maestros, analysed their style, and picked up their unique compositions. It helped him give a different dimension to his solo concerts. He would openly acknowledge the influence of the great masters on his music. Subhankar took to composing to widen his repertoire as a teacher. He was also known to constantly improvise. He could transform each theka to match the compositions chosen by the musician he was accompanying. The same eight-and-half beat taal would sound different at each concert.

The youngest top grade tabla player of AIR, Subhankar’s performances at Nobel Peace Prize concert, Festival of India in Brazil, Asian Fantasy Concert in Japan, and as part of the London Symphony Orchestra won rave reviews. His collaboration with well-known international musicians resulted in albums like ‘Tabla Tale’, ‘Heart Beat’, ‘Calcutta to California’, and many more. The Sacred Drums of India, his brainchild, became a successful rhythm band. More recently, his solo pieces during the tribute concert for Ustad Allarakha, featuring six top tabla players, won him great appreciation, including from Ustad Zakir Hussain.

“Despite his hectic schedule, he would spend long hours teaching students at his Taalsen Music Academy,” says Surojato Roy, a senior disciple. “As a guru, he shared his musical treasures with us and handled each one of us with patience and care. Not just music, he imparted life lessons too.”

The writer is a music critic and musicologist.

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