There is a sense of exhilaration that comes across at sitar player Niladri Kumar’s concerts. At a recent one held in Delhi, it was hard to miss those hypnotic inflections, the ones that in the beginning could be spotted during soft transitions of the opening piece and later in the intensity of the rapid flurries where he treated the sitar like an electric guitar. The roar of percussion instruments — the tabla and a mridangam — joined in and soon Niladri took you from happiness to pathos and then back to being happy — all of it through those amplified meends and various combination of notes. After a standing ovation by those present, including from actor Madhuri Dixit, Niladri said, “This was only sound check. We will now begin the real concert.” The friendly banter strikes a chord with people and Niladri goes on to another piece.
While on most days Niladri makes his regular sitar sound like an electric guitar, on other days he plays a zitar, which is actually an electric version of his acoustic sitar. Zitar is a modified version of the sitar with fewer frets. “The instrument has given me more choices than I had in the past. Now, the sound of my instrument does not drown out if I perform with other louder instruments,” says Niladri, who was once told by Ustad Zakir Hussain to patent the zitar.
But it wasn’t just the idea of big sound and being heard that led to the zitar. There was a constant urge to play around with his oral legacy, which led to a lot of flak from the purists right after he added a microphone to his sitar. “People said that I didn’t have enough strength in my arms and that’s why I needed a pick up. Some even thought I was not living up to my father’s name,” says 40-year-old Niladri. But all the comments didn’t trouble him as he was also giving pure classical concerts on the side, besides collaborating with guitar legend John McLaughlin.
For someone who grew up in an environment where listening to any other music except for Indian classical was considered taboo, Niladri, had a hard time negotiating between the two worlds he begun to straddle. Despite the fact that his father was a fixture in Laxmikant-Pyarelal compositions, Niladri was never allowed to listen to anything from the world of cinema. Even as a child, Niladri craved for that trip to a friend’s house or an uncle’s studio where he could listen to sounds other than classical.
“When I was really young, it was a regime. Slowly I began loving this music. But the exposure I would have outside of my house from Michael Jackson to The Beatles also left an indelible impact,” says Niladri. Soon he began playing for Bollywood. His resplendent preludes and interludes in Vishal Bharadwaj’s Dedh Ishqiya, Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan and Pritam’s Bunty Aur Babli have found much appreciation. “But with my oral legacy in tow, I didn’t know how to read and write music, which is what I learnt there. I also learnt how to tune my sitar according to all the other instruments,” says Niladri, who is a fixture in most Zakir Hussain concerts and is currently busy composing for a Kannada film.