August 2001

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Dr. P. Suri profiles


Kankana Banerji is a reputed, sophisticated singer of Hindustani classical music. She is the disciple of late Amir Khan, the famous maestro of this style. Amir Khan was considered to be one of the finest exponents of the Kirana Gharana of Indore, and Kankana has the honour of having been chosen by the great maestro to be his torch- bearer in the traditional teacher-disciple tradition of the musical houses in India.


Kankana’s mother, Mandira Chatterji, is the eldest daughter of late Dr. Radha Kamal Mukerji, an eminent thinker, sociologist, and the ex-vice chancellor of the University of Lucknow, India. Mandira, herself, was a good dancer, and a versatile singer. She was the disciple of late Tarapada Chakravarty of Calcutta, and late Pandit Ratana Jhankar of Lucknow. Even though her husband, Kankana’s father was pretty supportive of her interest in music, she never could go professional because of the constraints of the joint family system in which the couple lived. But he did give his word to Mandira, that if they had a daughter he would certainly permit her to become a professional classical singer. Thus, the societal battle for the little Kankana had been won before she was born.


Kankana’s mother started teaching her music along with the nursery rhymes at the tender age of three or four years. And she turned 9, she became a disciple of Amir Khan.  Kankana’s father was so deeply committed to his daughter’s career in music that he set apart a portion of his own residential house for Amir Khan and his wife. Kankana says that Amir Khan used to start his day very early - the wee hours of morning being considered to be the ideal time for “riyaz”(practice). After that he would wake up Kankana at 5 O’clock and give her lessons in Raga Bhairav, the morning Raga. The evenings usually reverberated with the Raga Yaman Kalyan.


Kankana becomes nostalgic when she goes on to comment upon her teacher.  She reminisces that he could be very demanding at times. “He was very fond of Mughlai food, and often asked for ‘biriyani’. At one time he went to the extent of making a request for a diamond ring from my father who was obliged to accede to the demand.”


She says that the Ustad ji was very deeply committed to his undertaking as well. He took his responsibility very seriously and saw to it that his disciple made a special mark in the sphere of Hindustani Classical Music. The very fact that Kankana gave her first public performance when she was barely 14 years of age, bears witness to his tenacity of purpose. Kankana had started singing with such ease and pleasure that her countenance brightened up with the sweetest of smiles the moment she started on the notes of her  ‘Alaap’. Till date, this combination of the song and smile establishes an irresistible rapport with her audience, and she makes even the most difficult art form look easy and effortless.


Kankana was married at the age of 17. Her husband, Sunil Banerji was a good singer, and also a disciple of Amir Khan. A daughter was born to them when Kankana was barely 18, and a son when she was 20. The very next year, when she turned 21, her husband passed away. Kankana never married again. Music became her love, her constant companion, and her faith - the ideal to be attained in all its perfection. Music gave her the courage to stand on her own two feet and launch ahead in one of the most satisfying careers in life.  It gave her the courage to deal with the tremendous responsibility of raising her kids single-handed. She managed to send them to one of the most prestigious schools, the St. Xavier’s, which gave them the grounding they needed to steer ahead; and today they are happily settled in Dubai.


There was a time when Kankana played with the idea of singing for films. She sang in a couple of Bengali films, like Sagina Mahatto, Khudi ta Pashan produced by Hemant Kumar. She also sang in Amir Khan’s documentary film. When Amir khan passed away in 1973, she became a disciple of Pratap Narain, the elder brother of the renowned maestro Pt. Jasraj, who had himself been taught and encouraged by him in the beginning. Pratap Narain was a renowned court singer too


Earlier on, Pratap Narain had heard her singing in Sada Rang Sangeet Sammelan in Calcutta. He recognised the talent the moment he saw it, and suggested to her that she should go to Bombay if she wanted to become a professional singer. He told her plainly that she would not be able to earn her living in “ the starvation hit Bengal”. Kankana’s father did not agree with the idea, but Kankana had made up her mind. She left the children with her father in Calcutta and moved on to the new horizons of Bombay.

She was a play back singer in the film Ram Teri Ganga Maili and Eid Mubarak. But then she gave up the idea of romping around and settled down, seriously, with her involvement in the classical music.


And then she got an invitation from Bangalore.  Kankana, now, had the confidence enough to invite her father to this concert. She booked up a room for him in one of the decent hotels in the town, and went ahead with her performance. Her father heard her singing with absolute ease in her sweet, high pitched, sonorously rich voice stretching over an amazingly wide range. He also saw people giving her a standing ovation, and rushing towards her with bouquets and garlands. He felt absolutely elated, gave her his blessings, and agreed to the idea of her settling down in Bombay. She bought a flat in Bandra and started taking classes in classical music.  Her children were now permitted to come and join her in Bombay.


Kankana’s ‘gayaki,’ her style of music is a beautiful blend of Ustad Amir Khan’s Kirana Gharana style and that of Pandit Pratap Narain’s Mewati Gharana’s. She sings Khayal, Thumri, Dadra, along with Tappa and Ghazal, which she learnt from Pratap Narain.  Kankana is very fond of the ‘Taan’ and ‘Tarana’ which she renders beautifully. When, she suddenly switches on to this style in the middle of her ‘gayaki’ the audience, simply, gets mesmerized by it.


Kankana Banerji has been singing regularly for the AIR Bombay for more than 25 years. She has been performing in the Akashvani Sangeet Sammelans and the National programmes. She has many independent solo long-play records and a series of audio cassettes released by the Rhythm House, Bombay. The most famous of these being the Darbari Kanhra Tarana of Amir Khusrau, the famous poet-mystic of the Thirteenth Century. It was recorded for the album “Multifaceted Genius of Amir Khusrau,” by the HMV studio at Bombay to mark the 7th century celebrations of Amir Khusrau.


Kankana’s popularity spread far and wide, and she started getting invitations to sing for renowned personalities and great events. And she got the recognition she deserved.  She is the recipient of the Kala Saraswati, Andhra Ratna 1987, awarded by Mother Theresa; and this is one of the most prestigious awards from the Government of Andhra Pradesh, India. She sang in the presence of the then President of India Shri R. Venkataraman at Mysore Darbar Hall in 1984 and again in 1986 at the I.C.C.R. Sammelan. She sang in the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s Apna Utsav festival in Delhi and Bombay, and also on the ‘punyatithi’ of late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Safdar Jang Road, New Delhi; and so many other awards at so many other places. Frankly speaking it is difficult to keep track of her performances; the list seems to be inexhaustible.


Kankana’s concerts are not restricted to the confines of her own country. She has been performing very frequently in Europe, and almost every year in London since 1992. She performs in USA very frequently; her rendering of a widely known lyric from Tulsidas’s Ramayana, ‘Thomas Chalet Ramchandra Bajat Painjaniya’ won her a great applause from the public on the occasion of Tulsidasa Samaroh in Miami. She has been coming to Canada almost every other year and performing for full houses. When she was invited to the Indo-Canadian club the house was sold out to the extent that many people were disappointed because they could not get the entry tickets.


Kankana is a very good teacher too. She asks her students to accompany her when she goes for her innumerable performances. In Toronto, Azhelia Ray who recently gave a stunning performance in Milton where she had accompanied Kankana Banerji enjoys this honour. While she concentrated on her singing the audience showed its appreciation by offering her a lot of money. Kankana is ever ready to take new students, and is more than willing to accommodate them even if she has to wake up a couple of hours earlier in the morning. May God grant her the energy, and the drive to carry on and on, and may the stream of her ‘gayaki’ keep flowing incessantly with all its ripple and glitter!.

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