Nikhil Patwardhan has released six albums of Indian classical music – and is also an electrical engineer. He shares his unusual story in this interview, covering his musical journey, inner spiritual calling, and message to the audience.
Nikhil has played across India and overseas, in the US, UK, Dubai, Japan, Kenya and Zambia. Born to Shri Kumar Shrimangalmurti Patwardhan and Srimathi Madhura Kumar Patwardhan, Nikhil started his musical journey at the tender age of four. His grandmother, Srimathi Sarojinidevi Patwardhan and his grandfather, Shri Shrimangalmurti Patwardhan were also deeply into Hindustani classical music.
Nikhil’s projects include the musical trio, ‘When Wood Sings,’ based on instruments such as sitar, flute and tabla. I caught two recent performances in Bangalore by Nikhil, along with tabla players Partho Banerjee (at Lahe Lahe) and Shailesh Shenoy (at Jus’ Trufs).
Tell us about your musical background, and how your family influenced your choice of music as a career.
Although sitar and Indian classical music have been in my family for three generations, I really took to the sitar after hearing a concert recording of Pandit Nikhil Banerjee. To this day, my grandmother Mrs. Sarojinidevi Patwardhan, my parents and Pandit Nikhil Banerjee remain as the leading influences in my musical career. Inspiration is everywhere: even a bird singing in the morning can provide great music fuel to the soul.
I have a master’s in electrical engineering from Clemson University in the US and have worked for 12 years in semiconductors. I have been playing sitar and Indian classical music for over 30 years now.
At the age of eight, I gave my first public performance at Balgandharva, Pune. I became a Balodyaan AIR artiste at the age of nine. At the age of twelve, I won the prestigious Centre for Cultural Resources and Training scholarship from the government of India.
At the age of fifteen, I started receiving training from Pandit Parthapratim Chatterjee, who is an exponent of the Maihar Gharana from Kolkata and a disciple of Pandit Nikhil Banerjee and Ustad Ali Akbar Khansahib.
I am balancing both worlds, the world of a techie and the world of a musician!
How does your composition process work – individually, or along with other musicians? Do you also compose while on the road?
It works through both ways – primarily through individual creation and then a lot of continuous listening and collaboration with other great musicians.
I very much compose on the road as well. In my day job, I have to drive for a couple of hours every day – so my car always turns into a music studio where I listen to and also record some compositions I think of.
Currently I am not into music full-time and doing both a day job and music. I feel that the day job and music complement each other extremely well.
What are the challenges you face as a musician and composer?
Like yoga, our music is intense, complete and with a lot of depth, as it has evolved through so many thousands of years. So it becomes difficult for the general public to understand and extract the goodness that this music has to offer. Hence, the challenge I face is to get more people interested in our oldest form of Indian classical music. However, over the years I am seeing a very positive comeback of people, especially the younger generation, wanting more of this pure and divine music.
What have been some audience reactions you get at your performances?
I feel I am really blessed to have some amazing and appreciative audiences across India and all over the globe. My biggest highlights have been when people from the audience have come up to me after the concert in tears, and told me that the music really went to their hearts and they did not want me to stop playing.
Do you also teach workshops for students/musicians?
Yes, I have several students. I have taught workshops both overseas and in India. I make it a point to give a short lecture demonstration before every concert so people can understand what they should listen to in this music.
How has the music industry changed over the years in terms of tech trends, and how has it affected you?
The virtual and real worlds have been swapped. We all live in the virtual world and the real world is only to meet our physical needs. I think this is an incredible evolution as this allows someone sitting with an online connection in the remotest corner of the world to listen to Indian classical music. Sound technology has also helped immensely in bringing out the finest and subtlest of the sounds of the sitar.
How would you describe your musical journey so far?
It has been a fantastic journey so far and every second of it has taught me to respect my music and reap the joy out of it. Juggling between two lives (techie and musician) definitely is very difficult to manage but music to me is the very oasis that powers my life. I think a music-centric life is very rich, and it not only gives happiness to you but also brings so many people together.
I think my albums show the degree of growth and maturity in my music over the years. I have slowly learned how to explore the depth of a raaga and the rhythm and not only the breadth. I think learning is a continuous process and all you have to see is if you as a whole are growing with respect to your own past.
Where do you see yourself 10 or 15 years from today? What are some ‘dream projects’ or visions you are working towards?
I see myself as a performer and a teacher in the next 15 years or so. In today’s life where everything is supposed to happen in the blink of an eye, Indian classical music can always bring peace and harmony to our mind and bodies and slow us down. One of my dream projects is to work on a music therapy album which I would consider my ‘magnum opus.’
What are your thoughts on the rise of ‘fusion’ music, and how to bring about ‘fusion without confusion?’
I think it is a great idea to blend different genres so that people who like both genres can enjoy both aspects of the music. Fusion is an excellent way to bring the musically uninitiated to start liking music.
However, it should not sound like ‘con’-fusion. A good musician always knows when and where to put the right notes in the listener’s ear, just like a good cook knows how to put the right ingredients in the right dish. However, I think if one stays true to oneself, only then will the real colour of his or her music come out, so trying to imitate without understanding the depth of the music will lead to a dilution of both genres of music.
What is your vision of what music can bring to our troubled world?
My vision is to use this music to bring peace all over the globe just as the yoga movement is trying to bring good health to all. All this turmoil for power is totally unnecessary and music can definitely pave the way to a peaceful, happy world.
What advice do you have for aspiring musicians out there?
Stay true to yourself. If you like rock, play and perform rock, if you like jazz, play and perform jazz. Feel each note, feel each vibration. Each one of us has a beautiful and unique way of expressing ourselves, if it comes straight from the heart. I also advise aspiring musicians to get a good education that will give a means of livelihood and also do music. This will prevent them from compromising with their music and stay true to their music.
As a Chinese proverb goes, ‘If you have two coins, with one coin buy food to eat and with the other coin buy a rose.’ The food will give you life and the rose will give you a purpose to live that life.
Author: Madanmohan Rao
Madanmohan Rao is an author and media consultant from Bangalore, and global correspondent for world music and jazz for World Music Central and Jazzuality. He has written over 15 books on media, management and culture, and is research director for YourStory Media. Madan was formerly World Music Editor at Rave magazine and RJ at WorldSpace, and can be followed on Twitter at @MadanRao.