Sitar Virtuoso: Niladri Kumar’s Quest for Musical Exploration

Born into a family esteemed for its musical legacy, Niladri Kumar emerged as a prodigious talent from a remarkably tender age. As the fifth-generation sitarist, his journey commenced at the age of four, displaying a natural affinity and eagerness for the instrument. Guided by the venerable tutelage of his father and guru, Pandit Kartick Kumar, Niladri’s musical aptitude was nurtured and refined.

With his inaugural public performance at the age of six in Pondicherry and the release of his first album alongside his father at fifteen, Niladri swiftly garnered acclaim for his profound knowledge, adept technique, and innovative approach to the sitar. His magnetic stage presence and experimentation with the instrument captivated audiences, critics, and music aficionados alike, propelling him into the limelight.

Age 4

Yet, beyond accolades and awards, Niladri Kumar’s true passion lies in the transformative power of music itself. His quest to make classical music more accessible and resonant with younger audiences has led to a revolution in sound, carving out a unique playing style that bears his unmistakable imprint on the sitar. With a repertoire of globally beloved compositions, Niladri continues to enchant listeners worldwide, his music serving as a testament to the timeless allure of melody and the enduring legacy of musical craftsmanship.

In this exclusive interview, Niladri Kumar shares insights into his musical odyssey, creative process, and the transformative power of collaboration, offering a glimpse into the mind of a true musical visionary.

Niladri Kumar (Left) with his Father and Grandfather

Serenade Team: What drew you to the sitar, and how did your early training under your father influence your musical journey?

Niladri Kumar: Growing up in a family of traditional sitar players spanning five generations, my immersion in sitar began at the tender age of four. By six, I had already debuted on stage. My musical journey has been shaped profoundly by my father, Pandit Kartick Kumar, whose dedicated mentorship guided me through this ancient art form. Reflecting on those early years, I recall being more immersed in learning than fully comprehending the significance of my path. In hindsight, I view myself as an experiment within my father’s teaching framework. Unlike a scientific laboratory, the success of artistic endeavours like mine defies simple categorization.

 

ST: Known for pushing the boundaries of classical music with your modern sitar style, could you elaborate on your creative process when incorporating contemporary elements into your music?

NK: Musicians across generations strive to carve out their unique voices, inevitably challenging established norms and styles. What we perceive as modern or contemporary today may well define future traditions. As I traverse this path, I don’t seek to label elements as contemporary or boundary-pushing. Rather, I remain focused on finding my distinct voice within the continuum of luminaries who have shaped Indian classical music. Thus, my creative journey continues, guided by tradition yet open to innovation.

The Zitar

ST: The Zitar, your invention, integrates aspects of the electric guitar with the sitar. What inspired its creation, and how do you envision its impact on the future of Indian classical and fusion music?

NK: The Zitar, often misunderstood as a hybrid, is essentially an electric sitar, distinct from the guitar save for its humbucker pickup. The name itself, a play on “Sitar” inverted with an electric connotation, underscores its essence. As for its influence, it’s akin to a ripple effect in nature, destined to carve its space in musical evolution. Like Steve Jobs’ exhortation to leave a dent in the universe, the Zitar’s resonance extends beyond its physical form.

 

ST: Your collaborations range from Ustad Zakir Hussain to John McLaughlin. How do these partnerships inform and inspire your musical expression?

NK: Having had the privilege to collaborate closely with maestros like Ustad Zakir Hussain and John McLaughlin, I’ve been humbled by their musical depth. In their presence, the sheer magnitude of their artistry is both awe-inspiring and humbling. Their influence serves as a guiding light in my own musical endeavours, enriching my journey immeasurably.

With John McLaughlin and Ustad Zakir Hussain

ST: Your discography spans traditional, fusion, and lounge music. How do you navigate between these styles, and do you have a preferred genre for performance or composition?

NK: Growing up in Mumbai, exposure to diverse sounds was inevitable. While my roots lie in classical sitar, external influences have seeped into my musical lexicon over time. Embracing varied styles presents both challenge and excitement, each offering a gateway to uncharted territories. As for a favourite genre, my foray into film composition has been particularly fulfilling, melding melody with visual narrative.

 

ST: Film music constitutes a significant facet of your career. Could you share your experiences with composing for films, distinguishing it from standalone albums or live performances?

NK: Film composition, akin to culinary artistry, demands a distinct skill set. Whether crafting music for a film or standalone album, each endeavour carries its own nuances. Like a chef catering to different audiences—from family to critics—I adapt my musicality to suit the context, striving for excellence in each iteration.

Teaching underprivileged children

ST: Your forthcoming performance in Liverpool alongside percussionist Yashwant Vaishnav marks a new collaboration. How do you anticipate this partnership, and what can audiences expect from this fusion of sitar and Indian percussion?

NK: I eagerly anticipate this collaboration with Yashwant Vaishnav, though it’s not our first encounter. Yashwant represents a burgeoning talent among India’s tabla virtuosos. Together, we aim to resonate with audiences through the timeless synergy of sitar and tabla, showcasing the rich fabric of Indian classical music.