Checking In: Sitar Master Indrajit Banerjee Cooks Up New Dishes

“Please reach out if you’d like to discuss Indian or Bengali recipes”

“He unsheathes a precious sitar, lowers himself to the floor – feet bare, legs crossed, with the long neck of his instrument leaning on his knee – then plucks a droning raga. His fingers are long and elegant digits passed down from a family of prodigious musicians in the Bengal region of India.” So wrote Kevin Curtin in 2017 of ATX’s master shredder ... and chef?

Photo by John Anderson

Austin Chronicle: Where are you sheltering and under what circumstances? Who else is there and how’s that going?

Indrajit Banerjee: I am sheltering with my housemates. We are cooking and learning, and trying out new recipes. I am teaching, composing new music, and paying more attention to indoor activities that are usually overlooked.

Yesterday, we made five veggies with five spices – Panch Pharun in Bengali, a mixture of cumin, fennel, fenugreek, black mustard, and kalonji – and also Moong Dal with basmati rice. A very easy, flavorful, and great daily staple. Please reach out to me if you would like to discuss Indian or Bengali recipes.

“Yesterday, we made five veggies with five spices – Panch Pharun in Bengali, a mixture of cumin, fennel, fenugreek, black mustard, and kalonji – and also Moong Dal with basmati rice.”

AC: At what point did C-19 shut down operations for you, and what went down with the ship, so to speak, both personally & professionally?

IB: I began to be personally affected by C-19 around the end of February and beginning of March. I got all my gigs and my tours cancelled like everyone else. While this is very disappointing, the scale and depth of this tragic pandemic far outweighs my personal concerns.

However, I also try to see the positive, like a hibernation for a better tomorrow as far as environment is concerned. I enjoy each day. In India especially, we have noticeably cleaner air now and some wild animals are venturing out again.

Even so, many people around the world including musicians are struggling right now. I am happy to see that famous personalities and musicians have extended a helping hand to them. We should all participate in this.

AC: As a global culture, people employ music for every purpose imaginable, obviously spanning religion to entertainment and everything in between. What happens to communities like ours when people can no longer access it in person?

IB: I have enjoyed listening to a lot of musicians in Facebook and Instagram live. I really enjoyed the outpouring of online events that are happening across the musical community in Austin. I have been tuning in weekly to concerts by some of my known ones, including Will Taylor, Atlas Maior, Jeff Coffin, Fareed Haque, Tony Monaco, Lettuce, Zakir Hussain, Jason McKenzie, and others around the world.

AC: Everyone’s had to shift or drastically alter their work situation. What does that look like for you?

“In India especially, we have noticeably cleaner air now and some wild animals are venturing out again.”

IB: Even though concerts are cancelled, I am fortunate to have a dedicated number of sitar students as well as some new raga enthusiasts through my school and a sitar performance series of DVDs through Rain City Music and True Fire. Classes are currently conducted on Zoom, Skype, Facetime, etc. I am also able to spend more time practicing learning from my guru Pandit Kartick Kumar and composing new music.

Uninterrupted time to practice is difficult to achieve sometimes with a hectic schedule during normal times. I am appreciating this time to slow down and work remotely on a couple of musical projects that we are going to release 2020, with musicians from around the world: Laura Scarborough (Netherlands), Luis Quintana (a phenomenal cuatro player from Venezuela), and Victor Murillo from Ecuador, Sarah Jane Hargis (Austin), and Brad Hauser (Dallas).

AC: What’s your soundtrack for the apocalypse and what role does music play for you as a fan and scholar of it in times of hardship?

IB: Music is the personality of an artist. It reflects the present in their art. Music carries people through good times, as well as times of darkness.

I really appreciate the work that HAAM of Austin, the Austin Chronicle, KOOP radio, and so many others, as well as local musicians, have shown in coming together and supporting musicians and everyone in these adverse circumstances. I certainly miss the human contact from house full shows with Atash and my concerts. I would love to get back to live playing again.

First, I would have my long hair styled in my friend Heather's new salon A Wild Hare, and then mix some songs with my friend Carles Zanetti, an excellent sound engineer – in person.

Here are some tracks that I have been enjoying lately and would recommend:

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