Monday, December 21, 2015

An European Sojourn

Italian director Simone Mariani has made an Italian documentary on the little-known but phenomenal tabla player Sanjay Kansa Banik, who plays in Europe. He grew up in a small town in West Bengal

Photos: Simone Mariani. Photo by Ratheesh SundaramSanjay Kansa Banik and wife Rupa

By Shevlin Sebastian

Musician Sanjay Kansa Banik sits on his haunches in a small music shop in the town of Habra (49 kms from Kolkata). A man is tuning his tabla. After a while, he asks Banik to test it out. Banik hits the surface of the instrument with his fingers and starts playing. After a while, he closes his eyes. Then he says, “It's choking a bit. Can you loosen the bolts some more?”

Meanwhile, somebody places an earthen cup of tea on the floor. Banik sips it in evident relish. 

Soon, the scene shifts to the banks of the river Hooghly, on a pleasant winter morning. Banik is playing the tabla, while being accompanied by a local musician on the harmonium. And as they play the mellifluous Hindustani classical music, two fishermen go past on a boat.

These are the opening moments of the 50-minute Italian documentary, 'A Journey on the Tabla' by director Simone Mariani. He was present in Kochi for the world premiere at the All Lights India International Film Festival in mid-November.

I was very keen that the premiere should take place in India,” he says. “The response has been very good.”

Mariani came across Banik in Rome, when he attended a performance by the multi-ethnic Orchestra Di Piazza Vittorio. Apart from Banik, there were musicians from Senegal, Argentina, Hungary, Cuba, Ecuador, Brazil and Tunisia.

Out of all these musicians, Mariani was entranced by Banik's playing. Later, they met, and became friends. Then, one day, it occurred to Mariani that he could make a film on Banik's journey: from a small town in India, to playing all over Europe.

I wanted to reveal the soul of Sanjay,” says Mariani. “His passion for the tabla began when he was only four years old. I felt it would be an inspiring story to tell. How the music connects with Europeans without using words. Over the years, Sanjay has collaborated with many orchestras, as well as jazz, fusion and classical musicians.”

But the documentary took three years in the making. One reason is that Mariani is a busy television and film actor. He has worked in the upcoming Hollywood film, 'Inferno', which stars Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones.

Nevertheless, Mariani travelled to Kolkata several times. All of Banik's family gave their views: his younger sister, parents, and fellow musicians, with whom he played with, before he left for Italy. In Rome, the director of the orchestra, Mario Tronco, as well as his colleagues spoke about his phenomenal talent.

Indeed, when Banik plays, he is mesmerising. As he himself says, “When I am on stage, after a certain point, I don't know where I am. The stage becomes a temple for me.”

But it is not all smooth sailing. Banik, who speaks fluent Italian, spoke about the difficulty of getting a work permit. “This suffering sometimes drives me crazy,” says Banik, who moved to Italy in 2006.

But the documentary also shows incidents of great joy, like his marriage to classical singer Rupa at Habra, in 2011. Later, when Rupa joined Banik in Rome in April, 2012, the couple gave a performance to an Italian audience at the invitation of the Alain Danielou Foundation. “They played the Raga Malkauns,” says Foundation Director Jacques Cloarec. “Both were fantastic.”

All in all, it is a documentary which reveals a diminutive man's tall ambition to make a mark abroad through hard work and determination. It helps that Banik has a great talent. 

(Published in Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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