The sad news of Pt Sunil Mukherjee’s passing away on 17 February after a long illness left the musical fraternity, especially his disciples and admirers, desolate. It was just a couple of years ago when we had listened to the sonorous Sarod of Pt Sunil Mukherjee, the most unassuming Sarod Maestro of Maihar Gharana at Triveni auditorium.
One still remembers the radiance of lifelong Tapas of Swar-Sadhana that glowed like a halo framing his saint-like face. He had left the audience mesmerised that evening, with the melody of his inimitable music, like always. His aesthetic sense and sensitivity kept him far away from the rat race of playing to the gallery and prevented him from showing off his virtuosity, which he had in good measure.
His soul stirring music was fully contained and he played the Sarod with quiet restraint. His touch was round, full and forthright, especially the soft passages that had a kind of tension very few possess. Born at Lahore in 1930 into a family of musicians, writers and dramatist, Sunil Mukherjee had music running in his veins.
His father, late Rai Saheb Jibon Chandra Mukherjee, was a distinguished personality from the world of theatre and music in his era. His passion for directing plays and having rehearsals drew young Sunil, who listened to the musicians with rapt attention for hours.
One day, long after the rehearsal was over and all the musicians had left, Rai saheb heard a particular phrase of the background music in the play, being repeated by someone on Tessicota and wondered who could play the instrument so mellifluously! He was pleasantly surprised to find young Sunil, his barely 10-year-old-son, playing the instrument in the music room with such elan. The revelation intuitively entangled both, father and son, in a long embrace.
In recognition of his innate talent, Sunil was gifted a small Sarod, that initiated his passionate journey into the world of music. Initially he took music lessons from his father but later P S Mukherjee, the then director of All India Radio (AIR) Orchestra, took him under his wings. After graduating from Bhatkhande College of Music, Lucknow, he was further groomed under Pandit Ravi Shankar into the nuances of Maihar Gharana.
Mukherjee was a top grade artiste of AIR and Doordarshan. He started giving public performance from a very young age. His association with AIR goes back to mid-1950s, when there were just a handful of Sarod players. He performed across the length and breadth of the country in almost all the major music conferences, including the Radio Sangeet Sammelan, Bhatkhande Music Festival, Harivallabh Sangeet Samaroh and many more.
He was also nominated to represent the country in various international music festivals in Europe, the USSR, Kenya, South Pacific Islands et al. He graciously shared his expertise of classical music as consultant and a visiting lecturer at Delhi University. He had been the member of audition boards AIR and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). He was a dedicated Guru too.
Carrying forward the age-old tradition of Guru- Shishya Parampara, he bequeathed his legacy to deserving disciples, grooming a number of them into accomplished musicians, like the Sitar-Sarod duo Kedia Brothers. The void that has been left due to his demise would be difficult to fill. He was a true legend in his own right and would always be fondly remembered for his contribution to Indian classical music.