When Nikhil Banerjee died in 1986, India didn't just lose one of its greatest sitar players, but one of its most influential classical musicians. A former child prodigy who won the All-Bengal sitar competition at the age of nine, Banerjee grew up to earn international acclaim as a highly skilled musician. According to The San Francisco Chronicle, Banerjee's "technique is a phenomenon, faster than cheetahs, more secure than the dollar." Music And Musicians observed that "his improvisations always sound completely natural and spontaneous.." In an obituary published after his death, The New York Times wrote "the extraordinary fluidity and assurance of his rhythmic ideas and phrasing set a standard that would have left the more international 'stars' of Indian music behind."
The son of an amateur musician, Banerjee was fascinated by his father's playing. Although he wanted to try his hand at an instrument as early as the age of four, he was discouraged by his father and grandfather. At the age of five, however, they relented and he acquired a small sitar. Banerjee took to the instrument immediately. In addition to winning the All-India sitar competition, he became the youngest musician employed by All-India Radio at the age of nine. He remained a featured radio performer for five years. One of 15 children, Banerjee was greatly influenced by Ustad Amir Khan, who would come to his family home to teach his older sister. Banerjee also studied with Mustaq Ali Khan for three months and Jnan Prakash Ghosh, who taught him to play tabla. His greatest teacher, however, was Baba (Allaudin Khan), with whom he apprenticed, along with Ravi Shankar, from 1947 until 1952. Following Khan's death, Banerjee went on to study with Khan's son, Ali Akbar Khan, for an additional five years. Banerjee subsequently performed an estimated 1,000 concerts in India as Khan's accompanist. Banerjee performed his first concerts outside of India in 1955 as a member of a cultural delegation sent by the Indian government to Poland, Russia, and China. He made his United States debut in 1967. For many years, Banerjee spent three months each summer teaching, performing, and lecturing/demonstrating at U. C. Berkeley.
In 1968, Banerjee was awarded the honorary title Padma Shri. The same year, he was named India's "outstanding musician of the year" by the Sangeet Nagat (music and dance) Academy. ~ Craig Harris, Rovi