Pandit Nirmalya Dey – Review

In the spring of 2016, I had the rare pleasure of attending two concerts of the dhrupad vocal maestro Pandit Nirmalya Dey, given at the end of a month-long tour of the USA with master percussionist Mohan Shyam Sharma on pakhawaj.

The audience at each venue, which included both novice listeners and people with many years of well-informed listening to raga music, left both stunned and gratified at the end of the recital. The comments ranged from “I felt like he was re-arranging my molecules” to “Such satisfying and beautiful music. Why have I not heard of him before?”

On the first evening, Nirmalya Dey began the concert with an extensive alap in Rag Multani with elaborate development in three speeds. This was followed by a composition with variations in choutal, a 12 beat rhythmic cycle in which Mohan Shyam Sharma had the opportunity to shine. Next was an exquisite sadara (10 beats) in the raga Chhayanat, composed by Abban Khan, a 19th century sarangi player and Sufi, who was the student and brother-in-law of Behram Khan, the fountainhead of the Dagar musical tradition. The last item on the program was a short alap and a popular Dagar anthem in sultal (fast 10 beat cycle) “Siva Siva Siva” in the raag Adana. The Sunday concert had a similar format, beginning with an extensive alap followed by choutal, this time in Bhimpalasi. The second item was in raag Durga which took on an unusual color due to the first string of the tanpura being tuned to shuddh nishadh (a major seventh, a pitch officially absent from Durga, but which can be used obliquely as an ornament of dhaivat, the major sixth). The alap was followed by another lovely sadara, composed once more by Abban Khan. The stunner, for me at least, was the final item, which was alap and dhammar (fourteen beats) in raag Desh. I have heard Desh hundreds of times before, perhaps a thousand times. I did not think I would ever hear something new sung in Desh. But that evening, I did. Nirmalya Dey brought out unsuspected colors hidden within the structure of this raag, staying ever true to the letter and spirit of Desh.

The imprint of his guru Zia Fariduddin Dagar is easily heard in Nirmalya Dey’s music and from time to time one sometimes hears a touch of influence from Zia Moinuddin Dagar, something rarely heard nowadays. This serves to deepen and root his own gayaki which accords with his voice and personality.

Jody Stecher