It all started 7 decades back, when the corridors of the majestic mansion of Narayandahar (in Mymensing district of East Bengal, currently Bangladesh) Zamindars found a child of 5 running around to make sure his elder brother (a student of sitar) was out of the house; then picking up the full-fledged tarabdar sitar with the confidence of a master, tuning it to perfection & reproducing on it Ustad Inayat Khan's Khamaj, Tilak Kamod, Bhairavi in smooth succession, exactly as he had heard on the gramaphone record.
No exaggeration that Monoj Shankar took to sitar as a swan takes to water. The musical ambience of his ancestral home - venue of many a mehfil where visiting musicians entertained the landed gentry with their artistry - the guidance & encouragement of his uncle (himself a musician & musicologist) & his inborn talent manifest in his control over the complicated 20-stringed instrument without being formally taught the basic principles of fingering & stroking. The close proximity of the distinguished musicians who were patronized by his family (including legends like Chhote Khan, Chandrika Prasad Dubey, Khusru Miyan) stimulated the talented youngster's passion for music further.
That silent tryst with destiny was enacted by subsequent events : formal initiation to sitar under Shri Sukhamay Sengupta, a noted disciple of Inayat Khan Sahib, who taught Monoj Shankar for a few months.The Sangeet Sammelan to raise funds for Noakhali riot-vicitims featured stalwarts such as Allauddin Khan, Keramatullah Khan, Sachin Das Matilal, Tarapada Chakrabarty, etc & interaction with them probably hardened the budding musician's resolve to dedicate his life to "sangeet sadhana".
The turbulence of pre & post-partition years ruptured the harmony of the Bhatiyali
(boatman's song) he listened to for hours on the banks of the river and Monoj Shankar's teenage sensibilities witnessed a new, grim reality of life - the trauma of being uprooted from a safe haven of luxury, to a life of struggle for survival in an alien land. The family crossed over to India (the 'modern' independent India, as distinguished from the undivided India of the Raj) & settled in Siliguri, North Bengal, where high school, college were priorities while music continued.
Undergraduate studies found Monoj Shankar in Kolkata when he met renowned sitarist Ustad Ali Ahmed Khan armed with a letter of introduction from his chemistry teacher in Siliguri. The Ustad - on hearing him play - recognized raw talent & accepted him as his disciple.Talim (training) & performances ran parallel and the annual festival of the famous Allauddin Sangeet Samaj found Monoj Shankar (accompanied by Mahapurush Mishra on tabla) performing together with luminaries including Bade Gulam Ali, Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Banerjee. Connoisseurs of Kolkata acknowledged the virtuosity of the young sitarist who made his presence felt in the major musical events. Around this time Ustad Bahadur Khan - fresh from Maihar - arrived with his sarod in Kolkata & mesmerized the music-world. Ritwik Ghatak, his ardent admirer and legendary film director, promptly persuaded him to compose the background score for "Subarnarekha".
Bahadur Khan - who had heard Monoj Shankar peform in several festivals & had marked his flair for creative work - invited him to join him to assist in the music-composition. Later Ustad Bahadur Khan proposed to teach Monoj Shankar, who - though hesitant & unwilling initially, in keeping with traditional ethics - was later persuaded by Ustad Ali Ahmed Khan sahib to accept Ustad Bahadur Khan as his second guru.
This guru-shishya bond continued till the death of the ustads.....while Monoj Shankar's journey continued past important milestones. Leading music festivals of India - including Sadarang, North Calcutta, Entally, Ballygunge, Shova Bazar, Srirampur, Sri Ram Centre (Delhi), music conferences in Patna, Darbhanga, Allahabad, Kanpur, Cooch Behar, Silchar (Assam), Sikkim, etc - were witness to the dhrupad-ang baaj of a true gharanedar. Sensational Jugalbandis with his guru Ustad Bahadur Khan reached the height of popularity & Pandit Monoj Shankar excelled in solo & duet programmes with legendary tabla-players such as Keramat Khan, Kishen Maharaj, Kanai Dutta, Latif Ahmed, Sharda Sahai etc. By that time his contribution to the background music of award-winning films & documentaries - including M S Sathyu's Garam Hawa - and ballet/theater was well-known.
Teaching - which had started in the early 50s during his period of struggle - subsequently became a special aspect of his remarkable musicality, marked by knowledge of oceanic magnitude, yogic patience, uncanny insight into the student's mind, articulation of a high order and, what's more, a parental urge for students' "upbringing" . No wonder that he is considered one of the most revered gurus of the country, some of whose students are established professionals, acclaimed in India & abroad.
The Instrumental Music Department of Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata, drew upon his knowledge & teaching ability for more than a decade. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, London, invited him to their prestigious Summer School as Visiting Professor in 2007 when Pandit Monoj Shankar overwhelmed audiences & students in UK by his performance & teaching.
The Government of West Bengal ( Dept of Information & Culture ) & Baba Allauddin Memorial Committee felicitated him at Rabindra Sadan, Kolkata, recently for his contribution to music.