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I was listening to an interview with Esther Duflo on the Conversions with Tyler podcast series. She was asked about Indian classical music and here response was that her husband Abhijit Banerjee (a co-recipient of the 2019 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences together with her) is an expert listener:

Abhijit, my husband, is really into it. In fact, South Indian and North Indian both. We listen to it at home, and we go to concerts whenever we are in India. Chennai is one place where we do a lot of work and J-PAL has its headquarters, and it has some of the best South Indian music.

Do we know more about Abhijit Banerjee's taste in Indian classical music and what starting points for own exploration this may suggest.

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I'm not sure you can get very far in exploring Abhijit Banerjee's tastes in Indian classical music. He seems to be a connoisseur of Indian classical music, but not an artist, and there appears to be very little information about his musical tastes. (If you were instead asking about the tabla artist Abhijit Banerjee, things might be different!)

Since winning the Nobel in Economics in 2019 along with his wife Esther Duflo, many news outlets have interviewed people to know more about him. The best that I can gather from these reports is as follows:

  • Noted historian Ramachandra Guha tweeted that Banerjee was a "superb cook and connoisseur of Hindustani classical music", a line quoted in most news reports (for example, here).

  • Abhijit Pathak, one of his close friends from Presidency College (now Presidency University), mentions that Banerjee enjoyed western music and introduced him to Bob Dylan (source).

  • His mother Nirmala says, "He liked cinema, he liked music, and he liked walking, so he said he would not waste all that time travelling,” (source). But there is no mention of anything more specific.

  • This news outlet reports that Banerjee was

a "fun guy" with a keen interest in Indian classical music that he inherited from his economist father, late Dipak Banerjee. But like his wide-ranging intellectual interests, Banerjee’s taste in music is also eclectic, said his friends.


Apart from these and the one mentioned in the question details, the best and only real source of information comes from his interview on the Conversations with Tyler podcast series. I'm quoting the relevant part of the transcript below:

On Indian classical music

COWEN: If I look at the earlier history of Indian classical music in Bengal, to outsiders, Ravi Shankar is best known, but there are many top performers. And more recently, Bengal in Indian classical music seems to be less important. Do you agree? And if so, why is that?

BANERJEE: Well, I think Bengal was never the place for vocal. As a real, I would say a real addict of vocal Indian classical music, I would say Bengal is not, never the center of . . . If you look at the list of the top performers in vocal Indian classical music, no one really is a Bengali.

In instrumental, Bengal was always very strong. Right now, one of the best vocalists in India is a man who lives in Kolkata. His name is Rashid Khan. He’s absolutely fabulous in my view, maybe the best. On a good day, he’s the best that there is. He’s not a Bengali. He’s from Bihar, I think, and he comes and settles in Kolkata. I think a Hindi speaker by birth, other than a Bengali. So I don’t think Bengal ever had top vocalists.

It had top instrumentalists, and Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Banerjee — these were all Bengali instrumentalists. Even now, I would say the best instrumentalists, a lot of them are either Bengali or a few of them are second . . . Vilayat Khan and Imrat Khan were the two great non-Bengali instrumentalists of that period, I would say, of the strings especially. And they both settled in Kolkata, so that their children grew up in Kolkata.

And the other great instrumentalists are these Kolkata-born. They went to the same high school as I did. There were these Kolkata-born, not of Bengali families, but from very much the same culture. So I think Kolkata still is the place which produces the best instrumentalists — sitarists, sarod players, et cetera.

COWEN: Why is the better vocal music so often from the South?

BANERJEE: Oh, that’s a separate question. Separate. The South actually has its own vocal tradition, which is completely different. I actually don’t know enough about it to say. I think the best vocalists typically, right now, come from Maharashtra and North Karnataka. That’s sort of the middle southwest.

But the deep South has a completely different tradition. They sing in entirely different ways. The tradition that I listen a lot to is the tradition of Maharashtra and North Karnataka. And that’s where, to me, in my mind — the great home of classical vocal music right now is that part of India, the area kind of starting at Bombay, going down to Bangalore. That chunk of India is where the great classical musicians are.

COWEN: Like Pandit Kumar.

BANERJEE: Yes. Or . . . I’m going to blank on the names of . . . Certainly Venkatesh Kumar, but also . . . I’m going to blank on the name of this young woman artist who I just heard whom I thought was just fabulous.

COWEN: Amonkar? She’s not young anymore, but —

BANERJEE: No, she died, Kishori Amonkar. She died a few years ago.

COWEN: Oh, I didn’t know.

BANERJEE: She was the best, I think, till I would say . . . I heard her a few times live, and when she sang, well, I don’t think anybody . . . I think what is difficult in Indian classical music is to keep the variation going and keep the musicality running. And some people do lots of variation, but they lose the sense of the overall music. She was amazing at her best. In fact, I heard her first time live — maybe not first — second time at Harvard, when we were students together, in 1985.

COWEN: Yes?

BANERJEE: And she sang an unbelievable concert in the old Fogg Museum courtyard. It was probably the best concert ever.

But no, much younger women who are in their 30s. There are really some very talented ones, but I can’t remember their names right now. I am blanking on the names. I will remember them as soon as I walk out of the room. But there’s actually lots of talented people in their 30s, 40s. Indian classical music, being the kind of thing it is, you never become a top artist till you are in your late 30s or something.

COWEN: Do the economics of Indian classical music have a future?

BANERJEE: I think so.

COWEN: Through concertizing or overseas work or how?

BANERJEE: I think through concertizing. I do think that if you look at the top echelon of these people, their fees have gone up a lot, and they’re in demand. It’s not clear to me that this is any worse than it ever was. There’s always a little bit of "You have to do it if you love it." You don’t do it because you could make money.

And the movie industry has always been quite generous. Ravi Shankar also was a music director for many films, and he composed music for many films, et cetera. Bollywood is actually a pretty good client for good classical musicians. And Bollywood is one of India’s great successes.

COWEN: With the tradition of training Indian classical musicians through the family, being passed down father to son — will that persist, or is that an anachronism?

BANERJEE: I think that’s an anachronism. I think the training schools like the SRA [Sangeet Research Academy] in Kolkata are very good. They train you, make you listen to many different people. That’s actually a good thing, for musicians to learn how to distinguish their tradition from other people’s tradition. I think that the old norms were a little bit too parochial.


So, what does this suggest for starting points for your own exploration? I cannot say it suggests much. Banerjee seems to have good taste in Hindustani music, and you can definitely start listening to any of the artists whose names are dropped in this interview.

Unless you get the chance to share a beer with Banerjee and discuss his musical interests in depth, I doubt you're going to be able to get any more insight into this topic, and it will not help you much to search for entry points into Indian classical music based on Abhijit Banerjee's favourite artists.

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    I've meanwhile also listened to the interview with Tyler and it has all lot of pertinent information (have not listened to the music yet). So thanks for the link and your answer with the relevant citation. Both Tyler Cowen's interviews with Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee seemed like such precious breaths of fresh air, because IMHO he himself can come across as quite snobbish and shallow in that format. – Drux Jan 2 at 4:55

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