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Strings attached to Varanasi

Somi Das | Updated on January 31, 2021

Legend: Pt Shivnath Mishra poured all his musicality into the instrument, developing what one can call the singing sitar style of playing

How Pandit Shivnath Mishra founded the first sitar gharana of Banaras and took it to the world stage

* Shivnath Mishra captured the essence of the gayaki — the singing style — of the Banaras gharana on his sitar, a style of playing often called the “first sitar gharana” of Banaras

* His Academy of Indian Classical Music, an institution he founded in 1999, upholds the dignity of the guru-sishya parampara — the ancient tradition of pupils learning from their gurus

* “Critics of Indian classical music often judge your mettle by seeing how well you can replicate Pandit Ravi Shankar or Ustad Vilayat Khan. What happens to originality then?” asks Deobrat Mishra

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Right opposite the 18th-century Durga Kund temple near Varanasi’s Assi Ghat is a narrow lane that takes you to Sitar Kunj — the abode of sitar. You follow the trail of music — the beats of the tabla with the jhankar of the sitar — and know that you have reached the unassuming yet disarming residence of the city’s legendary musician, Pandit Shivnath Mishra.

At 78, Guruji, as he was popularly known while he taught the sitar at the Sampuranand Sanskrit University — and how he is still referred to — continues to attract international students to his Academy of Indian Classical Music, an institution he founded in 1999. The academy upholds the dignity of the guru-sishya parampara — the ancient tradition of pupils learning from their gurus. At his gurukul, classes flow through the day; students stay there, eat together, and learn music.

Mishra is always happy to receive new visitors and generously plays a thumri or two to entertain them. With a mischievous wink, he reveals a fraction of the genius that he is, his music reverberating at the core of your heart long after he has played the last note.

Passing the baton: Pandit Shivnath Mishra is the guru for both his son Deobrat Mishra (right) and his grandson Krisna Mishra (left)   -  SOMI DAS

 

His more loquacious son, 44-year old Deobrat Mishra, usually comes to the rescue of curious visitors in awe of his father’s dazzling performance. “That’s the music of the Banaras gharana. We are the 11th generation of musicians of the Banaras gharana and the third generation of sitar players of the same school.”

His father and his guru captured the essence of the gayaki — the singing style — of the Banaras gharana on his sitar, a style of playing often called the “first sitar gharana” of Banaras. “This is his unique style which we have taken to the world stage,” Deobrat says. His 15-year-old son Krisna Mishra is now being trained by his grandfather.

A music city

The Banaras gharana is an eclectic school of music influenced by musicians from all over the country who settled in the city over the years. “The gharana system started taking shape in the city 600-700 years ago. The musicians who laid the foundation of the Banaras gharana came from places such as Azamgarh, Bhagalpur, Samastipur and Lucknow,” explains musician and chronicler of Banaras music, Kameshwar Nath Mishra. “Banaras was an attractive destination for musicians as Kashi Naresh (Kings of Kashi) like Chet Singh and the rich businessmen of the city took great care in nurturing them... These settlers brought with them their unique styles of singing, instrument playing and dancing,” he says.

In 2015, Unesco awarded Kashi or Varanasi the status of a music city. Music, indeed, is a veritable part of the city. The Dhrupad mela attracts people from across the world. In recent years, the city has hosted several other music festivals, too.

The author of Kashi ki sangeet paramapara stresses that the early music of the Banaras gharana was influenced and shaped by the styles of Thakur Prasad, Darghai and Mithailal, who were experts in the four forms of Indian music — vocal, instrumental, percussion and dance. Ram Sahai started the Banaras tabla gharana 200 years ago, introducing a new technique of using all five digits to produce beats that could accompany different genres of singing and dance.

The exponents of the gharana include legends such as Bade Ramdas, Ram Prasad Mishra, Badri Prasad Mishra, Harishankar Mishra, Bageshwari Devi, Siddheswari Devi, Rasoolan Bai and Girija Devi. It has produced instrumentalists such as Hanuman Prasad Misra and Gopal Mishra (both sarangi) and Anokhe Lal, Kanthe Maharaj, Kishan Maharaj and Gudai Maharaj (tabla).

All that jazz

Shivnath Mishra comes from a family of illustrious singers — his great grandfather was Bade Ram Das, his elder brothers were Amarnath and Pashupatinath (popularly known as Mishra Bandhus). But Shivnath Mishra wasn’t a natural when it came to singing. He wanted to learn the sitar. His uncle Mahadev Prasad Mishra observed this and started training him to play the instrument. It was perhaps to compensate for his lack of interest in singing that Shivnath poured all his musicality into the instrument, developing what one can call the singing sitar style of playing. The Banaras gayaki style is an amalgamation of dhrupad, dhamar, khayal and thumri. Shivnath Mishra incorporated these four genres of singing in his style of sitar playing with an emphasis on thumris and sapaat taan — the rapid movement of a few selected notes in a raga.

A disruptor and innovator in the Varanasi music scene, Mishra, with a German student and a few other musicians, formed a band named The Music Ensemble of Benaras and toured Europe back in the ’70s. “What Pandit Ravi Shankar was doing in the US, my father was doing in Europe with his music band,” says Deobrat. His association with the band was, however, short-lived because of ideological and creative differences with other band members.

The international exposure brought many students to his music academy, but the parting of ways with his band members caused him great grief, his son recalls.

“Seeing my father slipping away (emotionally), and the monetary condition of the family, my mother decided to send me abroad to perform with him,” he says. “I would organise my father’s concert, carry all the instruments, play the sitar during duets, while playing the tabla parts as well during my father’s solo,” he says. While he began touring with his father in 1994, he gradually started charting his own path in the music circuits of Varanasi and Europe, doing concerts, collaborating with international artists, conducting music workshops and winning many awards.

Much like his father, Deobrat is a rebel. “Critics of Indian classical music often judge your mettle by seeing how well you can replicate Pandit Ravi Shankar or Ustad Vilayat Khan. What happens to originality then?” Indian classical music, he points out, allows a practitioner to be free. “You can experiment and improvise. Yes, you have to master the technique but then you have to break away from it as well if we want to keep our music contemporary,” he says.

Classic jazz: Trio Benares, a band that came into existence in 2014 after a jam session at Deobrat’s house, went on to bag the German Jazz Record Critics Award in 2016 for their album Assi Ghat

 

He has also formed his own fusion band with German jazz musician and saxophone player Roger Hanschel. Trio Benares came into existence in 2014 after a jam session at his house in Varanasi and went on to bag the German Jazz Record Critics Award for their album Assi Ghat in 2016. “I find jazz to be very liberating when it comes to improvisations and jugalbandis,” he says.

The Covid-19 crisis and the cancellation of international tours have hit the family hard. “To keep the artist in me active and engaged I have started beaming live on social media. Also, I am teaching like never before,” he says.” Students from all over the world — San Francisco, New York, Munich, Venice and so on — dial in to take lessons with him.

In his 2002 book Benares: A world within a world, British writer Richard Lannoy wrote: “I found people in Benaras who manage to give physical expression to the beauty of soul.” It is as though he were describing the Mishra family.

Somi Das is a freelance writer based in New Delhi

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Published on January 31, 2021
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