A story of extraordinary genius, of a penchant for the creation of beautiful art, can emerge from the smallest of towns to the most globalised of cities. This, then, is the story of Banaras, of women like Siddheshwari Devi, Rasoolan Bai and Girija Devi, who have proved with their exceptional talent and hard work that their mettle was stronger than any odds against them whatsoever, than even the taboos placed upon women singing publicly. They are part of a venerable tradition which has fostered some of our civilization’s most outstanding musicians. The older among them are no more. And many have moved to bigger cities for exploration beyond the borders of their hometown. However, to understand the contemporary music scene in the ancient city, I decided to talk to those who have chosen to stay back and work here, who feel that their lives are so intertwined with that of the city that they cannot imagine being elsewhere. This is their story.
Sprouting new leaves, rooted in the old
As I step onto Banaras soil, I am keen on documenting women as always and meet the vocalist Sucharita Gupta, who learnt from Savita Devi, who, in turn had none other than the accomplaished Siddheshwari Devi as her guru. Her house is teeming with girls of all ages, mostly students from primary school to college, sitting on dhurries. A sincere looking seven-year-old, probably the youngest apprentice there, with Soframycin and talcum powder on newly pierced ears is about to sing. There is a sprinkling of boys waiting around the place too.
The veteran singer from Assam – a previous generation would associate her with their more favoured taste and preferences in music – recalls her journey. 'In my family if you were a woman you weren't allowed to sing, except when you presented bhajans to Gopala. My grandmother had made that clear to me. On the other hand, despite being a businessman, my father was a classical singer. He also happened to be the secretary of my school. Once, after my grandmother had passed away, I secretly participated in a singing competition and won. When it was time to give away the prizes, the school secretary was invited onstage. Scared that I'd have to face my father, I refused to go to accept my prize, till my friends made me go. When I reached home, he just said, "Ustadji will come tomorrow to give your lessons."'
Another turning point for Sucharita Gupta was having witnessed the recital of Savita Devi, a stalwart of her time. 'After the performance I walked up to her and said I would learn from her. She said, "I live in Delhi." I answered, "I'll come." "Where will you live?" she asked. I easily responded, "I'll live with you," and that was it. I went with her and she gave me a lot of affection. I was not more than 13 or 14. If I woke up at night she would put me to sleep and then at 4 in the morning she would do her riyaz. I would make tea for her and eat after she had eaten. When my daughter got married recently, she came and stayed by my side, as my mother would have done.'
She talks about her reverence towards music, 'When Tansen would sing Raga Malhar, it would bring in the rains. We strive for similar excellence. Once we went to sing in a programme organised during the monsoon; our choice was Raga Desh. The same day at 2 in the morning we were thrilled to hear the peacocks' hypnotic calls, as if in response.'
'We have songs for all the sixteen samskaras of life, each event from birth to death. Whenever parts of our classical songs feature in Hindi films, the song is a huge hit, like "Aaoge jab tum o sajna". Sadly, some of us in the older generation have made the education of classical music intimidating. We should keep it accessible for whosoever wants to learn.' Her appreciation is not limted to classical music. 'Folk music is equally important. A student once told me how she listens to her grandmother sing, notes it down and then sings the songs on the radio. Children who haven't even started speaking properly would sing bits and pieces because they would have heard their mothers sing.'
I had noticed upon entering the house all the students touched their guru's feet. An older student, probably in college, was helping with the younger students and also making tea for the guests. Gupta shares her opinion on the guru-shishya tradition. 'Earlier a student considered the guru a parent – a Guru Ma, the teacher mother. Both would cook together and live in the same place. Now this has been replaced by a monetary relationship. Schools and colleges are not the same any more. But the fact remains that if students spend time with teachers listening to them do riyaz and follow the guru's conduct they would pick up even faster. They become an extension of the family. My daughter recently got married and all the arrangements were done so smoothly because my students were running around as if the wedding had been in their own family. Students even participated in the sangeet and people were so happy to listen to and recollect their traditional songs.'
She stops to ask some girls who are leaving about how they would go. After confirming that their guardians have come to pick them up, she turns to answer my question about the role of music in the current sociopolitical climate where so many incidents of communal violence have been reported, including in UP. 'Art has no caste or religion. Bismillah Khan did his riyaz in a temple, Allauddin Khan was a follower of the goddess Kali. Music has always brought people together. It is the politicians who hire goons to riot. Music is therapy that heals. When the Kargil war was on, a music concert was organised for the martyrs. The audience was so moved that they were willing to take off their jewellery as contribution to the cause. If there are students who are aggressive and they start learning music, they gradually become serene.'
Sucharita Gupta runs special classes for women who love music but could not pursue it after marriage. 'I once went to a college where I was asked to sing a kajri, "Kaise khele jebu sawan mein kajaria." I asked the women to sing with me but they were unfamiliar with the song. It really saddened me to see that living in Banaras they didn't know of a song so popular here. It was then that I decided to teach the traditional songs to these women.'
I go to one such class where about 15 women have assembled in a ground floor room in an apartment. Gupta concedes that women have many 'duties' at home so rules are relaxed here. I ask the students how they manage to spare even this amount of time when they have so much housework to do. A woman in her fifties responds, "We grab time by the neck and pull it out." They break to sing a love song, reading the lyrics from covered notebooks, yearly diaries and loose sheets. Even before I can start paying attention to the lyrics, the gentle tone of their collective voice soothes. Later I think that this is what some would call a motley crew of singers, even amateur, but they sound exactly what they are, trained singers, no matter how early an stage they might be at in the training.
Together they sing
These classes have been going on for four years. Earlier they were held twice a week but now it's mostly once because not all women could come twice and then they would miss out on the course. 'But we even come on all seven days if we have a programme coming,' the students share. At present they are rehearsing to sing in the festival Subah-e-Banaras. They have performed on radio too and to keep more and more people interested in music, on one occasion they sang popular old Hindi film songs in the Banaras club, which were widely appreciated.
A retired schoolteacher talks of how she always wanted to learn music. 'This is not just work but pleasure for us.' Students intimidated by other teachers come to Gupta. 'I had never learnt classical but she teaches so simply. She taught us to enjoy it. The oldest student in the class is 75 and no less enthusiastic.
Gupta also makes it a point to teach them festival and folk songs. 'I keep encouraging them to learn further. I would like to send them for radio auditions and hope those who wok hard and do well also get bigger platforms to perform.' A young woman recalls how she had almost given up because she couldn't manage to come to class with housework and her job. But Gupta kept saying that even if she comes once a year she should come. This motivated the student to keep coming.
Not distracted by all the praise heaped on her by the pupils, Gupta proceeds to test them on theory, and most of her questions get answered. One woman says, 'This is a restoration of our childhood.' Gupta quips, 'Yes, and when they sneak guavas in the classroom and eat them on the backbenches or chit-chat they also get scolded like schoolgirls.'
About whether there is any apprehension in their homes regarding women going to learn music, they say people have been supportive. The youngest woman remembers that it was her father-in-law who inspired her to go. Maybe given Banaras's culture of music in every ghat and gully, people are more understanding and welcoming of it. Yet at times it seems the women also keep the two worlds separate and are not comfortable with practising at home. 'It is embarrassing if a guest comes and finds you sitting with the harmonium. Some of our kids complain of getting disturbed'. Another laughs nervously, 'Once my son heard me practise and later told me he thought it was some beggar on the streets.' One of her classmates is quick to take umbrage on her behalf and says she would give the son a piece of her mind.
At 5.45 the next morning I am at Assi Ghat, when and where I am told I would be able to witness Subah-e-Banaras, a 200-day programme organised by the state government. Each morning a group of artists perform at the ghat, followed by a yoga session. The programme has not yet begun so I shift my attention to the aarti preparations. Similarly clad priests and their similar looking pooja 'desks' with the flowers and aarti plates stand in a line at equal distance to each other. I cannot help thinking of a perfectly set stage for a performance. An announcement is made so people wishing to offer aarti can go down the steps and assemble the material needed for the ritual. In unison the aarti begins and right after it ends the singers on the stage start singing.
Preparations for the morning aarti
Any crude attempt at categorisation fails as one looks at the diverse age and class groups sitting on the chairs and dhurries. Unlike many concerts where the audience may get distracted or seem detached, the audience here bears an air of gravitas, with reverence towards the performance and the performers. Some have brought mats from home that they would use later for the yoga. As soon as the programme ends, without any awkward gaps, the temple bell rings.
I have been intrigued by the tabla accompanist who is a woman, still not a very common sight. Priya Tiwari is pursuing her PhD with the help of a government fellowship. Her own thesis is also on women players of tabla and pakhawaj. There are also other girls in college, she says, who are learning to play the instrument. In her opinion one reason for keeping women away is their thinking that playing the tabla makes women's hands hard. She says that this is a myth and that actually soft hands play better music.
Fateh Ali, Bismillah Khan's grandson, was seven when he started playing the shehnai. 'It is a pity that shehnai is not a part of the taught course in colleges, which is why today there are not many shehnai students. Although the government was open to the idea of adding it to the curriculum, artists, earlier not keen on the academic world, didn’t help the initiative much. Now again we are trying. Sarangi is another instrument that is slowing moving towards the “endangered” category. Both the instruments and the related arts need to be preserved.'
Fateh Ali Khan
His great grandfather was the first in the family to have started playing the shehnai. 'Earlier they were played only during weddings but my family changed that.' Relating his grandfather Bismillah Khan's story, he says, 'His name was Kamruddin. But as he was the youngest in the family, he would always take permission of the older brothers before playing. They would express their assent in the word "Bismillah", indicating he should begin. And thus he became Bismillah Khan.'
All his brothers specialised in some instrument or the other but Bismillah could play them all. 'As kids we would sit with Dada Saab and he would work with each of us. He would say, “Sing so that even a rickshaw-wallah is moved to turn his head and see who is singing.”' Many players still feel nervous performing on stage. Since we have the advantage of having seen players in the family at close quarters, we don't have that fear.
'[Bismillah] Khan Saab never declared that one or the other of us would do well. He always said, “Jo karega woh payega” (the one who works shall get). Somehow this stayed with me. I felt like I had to do something. In winters I would be up early, practising with the quilt around me. If practice dwindled, my brothers and sisters would remind me to do it. My mother would teach that no matter how modest the sum a person must earn their own living.
'Shehnai is the only instrument to be able to act like all others. Our family mixes three gharanas (three generations make a gharana): Banaras, Kirana, Gwalior. We can play so traces of each can be heard, a skill possessed only by Banarasi people. We used to keep a mirror in front to check how we would appear on stage. Presentation mattered. We were sent out to learn from other gurus too and include that in our work. In the same family, different players have different individual styles.
'In those days the student-teacher relationship was something else. We used to sit in the room where our guru would sit. But we didn't sit next to him. We would prepare tea for him. Then we started riyaz. Now students come, pay Rs 1000 for an hour and go. Music is a form of worship but some of these students don't even bother taking a bath. If we are not cultured, we cannot learn music. They go together. When someone calls himself a guru's disciple, what of the guru's does he imbibe?'
Does music help in eradicating socio-religious-economic differences? The shehnai player says, 'Definitely music is an equaliser. We have gurus of all religions. We bow our head everywhere. On the ghats, there used to be a blind man whose voice was so miraculous that even Pandit Jasraj praised him. You will find music in every gully here.'
An academic and a performer
R.P. Shastri, the ex-dean of Banaras Hindu University, is also a violinist. 'Banaras saw traditional learning where each temple had huge programmes that would beat any conference. Each temple was maintained like a cultural centre. Those who learnt elsewhere also presented here. Gayan (singing), vadan (playing instruments), nritya (dance) – Kashi houses all three.
'It was Madan Mohan Malviya's dream that BHU should be a centre for learning with knowledge from both the East and the West. Along with the university, he also wanted to set up an academy of music. In 1950 the College of Music and Fine Arts was established and Omkarnath Thakur designed the course in keeping with contemporary times.
Shastri emanates the vibes of an ethnomusicologist when he talks about the peculiar relationship between the city, its people, and its music – a tripartite structure of divine measure. 'The ghats of Banaras are host to musical programmes, and earlier there was chamber music too. The listeners are a match to the artists. Whether it is someone from the West or from neighbouring Pakistan, the artists are happy to find learned and passionate audience. Once when Pandit Ravi Shankar had a programme, despite a steady downpour the audience stayed put. Pandit ji remarked that not just the people but the animals of Banaras are also music aficionados. Artists used to say that they have to pass the Kashi test, win the hearts of the audience here, to be able to prove their worth. It is not that the audience has any training. But they have developed a keen ear from regular exposure to fine music.
'You can also hear Carnatic music played here, and many others. Ghats are called mini India as people from different states have settled around specific ghats and their music has also become a part of Banaras.
Discussing how media can disseminate music, he says, 'Apart from live performances, during my youth radio used to be the biggest medium. I didn't have one and would cycle for four to six kilometres to listen to someone else's radio. Nowadays despite so many TV channels DD Bharti is the only one giving space to real music. People in the south of India are more conscious about preserving their culture. Their channels play their own music.'
On what accounts for excellence in an artist, he says, 'The one who suffers will be the biggest artist. In abhaav (lack),bhaav (feeling) is born. Look at Abdul Karim Khan. He rose despite being from a poor family. After struggling and making his own mark, he encouraged others as well and mentored talented students without worrying about their background.'
Alauddin Khan, who played twenty-two instruments, was another example of dogged will. Shastri resumes, 'The older artists didn't focus on clothes like the present generation does. Though there is no dearth of music, the quality often gets compromised now. To think there was a time when the audience used to stay during the overnight programme and tell people that for food and drinks they would be ordering music,' he ends with a smile.
Reviews and Returns
Rajeshwar Acharya was a student of BHU and the head of performing arts in Gorakhpur University. They say he is the go-to man if you have the heart to hear brutal critiques and honest admissions. When he learns of my assignment, he talks of the reporters who would go to a concert and 'rate' it as “astounding” and “inspired a big round of applause”. 'Cultural journalism is lost except for a few comments.'
Then he turns his attention to his favourite subject – music. 'In the beginning one didn't have the option of pursuing a bachelor's degree in music. 'People would ask, "Why do you want to take up music if you don't have any physical disability?" If someone with a PhD in music would use the "Dr" in their name, they would be asked if they dealt in homoeopathy.' The faculty in universities would talk dismissively of music when Acharya became a music teacher. 'I said I can prove that performance is everywhere and in trying to enrich the academics, I moved away from performance.' He laments the lack of analysis and critique in the discipline of music. 'My own students have done my critique in excellent ways. But people just want praise.
'We teach our students how to identify flaws in a musical piece. Yet people who would have these inconsistencies in their performance are getting national awards. How is this happening? Success in music is being measured by what has never been an element of music – competition and prizes. Those who have sold their music will get obliterated. Getting awards is no big deal if you cannot move a layperson with your work. What good is your Olympic gold if you can't help an old man with his load?'
Coming back to these patrons of the arts who belong to the masses, he pronounces with approval that the city cares about being meaningful. 'Even a common person can tell whether a piece “touched his heart” or “felt like his mother's greeting”. This prevalence of music in the most humble of households should not be underestimated. What women sung in their homes was later picked up by Siddheshwari Devi. When toothless old men sing and express their joy in the process, it becomes infectious and gladdens other hearts. You won't find these genuine art appreciators or practitioners too dressed up. In Banaras you find genius mathematicians and musicians in lungis. At times people who would come to meet me would look me up and down and ask me if I am Rajeshwar Acharya. I would say, “Ji haan. Main hi hoon. Aap mujhse milne aaye hain ya mere kapdon se?” (Yes, I am the one. Have you come to meet me or my clothes?)
'True music will pierce your soul. I have had conversations with so many people of all classes in Banaras. There is no inequality in these groups. We are all friends today. Banaras is the place where you can become a “pundit” regardless of your caste or class. Meera worships Ravidas here. The caste that gets oppressed all over finds relief here.'
The inevitable question of making a living through the arts arises and he replies, 'I am not saying music shouldn't be able to feed you. But you cannot cheapen and commercialise what is food for your soul.'
Music, whenever, wherever
'In Banaras we don't need an excuse for musical performances.' Lalit Kumar, tabla accompanist, has been teaching in the Mahila Mahavidyalaya of BHU and also accompanying several artists. 'Apart from the bigger festivals, there are baithaks in Banaras. They are done for 50-60 people in small halls or houses. Budwamangal, the Tuesday after the festival of Holi, is also celebrated. It is done to say goodbye to the old (budwa) year and also to create a space for old people to celebrate Holi. Another occasion is Gulabari. Rose petals mixed with water are strewn on people. Thandai is served with paan and kaju burfi, and the programme continues through the night.
'If you want to come and enjoy the music of Banaras there are so many festivals lined up: Sankat Mochan, Dev Deepavali, Ganga Mahotsav . . . Assi and Dashawamedh ghats are specially favoured for the open air programmes.'
This is the extent to which the music is seeped into the breath of this city – it does not belong to one or another but rather it is of Banaras, of Banarasis, musicians and non-musicians alike.
The objective eye
Though not a musician himself, author Kashinath Singh's books would give the reader a perfect vision of Banaras. He has lived in the city and lived the city. So it seems fitting to know about his take on the music Banaras offers. He begins, 'When we were young, the author Agyeya would bring out the paper Dinman. We got to know of Pandit Jasraj through that.
Kashinath Singh and Lalit Kumar (L to R)
'Music has always cut across religions. Sa re ga ma is the same for everyone. After the 2006 bomb blast in Sankat Mochan temple, where the Sankat Mochan music festival is held each year, Muslim artists also started coming there. Artists from all religions played there and together appealed for peace.
He too had something to add about the preservation of Banaras’s rich musical heritage, 'New talent would continue to arise. But earlier if your guru tied a ganda (amulet) on you, it would mean you dedicate your entire life to your art form. Now we don't know how many people are devoted to music and how many are learning only to teach foreigners. I understand that one has to struggle to maintain their dignity and eke out a living. Let's see how we can do this gracefully.'
Once a Banarasi . . .
Wistful that I couldn't spend more time in the city and soak up all the music I had to offer, I board the train for my return journey. But Banaras is not done with me. An employee of HP travelling in the same compartment, Sudarshan Mishra, strikes up a conversation. 'I make it a point to go either to Ganga Mahotsav or Sankat Mochan festival or to any that I can go to. Of course in school the RIMPA festival used to be the big attraction. The fest would host the prominent classical music celebrities of that time. We couldn't afford even the cheapest tickets so we would try to scale the wall. I miss Banaras and its music.' He sighs, sharing a vivid memory of the muharram procession when Bismillah Khan would walk playing his shehnai and listeners, regardless of their religion, would be eagerly jostling on the sides of the road.'
I could in a way relate to his nostalgia. The echoes of the instruments, the nuanced voices of the singers in Banaras seem to give the setting for a time preserved in memory. Music is not hurried in Banaras. It takes its time. And in that time it permeates the air and your ear with its notes so that even when you wake up the next morning , you can feel the self being strummed upon.
A lone boat at the ghat