Locating the house where the Hindustani classical musician Pandit Chhannulal Mishra lives in Benares was easier than I thought it would be. To begin with, there is a whole road named after him in the city: Pandit Chhannulal Mishra Marg. You only had to follow the markers to get there. And if that weren’t enough to guide you, everyone in and around his locality was more than willing to direct you to his place.
The house seemed to blend in with everything around — it purveyed a sense of simplicity and character, quite like Mishra’s compositions. Inside his small room — where shelves were crammed full with his various awards, mementos and photographs — two students accompanied Mishra. They were his acolytes, or chelas, here to learn the finer points of this art from the master, who was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2010, and is still considered one of the greatest exponents of khayal gayaki of all times.
Q: Could you retrace your journey in Hindustani Classical music for us? When did you become interested in it? Where did you begin to train?
A: I was born at Hariharpur in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh. My father, Pandit Badriprasad Mishra, was a tabla player. And I started learning to sing at the age of five. My father was transferred to Muzzafarpur in Bihar three years later. It was here that I met Ustad Abdul Ghani Khan sahab and started to learn khayal gayaki from him. After almost eight years, and only after he was convinced about my capabilities as a singer, I was allowed to perform live. So I started singing at several local shows. I also started sang for the Patna and Bhagalpur radio. At the age of 30, I came to Benaras and got married — to the daughter of Pandit Anokhelal Maharaj, also a singer.
In Benares, I started singing for the Allahabad radio. After my live performances in cities like Benaras, Allahabad and nearby areas, people started recognising me, and even Doordarshan called me for shows.
Q: You are well known as an exponent of the Kirana gharana of classical music. How relevant is the concept of
A: My guru Ustad Abdul Ghani Khan sahab “Kiranawale”, was born in a small village called Kirana. This is how the Kirana gharana got its name. But I was born in Hariharpur, and so many people say that I belong to the Harihar gharana. I totally discard the idea of gharanas and believe only in style.
Gharana means something that belongs to your ghar [home]. I want to know whether or not you get your svar [notes], lai (rhythm), or shabd [word] from home. If you say that you’ve created these elements yourself, at your home, then I’ll start believing in the concept of gharanas. And if that is not the case, then how can you claim any form of music as part of your gharana. Gharana, to me, seems like a sham, as many artists today have begun experimenting in the name of gharana even as they flout all the rules of classical music. The real gharana or school in my view is the shastriya [classical] gharana.
Q: What is the difference between a musical style, as you put it, and school?
A: Once a renowned artist was singing the Puriya raag and using the pancham [fifth note of the scale] in that. When I told him that pancham is not allowed in this raag, he said it was okay to use it in his gharana. It is very saddening to hear things. This is where we must remember the main difference between a kalakar [artist] and a kalabaaz [acrobat, or one who bends the rules].
Q: So how can one differentiate between the kalakar and kalabaaz?
A: One who complicates simple things and presents it as a tough composition is known as the kalabaaz. And nobody understands his composition except the kalabaaz himself. But a true kalakar simplifies complicated compositions, making them easier to understand for the
Gharana, to me, has begun to seem like a sham, as many artists today are experimenting in the name of gharanas even as they flout all the rules of Hindustani classical music. The real gharana or school in my view is the shastriya [classical] gharana.
Q: Earlier, there was always due regard given to Hindustani classical music in Hindi cinema, but nowadays we rarely hear anything based on classical melodies coming out of Bollywood. Why do you think that’s happening?
A: First of all, Bollywood songs are popular because they are mostly short, easy to understand and easy to listen to. Bollywood understands its audiences’ mindset and so it come up with the songs accordingly.
Q: But what can be done to popularise Indian classical music?
A: Our responsibility is to make people understand classical music. You can’t keep the public interested unless they understand the music. Keeping this in mind, during my live performances always I try to explain the whys, whats, hows of my songs and all their nuances. Through knowledge comes interest. Otherwise, people will stop listening to classical music after some years.
Q: With the advent of technology, it has become much easier for your admirers to access to your songs on the internet. How do you view this change?
A: It is good. But listening to something live gives you a different kind of experience. That’s when you get to see the artist, have eye contacts with him. That’s when you better understand the effort an artist has put into his music.
Q: You sang Saans Albeli in Prakash Jha’s Arakshan. How was the experience?
A: I sang the whole song in one take, so it was fine. The song was recorded in just an hour. The lyricist, Prasoon Joshi, music director Shankar Mahadevan, and Amitabh Bachchan appreciated the song. The song was indeed a big hit.
Q: Do awards and recognition still matter to you?
A: No. I don’t need any award anymore. I am happy with what I have. And my message to young filmmakers and musicians is that they should compose songs in ragas so that the classical artists of our country are able to perform on bigger platforms. Our collective effort can keep Hindustani classical music live on for ages to come. But we need to put in serious effort.