Pandit Rajan and Pandit Sajan Mishra are part of the most successful and popular double act in the history of Hindustani classical music. The vocalists, who have won international renown over the last few decades and are currently on a world tour, speak to Swati Singh about their beginnings in music, their devotion to the khayal form and their abiding belief in the guru-shishya tradition.
Q. Your father, Pandit Hanuman Mishra, and uncle, Pandit Gopal Mishra, the sarangi maestro, were both acclaimed classical musicians. Could you tell us how they influenced your music and how they trained you?
Rajan Mishra (RM): Our initial musical training was under my grandfather’s brother, Bade Ramdas Ji Mishra. After he passed away, at the ripe age of 93, we were further trained under our father, Pandit Hanuman Prasad Mishra, and our uncle, Pandit Gopal Mishra. Our training under both of them was very good. And I really wish every student had a teacher like him [Hanuman Mishra]. Being a father, he was the most disciplined teacher. While training, he always treated us like students. After the class, he became the father again. This was how he switched between the roles of father and teacher. We were also used to this arrangement, training like normal students. He used to scold and punish us for our mistakes as well. Our relationship, when training, was always like that between a guru and his shishya.
One of the best things about their teaching was that it helped broaden our perspective about music right from our childhood. They told us that we ought to listen to every vidhwaan [expert] from different gharanas [schools of music], and try to learn good things from them. He never restricted us to our own gharana. Normally, in the guru-shishya parampara, gurus always limit and restrict their shishya to their particular genre or gharana. In such cases, a student’s development is also limited. But in our case it was different. The long hours of training under our father and uncle honed our voice. We were taught how to express a musical phrase in myriads of ways. Singing classical music is not just about keeping a set of taans ready and unleashing them on the stage. It requires the melding of imagination with learning. Only then will your music have the capacity to tug at people’s hearts…like the gentle waves of the Ganga.
Q. The Benaras Gharana is about 400 years old and your family has carried that baton forward. How do you view your family’s legacy?
RM: The Benaras Gharana is much older than 400 years, because Benaras is the oldest living city on the earth. Our gharana [family] is 400 years old. The Benaras Gharana was established at the time of Swami Haridas Ji. It offers a huge canvas that includes nritya, gaayan and vaadan [dance, vocals and instrumentals]. Where else can you a find such a sangam?
Our personal gharana is almost 400 years old. We inherited a legacy that’s more than 400 years old. We are the sixth generation of musicians in our family, and our children, Ritesh and Rajneesh, are part of the seventh.
Q. We have often heard of “chaar patt ki gayaki”, which is something associated with the Benaras gharana. How would you define this style of singing?
Sajan Mishra (SM): Benaras is one of the ancient cities of the world. It holds in its arms many beautiful elements of Hindustani music, such as dhrupad, dhamar, khayal, chand, prabandh, thumri, chaiti and kajri. The singers from Benaras used to learn dhamar to kajri all of them. So the song that has elements of dhrupad, dhamar, khayal and thumri can be categorised under “char patt ki gayaki”.
Q. Do you think the dhrupad form is losing popularity among the younger generations of classical singers?
SM: It is nothing like that. Dhrupad is not losing popularity among the youth. There are young dhrupad singers emerging all the time. Pandit Uday Bhawalkar and the Gundecha Brothers are playing an important role in promoting dhrupad all over the world. There are students who are coming from all over the world to learn dhrupad.
Q. Which forms of classical singing appeal to you more?
RM: We mainly sing in four shailee [forms]—khayal, tappa, bhajan and taranas. Sometimes, on special occasions or request, we sing thumri as well. But mainly we sing khayal. Khayal became our forte because we enjoy poetry. It is a soulful exercise to take up a few verses and then develop them musically.
Q. Did you always want to be musicians? At what age did you start learning to sing?
RM: Yes, we always wanted to be musicians, and by God’s grace, we have been able to fulfil that dream. At the age of four, I started learning music. We did our schooling and got our college degrees alongside the music. I did post-graduation in sociology, and Pandit Sajan Mishra is a graduate from the Banaras Hindu University. We used to sing, play and study on a regular basis. We were also very fond of playing cricket [laughs].
Q. When performing on stage, you are a double act, known for your expert coordination and amazing chemistry. How have you managed to sustain this musical relationship for so long?
RM: We are like two bodies and one soul. It is because we believe in love, not in competition. This kind of love and harmony appeals to our listeners. We have grown up together and we have always been taught to love. That’s why our chemistry thrives.
Q. When it comes to a raga, an artist should look beyond the technique, to think how he or she can present it in his own way. Your take on this?
RM: There is discipline associated with every raga. And in classical music, you have to improvise within that discipline. We try to explore ragas with prarthna bhav [worshipful sensibility] because we believe they are so much bigger than any individual. Speaking of technicality, if one raga is sung by five different artists, the presentation will always be different. Improvisation and exploration are always subjective.
Q. Do you think that in the contemporary scenario of Hindustani classical music, the guru-shishya tradition is taken as seriously as it was in the past? What more can be done to promote it?
RM: The guru-shishya parampara was effective until the gurukul tradition was in place. The gurus had a large house given to them by kings, where 20-25 students were living with their teachers and this was where they received education. Now times have changed, and the guru has no place to live. So how will he keep his disciple with him?
Yet the guru-shishya tradition is still alive. We have our own gurukul in Dehradun. We go there for two months when we get a holiday from work. A disciple can only learn from a master, not from universities and colleges.
SM: As Panditji has said, a quality musical education can only be imparted by a guru to a disciple. In this way, students can understand the essence of music better. This is how they develop the ability to interpret ragas, gain musical maturity and know the path ahead.
Q. Having been associated with the world of music for a long time now, you must have witnessed many changes in the way music is composed and presented. Tell us about those changes.
SM: It’s been 50-51 years in this industry for us, it is our good fortune that we’ve been around for so long. Over the years, Hindustani classical music has expanded across India. And it is also being appreciated all over the world.
Q. These days, very few people listen to classical music in India. How can Indian classical forms be popularised further?
SM: You can make it popular [laughs]. The media can play an important role in promoting such art forms. If you talk more about classical musicians, more people will start listening to Indian classical music. If you give more space to Indian art, it will get promoted automatically.
Q. In Indian film music, fusion has become a fashionable style of composition. Do you think this spoils the essence of Indian classical music?
RM: We are very honest with our music. We do not believe in making mashed-up music or tweaking it. So we don’t believe in fusing musical styles.
Q. You’ve performed at top venues around the world. Can you recollect any memorable moments from your past performances? Some memory that stands out?
SM: There are several. In 1974, our first concert was performed in Pune at the Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen Festival. Big artists, like Vasantrao Deshpande Ji, Pandit Jasraj Ji, were listening to our music and giving us their blessings. Also, we have performed twice at the Royal Albert Hall in London. These were among our most memorable concerts.
RM: Once, in Paris, the audience approached us for autographs with tears rolling down their eyes. Such is the power of melody.
SM: We had a concert at Maastricht, Holland, where the audience did not clap. We were wondering what went wrong. They later informed us that they did not want to disturb the harmony created by the music. That is one of the best compliments we have ever been paid.
Q. For an aspiring vocalist today, winning reality shows seems like the only way forward. What’s the alternative career path they could take?
SM: Today’s younger generation is very talented. I just to want advise them to go ahead, persevere and they will get a good result. They must realise that fame and appreciation come with hard work and time. Too much of it [fame] too early can be a deterrent even for the talented ones. Also, no journey can be complete without struggle.
Q. On 12 August, Natya Tarangini celebrated the 22nd edition of their “Parampara” series at Delhi’s Kamani Auditorium, where you were among the performers. How was that experience?
SM: We started the concert with the beautiful raga Mia Ki Malhar. With the blessings of Saraswati, the goddess of music, the audience was enchanted with our emotion-filled performance. The music reverberated in the hall long after we had completed our recital.
Q. Tell us about your ongoing world tour, “Bhairav Se Bhairavi Tak”.
SM: “Bhairav Se Bhairavi Tak” commenced in Benaras on 18 November 2017. It travelled across five cities in India—Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Delhi and Banaras. After this, we went to four countries in Southeast Asia—Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and China. We were the first Indians to perform at the Angkor Wat temple, which is the biggest temple in Cambodia. This was a matter of great pride for us, to be able to perform our classical music on foreign soil. After that we covered South America and the UK. Next we are going to Europe—France, Italy and the Netherlands among other European countries.