Rajan Mishra (1951-2021): Musical mind of Banaras

Print edition : May 21, 2021


Rajan (RIGHT)and Sajan Mishra performing at a festival organised in Coimbatore in 2015. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Pandit Rajan Mishra (1951-2021) carried the rich tradition of the Banaras Gharana of Hindustani classical music to great heights.

COVID-19 has snatched many precious lives from us. Padma Bhushan Pandit Rajan Mishra, the Hindustani classical singer, died of complications caused by the infection at St. Stephen’s Hospital at Tis Hazari in Delhi. He was admitted to the hospital on April 22. He suffered two cardiac arrests and passed away on April 25.

Rajan Mishra and his younger brother Sajan Mishra were acclaimed artistes of the Banaras Gharana of Hindustani classical music Although they were known for their khayal singing, their repertoire included bhajan, tappa, tarana and thumri. They were born in Banaras (now Varanasi). Their ancestral home is at Kabir Chaura. (Chaura is a distorted form of chauraha, meaning crossroads). Kabir Chaura is known for having produced many well-known dancers and musicians. The Banaras Gharana is not associated with one family but the entire city. As claimed by many artistes, the Banaras Gharana is the only musical lineage in India that includes all forms of Hindustani classical music such as vocal, instrumental music and dance. It has been the abode of many internationally acclaimed artistes such as Pandit Anokhelal Mishra, Pandit Kishan Maharaj, Pandit Samta Prasad, Pandit Harishankar Mishra, Pandit Hanuman Mishra, Pandit Rajan-Sajan Mishra, Girija Devi, and Pandit Kumar Bose, to name a few. The legendary dancer Sitara Devi’s paternal family belonged to the city. The sitar maestro, the late Pandit Ravi Shankar, was also born in Banaras.

Rajan and Sajan Mishra were the best living practitioners of Hindustani classical music in contemporary times. They not only inherited and carried forward the 300-year-old rich musical tradition of their family but also took it to greater heights. The brothers became synonymous with the vocal tradition of the Banaras Gharana which had been wrongly associated with light classical singing such as thumri, dadra, kajri, chaiti, tappe (which originally belongs to Punjab). They introduced the world to the gharana’s rich tradition of khayal gayaki, a challenge that they met successfully and in the process raised the bar of classical singing in India.

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Born in 1951 in a family of musicians, Rajan Mishra’s training began in his childhood. He became the gandabandh shagird of his grandfather Gyanacharya Pt. Bade Ramdas Mishra, though he learnt music under the tutelage of his father, Hanuman Mishra, and his uncle, Gopal Mishra, under the guru-shishya parampara. At the age of 10, he, along with his younger brother, marked his haazri at the Sankat Mochan Mandir in Banaras. The ambience of Kabir Chaura, the ghats of Banaras, and the Kabir Math in the vicinity shaped Rajan Mishra’s sensibilities. He grew up listening to the music of accomplished artistes in his neighbourhood. Before his formal initiation into music by his guru at home, the environment of Kabir Chaura had already introduced him to the sound of music. The ghats of Banaras, where signs of life and death can be seen simultaneously, prepared the ground for him to reflect on life. The proximity to the Kabir Math might have contributed in giving him an eclectic perspective on religion and spirituality, as he understood the difference between the two distinctly. On one occasion, while I was sitting with bade guruji Rajan Mishra at his residence, a person came over and spoke in praise of the architecture of a temple and invited Rajan Mishra to pay a visit to the temple. Rajan Mishra heard him patiently and replied, “I believe in exploring god within my body. This body is my temple.”

Inner journey

It was with such a philosophical mind that he approached music. He never played to the gallery. He believed in singing for his inner self, for a divine force residing within him. He would often say, “If you can enjoy your music, your audience will automatically enjoy it.” Music to him was a medium to realise himself. In his journey to explore himself through music, he composed many bandishes. It is a practice in the bhakti tradition for poets to attribute their poetry to their guru. Rajan Mishra never mentioned his name in his compositions. He attributed everything, his music, his compositions, his creativity, his accomplishments, to his guru. A follower of Osho and Satguru Jagjit Singh, he had a big photograph of Osho outside his music room with a caption reading, “Mere bhitar tum gaate ho” ( “It is you who sing within me.”) Negating his individuality to the extreme, he believed that it is God who sings through him. He picked up this line from the popular song, “Hey Shiv Shankar, hey karunda dhar”, which he had rendered for the film Sur Sangam directed by K. Vishwanath. “Aye Sur Ke Panchi Aye” and “Jaaon Tore Charan Kamal Par Vaari”, again rendered for Sur Sargam, are evergreen numbers? His philosophical view of music is best summed up in the traditional bandish of Shudh Bhairavi, “Naad ko na bhed payeo”. Rajan Mishra believed in navigating the difference between dvait (dualism) and advait (monism). He made a life-long inner journey.

Accompanied by Sajan Mishra, Rajan Mishra travelled across India and abroad to share their music. Their first overseas concert was in Sri Lanka in 1978. The duo have performed in Bangladesh, Singapore, Qatar, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United States and the United Kingdom. Wherever they performed, they left their audience spellbound. Melody, a delicate approach to musical notes and creativity became the hallmark of their singing. They never tried to showcase their prowess by singing unnecessary murki or harkat. They believed in exploring the bhava of every raga they sang, which gave their music a universal appeal. They had tried to create an effect of harmony and peace through their music. Once at a concert abroad, the audience did not clap at the conclusion of the concert. When they enquired, they were told that the audience did not want to disrupt the harmony created by their music.

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In 2018, the duo undertook a world tour under the banner ‘Bhairav Se Bhairvi Tak’. In this series, they gave 54 concerts in 13 countries. As the title of the series indicates, they sang a vast spectrum of ragas. In these times, when the world is marching mindlessly towards materialism and consumerism, and “the world is too much with us”, their music let people pause and experience the sublime beauty of Hindustani music.

Thumris and kayals

The duo had performed at almost every important music festival in India, be it the Raag Sabha at Durgiana Mandir, Amritsar; the Harivallabh Sangeet Sammellan at Jalandhar; the Saptak Annual Music Festival in Ahmedabad; the Sawai Gandharv music festival, initiated by Pandit Bhimsen Joshi to commemorate his guru, in Pune; and the Dover Lane Music Conference in Kolkata. Delhi being their karm bhoomi, as Rajan Mishra used to say, the duo had given numerous performances in the city. Though they were known for their khayal gayaki, they had performed at the Delhi Thumri Festival as well. Some of the thumris sung by them such as “Babul mora naihar chhooto hi jaye” (Oh father, I am leaving home”), a thumri composed by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah when he was exiled from Lucknow, are popular. Wajid Ali Shah used the metaphor of vidai, or bride’s farewell, to express his pain. Girija Devi and Rajan Mishra have interpreted the metaphor of separation as the moment of passing on. “Kaha karoon dekho gari det kanhai re” is a thumri that reflects playfulness between Radha and Krishna; and the famous dadra, “Chala pardesia naina laga ke”, which reflects the pain of a beloved who is soon to be separated from her love.

If khayal means imagination, in their singing imagination was at its best. Their music was improvisational in the true sense of the word, their approach was creative, and their idea of music was rich in bhava and emotions. They would develop bada khayal (which is sung in vilambit laya, or the slow tempo) without any sense of hurry. They explored the beauty of every note, and the aesthetics of poetry and raga in every musical phrase. While developing mastery over the technique of classical singing, they also explored its inherent beauty and mood in their renditions. They sang every raga according to its nature and character. Their every alaap and taan was evocative, expressing a mood, or bhava. Their concept of music made them unique and distinctive. Their music was enjoyed by one and all, the connoisseur as well as the untrained. Their music was meant to be felt; not understood. It is with this belief that they always sang.

Carrying forward the guru-shishya parampara, Rajan and Sajan Mishra established a gurukul at Dehradun called Viraam. The architecture of Viraam is a fusion of tradition and modernity. Rajan Mishra conceived it as a space to meditate on music and learn its nuances. The duo have passed on their rich heritage to many students. Some of them are established artistes. Rajan Mishra’s sons Ritesh Mishra and Rajnish Mishra are carrying forward the legacy of their father.

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Rajan Mishra was fond of films, travelling, food and sports. A fan of Hollywood actors Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins, he liked to discuss films. He considered Mother India and Teesri Kasam to be the best works of Hindi cinema. Visiting bird sanctuaries, hill resorts and forests was one of his favourite hobbies. He always found the quietude of nature meditative. He was an ardent nature lover. He could connect with plants, birds and trees. He told this writer that he used to visit a particular spot daily during his stay in Shimla. On the day he was to return to Delhi, he went to the spot and touched the trunk of the tree, bidding it a silent farewell. He said he could feel the tree responding. Nature to him was not an object. Nature was like a living being, pulsating with life. A post-graduate in sociology, Rajan Mishra was fond of playing cricket and was the captain of the college cricket team.

Photographers and film-makers have made Rajan and Sajan Mishra the subject of their art. The BBC has documented their life and music. Adwait Sangeet by Makarand Brahme is another documentary on the life and achievements of the brothers. Many awards were conferred on them during their life-time. The National Tansen Samman, the Gandharva National Award, the Omkarnath Thakur Award, the Kashi Gaurav, the Sangeet Natak Akademy award and the Padma Bhushan are some of them.

Rajan Mishra was more than a father figure to all his students and it will not be easy for them to reconcile with the trauma of his passing. He used to say, “Live poetry in your singing.” Living up to the poetry of his famous dadra, “chala pardesia naina laga ke”, he left the world so suddenly and unexpectedly after giving bountiful love to all.

The great maestro’s family members, students and music lovers sing in unison: “Babul mora naihar chhooto hi jaye.”

Vivek Sachdeva is professor, University School of Humanities and Social Sciences, GGSIP University, New Delhi.


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