‘Banaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together…’-Mark Twain.
Sitting atop the trident of Lord Shiva , the Kashi, the luminous one, is the place where the eternal light of Shiva intersects the earth. The city of Shiva, the Mahashmashaana, the sacred circle of all Gods, city of Moksha- a place teeming with people, yet there is place for everyone. A civilization that historians have termed as one older than history, yet startles you when you come across its modern face
By virtue of being the oldest living city, Benaras has its own rich history, tradition and treasure of music. According to mythology, when Renu, son of Vishwamitra and Mahagovind founded Kashi (Varanasi), they also brought with them the Aryan traditions and the Vedic culture. Going back to history, we find numerous instances of dance, music and drama evolving in Varanasi. Excavations at Varanasi have shown a terracotta figurine in which two musicians are playing percussion instruments. The literature of ancient and medieval times also point out to a great tradition of music in Varanasi as in 14th century’s drama ‘Vikrant Kauravam’. The ‘Bhakti’ movement in the medieval period also contributed to the development of music in Varanasi. ‘Jataka’ tales narrate the storyeof Veena competition in the ‘Sudarshan’ city. Ashwaghosh in his famous work ‘Sunderananda’ describes Ganikaas of Kashi. In the 16th century Govind Chandra ruled Varanasi and during his rein Dhrupad was the royal music. It is said that Mian Tansen took birth in Varanasi. Texts say that Jaffar Khan, descendant of Bilas Khan (youngest son of Tansen), invented the instrument ‘Sursingaar’- lower part of which was made of hollow wood and steel plates were set in the upper part and the strings used were made of steel and brass, and gave his first demonstration of this instrument in the court of Raja Udit Narayan Singh of Kashi.
Varanasi, the seat of learning, virtually reverberates with the chants of Vedic hymns that are said to be the oldest genre of musical form. Dixitar (1776-1835), whose signature is Guru Guha-the most recent of the trinity of Karnatak music, is said to have studied Dhrupad in Varanasi. Of more recent times, Sitar maestro Bharatratna Pt. Ravi Shankar was born in Varanasi on 7th April 1920. Music is an integral part of this city of Natraj. The city has credit of producing several music virtuosos liked legendary Late Pt. Anokhelal Mishra, Late Bari Moti, Late Pt. Mahadev Prasad Mishra, Bharatratna Late Ustad Bismilla Khan, Padmavibhushan Late Pt Kishan Maharaj, Vidushi Girija Devi, Pt.Chhannulal Mishra, Vidushi Purnima Chowdhury, Pt.Rajan Sajan Mishra, Pt. Balwant Rai Bhatt”Bhavrang”, to name a few. Varanasi, the cultural capital of India, has always possessed a central position not only in the sphere of Indian Classical Vocal scenario but also has contributed much to the field of Instrumental Music. Among the pioneers of Instrumentalists of Varanasi, the most revered and noted name is that of Pt. Laxmi Prasad Mishra. His descendants and disciples gave a wide platform to Stringed Instruments.
‘Sangeet Nayak’ Pt. Dargahi Mishra, a stalwart amongst musicians, played a vital part in promoting Stringed Instruments by producing disciples in the fields of Veena, Sarangi, and Sitar. His two sons, Sarayu Prasad Mishra and Govardhan Prasad Mishra were well known artists in the field of vocal and Sarangi. Mithailal Mishra was an acclaimed artist in the field of Veena and vocal. Musicians like Chote Ramdas Mishra (Veena), Pannalal Sharma (Veena, Surbahaar, Sitar), Shivprasad (Vocal, Sitar, Mridang), Kanta Nath Vyaas (Veena) and Srichand Mishra (Vocal, Sitar) played an important role towards the upliftment of Stringed Instruments in Varanasi. Amongst the string instrumentalists of Varanasi, Ustad Vaaris Ali was a huge personality and following his tradition were Ustad Ashiq Ali, Ustad Mushtaq Ali. Pt. Debu Choudhury of Delhi, disciple of Mushtaq Ali Khan, is a world renowned artist carrying forward the ‘parampara’ of his Guru. Pt. Shiv Kumar Sharma too is related to the Banaras Parampara.
Legendary musician Baba Alauddin Khan Sahab’s disciples Pt. Ravi Shankar and Pt. Jyotin Bhattacharya (Sarod) are related to Varanasi. Pt. Ravi Shankar, as already mentioned, was born in Varanasi and Pt. Jyotin Bhattacharya resides with his family in Varanasi. Renowned musician Late Pt. Lalmani Mishra is a well known name in the field of Vichitra Veena who is known for his scintillating renditions on such a tough instrument. Carrying on his Parampara, his son, Late Dr. Gopal Shankar Mishra and Pof. Pushpa Basu are musicians of great repute.
Varanasi has a rich tradition of String Instuments of which Sarangi is one. Among the Sarangi players of Varanasi, Tamakhu Mishra has been a signature. He was not much into limelight and performative glamour. Other Sarangi players who made Varanasi proud of themselves are Sumernath Mishra, Sursahay Mishra, Kashinath Kinnar, Siya Ji, Birayi Ji, Sheetal Mishra, to name a few. Late Pt. Hanuman Prasad Mishra, father of the world renowned vocalists Pt. Rajan – Pt. Sajan Mishra was an artist of great repute.
Among the Guitarists of Varanasi, Sri Shibnath Bhattacharya (disciple of Late Pt. Nalin Mazumdar of Allahabad who was the first to play Indian Classical Muisc on Hawaiian Guitar), Sri Gopal Das, Dr.Sanjay Verma , Dr.S.Kamala are known figures in this field.
Bharatratna Late Ustad Bismilla Khan Sahab, a synonym of Shehnai is the most revered and noted name in the field of Wind Instruments. Vilayatu Miyan had been a great artist of this field and caryying on this tradition were Ali Baksh and Samsuddin Khan and finally Shehnai was taken to its heights by Bismilla Khan Sahab. In the present days we have Sri Ramashahkar , Sri Sohanlal who have taken the instrument ,which is almost a synonym of Hindu marriage, to its heights.
Also, the flautists who have made Varanasi proud of themselves are Sri. R.K.Srinivasan, Dr.Prahlad Nath, to name a few.
Varanasi has been a confluence of musical genres. Not only North Indian Classical music but Karnatak music has been flourishing here too. Way back in 1964 Late Pt. V.K. Venkatramanujam, a violinist of great repute came to Varanasi and thus started the flow of Karnatak Music. Another stalwart violinist from South, Dr. ( Smt.) N. Rajam ( disciple of ‘Sangeet Martand’ Pt. Omkar Nath Thakr) stayed for a long time in Varanasi and headed the Faculty of Performing Arts,B.H.U., as the Dean. Her renditions are of the Norh Indian style.
The tradition of Instrumental music in Varanasi has gone through various phases. Many a noted musicians have remarkably made Varanasi proud, bringing home laurels. Some noted instrumentalists of recent times are Late Dr Ramdas Chakraborty, Pt. Surendra Mohan Mishra, Dr. Rajbhaan Singh, Pt.Amarnath Mishra, Prof. Krishna Chakraborty (all Sitar) ; Prof. R.P. Shastri, Dr. V. Balaji, Dr. (Smt.) Jayashree Roy,Sri Sukhdev Mishra, U.H.R. Pradeep, Dr. Swarna Khuntia Sri Vijay Choubey (all Violin) ; Sri Santosh Mishra, Sri Kanhaiyalal Mishra, Sri Sangeet Mishra, Sri Sandeep Mishra( Sarangi) ; Dr. S. Kamala, Dr. Sanjay Verma (Guitar) ; Sri Rajesh Moitra, Sri Vibhas Maharaj (Sarod).
The style of performance as compared to the ‘Chaindaari’ of yester-years has changed a lot. The present day performances are comparatively in a faster pace with not much peace of mind and soul, which fulfils the demands of a commercialized society. This is what is the symptom of the ‘Pop’- or rather the ‘Popular’ culture. By the impact of a Globalized market, improvisations in the built of the Musical Instruments has been carried out for the betterment of performances by the musicians of Varanasi. Artists like Dr. Vishnuchittan Balaji has designed a Violin which has eleven strings and this Volin has been named “Bala Bela” by Padmavibhushan Late Pt. Kishan Maharaj. Dr. V. Balaji has designed another Violin which has twenty-five string and has named it “Triveni Bela”. He is now working on a new set-up of a violin that has two necks in a body. Another technical improvisation that has been done by Dr. Sanjay Verma is that he has attached the ‘Daand’ of Tanpura to his guitar. Dr. S. Kamala has also made improvements in her Guitar by adding strings and has named it Shankar Guitar. As per the rendition on Guitar, the Guitarists have evolved the style of playing Chotakhyaal instead of the age-old Razakhani Gat and is accepted well. Violinists like Prof. R.P. Shastri and his disciple Dr. (Smt.) Jayashree Roy present their recital with a blend of Tantrakaari and Gaayaki Anga.
The changes that have been adapted in the built of various instruments have changed the tonal quality, which is more pleasing than of the yester-years and these changes brought in by the instrumentalists of Varanasi have been acclaimed all over the world and has taken instrumental music to its heights.