Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
RIVERS: JULY 01, 2001
The music of the ghats
The writer teaches History at a Delhi College.
The famous first line of a Bhojpuri film song, "Ganga Maiya tohey piyari chadayiwo" has immortalised the relation that the people of Benaras have with the Ganga. "Piyari chadhana" is to straddle the river with auspicious thread in fulfilment of a vow made to it. It is not uncommon even now to see pilgrims on a boat crossing the river trailing a thread. And singing is part of the ritual.
The anthropologist Nita Kumar has written that for Benarasis, the river is Ma, mother. This bond is not overtly ritualised but imbued instead with a profound sense of wonder and friendship. Loitering about on the ghats, body building, taking a dip or two, or just soaking in the ambience at dusk to the sound of conches and bells, are all quotidian activities the river gives new meaning to. In the evening the strains of music gently mingle with the breeze from the river. Not for nothing have mauj (joie de vivre), masti (delight), phakkarpan (carefreeness) - values often imbibed with a liberal dose of bhang - become typical of the residents of Benares.
Benares's reputation as sukhada - bestower of happiness - perhaps emerges from its rich musical tradition. As the centre of both court and temple, there was never a dearth of patronage for musicians. In the 18th Century when Warren Hastings wrested the city from the Awadh nawab and installed a more pliant king, he inadvertently ensured that the autonomy of the region was maintained. As part of a dynamic culture under the tutelage of the British, the rulers and temple priests had to come to terms with colonial rule. New activities emerged that reflected the changing relations with an alien state and an increasingly autonomous public culture. New traditions were invented which ensured a central place for musicians in the many sacred and secular rituals of the city. This perhaps, explains why the musicians of Benaras sport a certain nonchalance, a detachment from the humdrum world of competition, lineage-making and status. It was musicians from outside who were drawn there instead, attracted by the numerous opportunities offered by the patronage that had created a unique, heady commingling of traditions in Benares. In 1718 when Mir Rustam Ali became the Nazim, he inaugurated what became one of the most famous festivals in Benaras, the Burhwa Mangal. For this achievement the city dwellers still refer to him affectionately as aishpasand (luxury lover).
Celebrated in the month of Chaitra, Burhwa (old) Mangal (Tuesday) symbolised the end of one year and the beginning of another. It crowned the month-long festivities that began with Shivaratri and Holi. On the three or four days that it was celebrated, the wealthy, led by the local raja, and the shaukeen or cultural enthusiasts, took out their bajras (large boats decorated with carpets, lights and bunting). The decks - where ostentatious chandeliers hung - became impromptu stages on which famous musicians performed. For a few days the river completely dominated the city as fervent audiences in smaller boats milled around the bajras to listen to the recitals. Those who could not afford to do so simply settled down on the steps of the ghats as the strains of the shehnai or the high pitched voice of a courtesan wafted across the waters. The festival ended with the raja's boat leading a procession to his palace across the river in Ramnagar. Here everybody alighted to participate in night long festivity including music and dance.
The city temples too were important centres of music. A tonsuring ceremony of a young boy was often accompanied by a shehnai recital in the temple premises. Perhaps the most fascinating of all the rituals was shringar, or decorating the idol. These occasions, made famous by temples like Batulaji, Sitalaji and Durgaji, were accompanied by singing, usually by famous courtesans, till reformist nationalists put a stop to this tradition. The Buddhist Jataka tales talk of courtesans who earned a thousand coins a day and had five hundred servant girls. In the 8th Century, the Kashmiri poet Damodar Gupta composed a long poem called "Kuttanimata" ("The Advice of a Courtesan"), set in Benaras. The descendants of Tansen's son Bilaskhan and his son-in-law Misri Singh are believed to have left Delhi for Benares in the 18th Century following the decline of the Mughal empire. These great maestros in turn trained many disciples and helped forge the music's distinct purab ang (the eastern style). The richestaspect of this tradition of chamber music is its absorption of the folk tradition from its hinterland. So powerful has been the presence of thumri, dadra, kajri, chaithi and hori in this tradition that it has overshadowed the indigenous performers of dhrupad and khayal.
In the 20th Century there have been renowned Benares vocalists like Bade Ramdasji, Kashi Bai, Rajeshwari Bai, Badi Moti Bai, Siddheswari Bai, Rasoolan Bai and Girija Devi. From Kabir Chaura, the musician's locality in Benaras has emerged the great sarangi tradition of Hanuman Mishra who in turn trained his brother Gopal Mishra. His sons Rajan and Sajan Mishra are popular singers in the classical circuit today. Tabla and dance luminaries include Kishen Maharaj and Sitara Devi; Birju Maharaj and Ravi Shankar made Benares their home. And of course there is the incomparable Bismillah Khan whose name is still synonymous with the shehnai.
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