4 all-night long music sessions in Benaras

The Asian Age.  | Shailaja Khanna

Entertainment, Music

The event today attracts avid listeners from all over the world.

(Photo: Bharat Tiwari)

Benaras has no particular link with dhrupad as such, yet the largest gathering of dhrupad performers takes place in Benaras every year, three days before Shivratri. The four all-night long music sessions have been held continuously since 1975, without a break. Earlier apparently there used to be two all-night sessions, and then concerts all through the day on Shivratri, but local listeners found it difficult to hear music all day and then sit up in prayer all night on Shivratri night. So from the last three years, the organisers started four all-night sessions, and had music all night even on Shivratri. In fact, the open ground where the festival is held, is now known as Dhrupad tirth (pilgrimage of dhrupad).

The event today attracts avid listeners from all over the world — a local explained that there are so many foreign visitors; around 200 visas are issued specially for this period. He added, “You won’t find a free hotel room in Benaras during this period, especially hotels on the ghats. Not only as part of the audience, many foreign-based artists also come especially to perform — Nancy Lush a cello artist from France, pakhawaj player Tetsya Kanaiko from Japan, Carsten Wicke the veena player…”

It all started with Mahant Amar Nath Mishra, himself a very fine pakhawaj player. He along with a few music loving associates, including Professor Pt Lal Mani Mishra, decided to try to promote dhrupad as a genre. Dhrupad was losing visibility on the concert platforms then, and there were fewer performers. Mahant Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, the main organiser explained: “My grandfather Pt Amar Nath Mishra decided to use the grounds outside our house where we live on Tulsi ghat, as the venue, above the flowing Ganga. It was envisaged as a ‘Mela’ rather than a formal music festival — anyone could come and perform. Now we have had to impose some restrictions as there is such a tremendous response from practitioners. From about 15-16 artists per night we have tried to cut down so everyone has enough time to present their music.”

Pt Ronu Mazumdar

The timing of the Mela was linked with Shivratri, as Lord Shiva is regarded as the ultimate musician. The Maharaja of Benaras too supported this venture financially when money became an issue; and traditionally, he inaugurates the festival. However, everyone one spoke to was unanimous in agreeing that if artists had not supported this event it would not have survived till now. They come every year to perform at Tulsi ghat, without any fees at all. Some of the star performers this year include Pt Bhajan Sopori, Pt Ronu Mazumdar, Pt Debjyoti Bose, Shiraz Ali and Gundecha Brothers. Mahant Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, added the Mela promotes dhrupad as a genre, not necessarily only the instruments traditionally associated with dhrupad, like veena, surbahar, rabab. Thus flute sarod even santoor artists, if they are performing in the dhrupad style, using “taals” associated with dhrupad like dhammar and chautaal are given a platform too.

Pt Ronu Mazumdar commented: “This will be my first time playing at the Dhrupad Mela; it is a unique festival. Our Maihar gharana style was originally dhrupad; ‘anibadh’ aalap, gatkaari ang jor which I play on flute (as opposed to gayaki ang) is also a dhrupad concept. I will be playing traditional dhrupad compositions taught by my guruji Pt Ravi Shankar; I will be accompanied on the pakhawaj by Akhilesh Gundecha bhai, and obviously we will only play taals associated with dhrupad like sool tala, chautaal. I am indeed excited about this concert.”

Sadly, this year there is no representation from one of the premier dhrupad gharanas — the Mallicks of Darbhanga. Prashant Mallick said: “My family has supported the Dhrupad Mela since its inception in 1975, from Pt Ram Chatur Mallick to my grandfather Pt Vidur Mallick, to my father Pt Prem Kumar Mallick and now my brother and me. We last gave haazri there in, I think it was 2015; sadly we found that at the lower levels of the managing staff, the attitude to us artists was not very respectful. Earlier this was not so, we artists were made to feel really special at Dhrupad Mela. I hope this changes in the future, as the event is a unique joint effort of artists and organisers to promote dhrupad, the grandest form of music.”

Artists from the South, representing Carnatic music too are invited to present traditional dhrupad style ragam thanam pallavi (aalap jor jhala) and dhrupad taals. Vidwan Yella Venkateshwara Rao on the mridangam will present a solo on the first day.

Another star performer this year is Vidushi Jayanthi Kumaresh on the saraswati veena, on 14th. Jayanthi enthused: “I had another concert but I refused it, as being in the city of Shiva on Shivratri is an unmissable chance. I am happy to have been asked to play the veena only in the traditional old style, which is the common heritage of both Carnatic and Hindustani music. I hear the concerts take place on the Ganga ghat where one is getting the holy vibrations of the river as one plays; I am truly excited to be a part of this event, for the first time.”

Arun Chatterji who has been associated with the Mela since its inception added: “Hum log ki mehnat ab rang la rahi hai; (our efforts are bearing fruit today) — the sessions are packed all through the night and we really believe that the sustained effort of years has today established this event as an unparalleled effort to promote dhrupad music.”

“Larki ki shaadi ke samaan hai ye mela. Kalaakar ko hum baraati ki tarah samman dete hain, koshish rehti hai ki woh bilkul khush hoke Benaras se jayen (hosting this festival is like organising a girl’s wedding. The performing artists are like the bridal party — we try to extend as much hospitality and respect as is possible so they leave Benaras happy).”

The writer writes on music, musicians and music matters