Fast speed is not the crux of any art form: Vishwambhar Nath Mishra

Multi-faceted personality: Pandit Vishwambhar Nath Mishra performing in Delhi

Multi-faceted personality: Pandit Vishwambhar Nath Mishra performing in Delhi   | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena


Known for striking a chord between music and mathematics, Dr Vishwambhar Nath Mishra talks about his love for pakhawaj and the need for social harmony in society

The 15th SaMaPa Sangeet Sammelan, organised by the Sopori Academy of Music and Performing Arts, Delhi, astonished aficionados by featuring a rarely heard pakhawaj solo, that too by someone who is not known as a performing artist but is a revered name in several other circuits. The surprise was too intriguing to go un-scrutinised. While doing so, one realised that to understand the multifarious persona of a 54-year-year young Dr Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, the Mahant (chief priest) of one of the three most important temples of Varanasi; a Professor, Department of Electronics Engineering, IIT, Banaras Hindu University; a prolific, strong voice in political arena; an active social worker; a constantly chased organiser of the mammoth Sankat Mochan Sangeet Samaroh and Dhrupad Mela; and an emerging pakhawaj soloist who debuted in Kolkata’s Sangeet Piyasi in mid-August 2019 – one needs to know his background along with the history of the mystic place he belongs to.

Born to Veer Bhadra Mishra, the world-renowned social activist Mahant (high priest) of the Sankat Mochan Temple and a professor of hydraulic engineering with Banaras Hindu University’s Institute of Technology, who devoted his energies to learn vocal music and to keep the mast of Swaccha Ganga (Clean Ganga) campaign up which he started in the 1980s under the aegis of Sankat Mochan Foundation, little Vishwambharnath was blessed to grow up in the temple premises.

Under the loving care of his grandfather Pandit Amarnath Mishra, he perambulated with traditional Indian spirituality, music and social awareness. He wished to be like his grandfather, a redoubtable pakhawaj exponent groomed by Pandit Munnuji Maharaj who lived in the Himalayas and would visit Banaras along with Dattatreya Parvatikar, a veena player. They never played in concerts except once in the famous soiree, held in the Sankat Mochan Temple premises.

The temple was established by saint-poet Tulsidas in the early 16th Century at the same spot on the banks of the Assi river where he had the ‘darshan’ of Lord Hanuman, the greatest devotee of Lord Rama, also worshipped as ‘Sankat Mochan’ (reliever from troubles). This temple has the unique distinction of having the deity facing his Lord. It is surrounded by Anand Kanan, the thick foliage inhabited by animals.

Each year in the month of April, the temple organises ‘Sankat Mochan Sangeet Samaroh’, in which artists and their admirers from all over the world participate as performers and spectators respectively. The first two-day festival was organised 93 years ago. It has grown into a six-night-long soiree which, must stop for 15 minutes for the morning aarti around 5 a.m. every day.

Mastering the art

All this intrigued the little boy but his technocrat father ensured that all his five children, especially three sons received the best of modern education. And they did. One son is a neurologist, another, who did not live long, was a mathematician. Vishwambhar’s area of interest had been microelectronics, development, and characterisation of tin oxide-based gas sensor. He obtained his PhD from Roorkee University, but not before mastering the art of pakhawaj, because the musical roots lay much deeper within.

Banaras, an ancient seat of spirituality and culture, has been the haven of dhrupad due to the continued interest of Kashi Naresh. Despite the emergence of khayal and thumri in later years, dhrupad’s deep impact on both, the gayaki and tabla of Banaras Gharana bears this fact. Under the patronisation of Kashi Naresh Vibhuti Narayan Singh, the interest in dhrupad was rekindled when the first Dhrupad Mela was organised in 1975. Initially, to promote the dwindling art, the Mela was open to all willing performers. Vishwambharnath, who was barely ten at that time, “often witnessed 15 performers during a night-long soiree.”

“The then Mahant, Amarnath Mishra, grandfather of Vishwambharnath-bhaiya, reorganised everything in the wake of enthused response from the artistes’ clan which restricted the number of participants but allotted more time to each. He started a trend of holding this Mela in a big way around Shivaratri in the open space outside Mahant’s House, their residence, in Tulsi Ghat – now known as Tulsi Teerth. A fine pakhawaj Guru and player himself, he would accompany such stalwarts like Baba Alauddin Khan, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar and play duets with Kishan Maharaj and the likes,” informs Arun Chatterjee, the key figure behind the musical activities of present Mahant-ji, who, apart from organising two mammoth soirees also heads the newly established Tulsidas Gurukul where talented students are groomed free of cost in tabla, sitar, vocal, and pakhawaj.

Disarming humility

Fast speed is not the crux of any art form: Vishwambhar Nath Mishra

Despite all these accomplishments, Mishra’s humility is disarming. While tuning up his pakhawaj in the green room prior to his solo recital, he simply says, ‘Ham toh phans gaye (I have been dragged into it)! I had stopped playing pakhawaj since 1983, after the death of my grandfather, my guru; also because the pressure of academics was mounting and I had to adapt to a hosteller’s life. Then, I got committed to my job. After more than three decades, a few years back once I played with Bhajan (Sopori)ji for a soundcheck in the presence of musicians, including tabla maestro Samar Saha, one of my favourite musicians. That resulted in my debut in Sangeet Piyasi, Kolkata in August, and now here I am!

“The fact is, this art is rooted in pure mathematical permutations, and that always attracted me to it, but after establishing well in one arena, it becomes difficult to accept a new challenge. Music is an expressway to reach God and yet it is a very difficult vidya to master. Moreover, one cannot guarantee a successful career in music. One bad recital is enough to ruin all brilliant records of the past,” says Mishra, adding he knows many knowledgeable musicians who cannot make both ends meet. “Maybe that is why my father forced me to pursue academics. Initially, I resented his decision because I loved to play pakhawaj. Bhajanji rekindled the slumbering desire.” An open stroke on the pakhawaj with a smile on his lips and a nod towards Dhruv Sahai, his accompanist on the sarangi, signalled that it was time for a little practice.

His silver crown and heavily starched white dhoti-kurta dazzled under the halogen lights of the stage and he looked much grander than his medium height and build. When he played – except for his wrist, palms, and fingers, his entire body remained motionless. During the recital, he reiterates, “Every stage performance is no less than an examination. As an executive or a professor one does not have to go through this. I took up the challenge only to show that fast speed is not the crux of any art. Adherence to traditional style is also very important.”

Is that why he is opposing the central government’s policies of remodelling Banaras, one wonders during the conversation after the recital. Suddenly, he looks vexed though his voice does not betray it.

Difficult questions

“Have you been to Banaras?,” he asks. “Kankar-kankar me Shiv viraj karte hai (Shiva resides in each pebble) and Ganga is a living deity. It is not just any other city on the bank of any ordinary river of this planet, its habitants are not ordinary city-dwellers. Most live the tradition that flows in their veins down the centuries – despite the atrocities in the name of change. Without treating Ganga, no plans of change can work in Banaras,” he argues. “The recent change”, he continues, “is bent upon bringing the mall culture by bulldozing the traditional culture.” He says, “Khandani families” (families with a rich past), have been rehabilitated at the heavy price of “gumnami ki zindagi.” “Devoid of their past glory, they are being forced to live anonymously. The government seems to be in great haste. This unjustified haste could ruin the system. Higher education has no value since there are no jobs. Under the circumstances, it is better to pursue music and be happy,” a wry smile flashes across his face.

This leads to another question – who will give stage to so many artistes? Sankat Mochan is one of very few that creates inspiring opportunities. “I agree. I am an insignificant link of a long chain. My ancestors followed a tradition. My father, who passed away in 2013, added to it by starting a campaign. I am striving to follow his footprints; so will my children. My son is pursuing higher studies along with music and social commitments. Traditional people do follow the ‘boundary condition’. Within that well-defined boundary, we have been serving society as much as possible, and will continue doing so in future,” says Mishra.

He feels unhappy when “meaningless frictions” raise the head. “Take the Ayodhya issue, it ambitiously ventures to bind Ramji within the periphery of a small piece of land. Do you think Ramji ever craved for a piece of land? He was the one who left everything behind, even Ayodhya, within a moment; and opted for a hermit’s life. This is India! Ye Ramji ka desh hai – Ramji lives in the hearts of his countrymen. At present we have hit the bottom. This has to change for better - with the blessings of Ramji,” avers Mishra

On that optimistic note, he turned to admirers who had flocked in to have his ‘darshan’ or to congratulate him for his notable stage appearance in Delhi as a pakhawaj exponent of Banaras Gharana.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2020 11:06:31 AM |

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