A gem undiscovered

An old photo of the late musician with Pandit Kishan Maharaj.  

Pandit Amarnath Mishra, who passed away in Banaras recently, was not very well-known nationally or internationally. Yet he was one of Banaras’ finest musicians, a sitarist of great depth and sensitivity, with his own, inspired style. Musicians who knew his music well confirm that his playing was special because it combined stylistic aspects of three great sitarists – Vilayat Khan, Ravi Shankar and Nikhil Banerjee.

Indeed, although he was not famous, the most established musicians respected him greatly for his music. The story goes that Pandit Ravi Shankar once visited Banaras and said to Pandit Kishan Maharaj, “I have heard of one young man – Amarnath. I’d like to hear him play.” Kishan Maharaj called the young Amarnath to his house at once and organised a baithiki. From then on, Amarnath Mishra remained one of Ravi Shankar’s favourite artists.

Amarnath ji lived in the northern neighbourhood of Kabir Chaura, where several branches of his extended family of musicians and dancers have lived for generations. After his passing away, I spent a few days in the lanes there, visiting his brother, nephews and nieces, and children, gathering their memories and anecdotes.

His home is a typical old Banarasi home built of pale yellow chunar sandstone, with a large courtyard and rooms all around, and several staircases leading up to the multi-levelled roof. About half a century ago, this house was full with the large family of the late sarangi player Munshi Ramji Mishra. He had four children, the eldest of whom was the late Bhawani Prasad Mishra, father of Amarnath Mishra. Amarnath was the eldest of seven brothers and sisters. One of his nieces recalls that the family was so large and the relationships so many that she called her mother bua and her mami chachi, because that was what she heard from the other children.

It was a house of mostly tabla and sarangi players. In one room, one brother would be practising the tabla, and in the other, another brother the sarangi. Initially, the young Amarnath was trained in tabla by his uncle Panchu Maharaj. It was after he heard Ravi Shankar for the first time that he decided he wanted to play the sitar. He then began to train under Shrichand Mishra, and much later, after losing his first wife, married his guru’s daughter Gayatri.

He was a quiet man, sometimes so quiet that you would feel afraid. He kept a distance from everyone, even his wife and children, consulting only his brothers on important matters. No one ever hugged or touched him, not even his sons. As was typical in his extended family, he trained only his sons in classical music and dance, not his daughters. He did not like change; as the head of the household, he liked to find ways to discipline and bind people together.

His best friend was the older Sharda Sahai, descendant of Ram Sahai, the legendary ‘founder’ of the Banaras school of tabla playing. Each evening they would hang out at a tea shop on the road. The story goes that it was at their favourite tea shop that he declared to Sharda Sahai that he wanted to learn tabla from him. There was no proper string to tie around his wrist to officially accept him as a student in the ganda-bandh ceremony, so Sharda Sahai broke off a piece of ordinary sutli and had him tie that. Hefulfilled both his roles towards him, that of student and friend.

His world and the culture to which he belonged was an older one, one that many observers and modernisers would call ‘backward’ and provincial. Most musicians of Banaras share these values. Paradoxically, one could say, it is this ‘crude’ culture and life that produces music that is so fine and sophisticated.

What those who knew his music best – musicians and non-musicians alike, well-known and unknown – tell me was most special about him was his refined sense of sur, or simply, melodic sound.

There are beautiful details about his music and his character as a musician: how his main teaching to his disciples was that finding pure sur is a bigger achievement than taiyyari or technical mastery; how he taught that small and simple in music is more beautiful than long and complicated; how his raga Bhairavi was the finest Bhairavi you could ever hear; how he would ‘give more space’ to the accompanying tabla player than most other artistes; how when he tuned his sitar, he did it so finely that you could hear the entire raga in just that tuning; how even recently, when he was sick with lung cancer, he would make it a point to tune his sitar each day and set it aside.

Ironically, the artistes who have made a name for themselves as artistes ‘from Banaras’ are those who moved away from the city over the past few decades. Banaras is one of India’s best-known centres for classical music and dance. But at this moment in time we may ask how well its artists are doing and, for the most talented of them, how rewarded they are. Banaras does not offer the kinds of stages and payments as Delhi and Mumbai do. Concerts in Banaras still often take place in temples, where payments are low or absent and the set-up amateurish – even though this tradition of music in temples is considered one of Banaras’ most special traditions. There are few organisers and patrons who satisfy artistes’ financial and professional needs.

In keeping with this irony, Amarnath ji never left and was an exceptional, and largely undiscovered, musician.His death, at 73, reveals the unsteadiness of the ground as Banaras transitions from the old to the modern, as younger artists, the descendants and disciples of people like Amarnath Mishra, struggle to survive while remaining true to their ‘inheritance’ and finding new expression.

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Printable version | Jun 14, 2021 9:58:02 PM |

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