Samrats of song

FOR A SIP AND SONG: Rajan and Sajan Mishra enjoy their cup of tea at Radisson MBD hotel in Noida. Photo: Sandeep Saxena.  

WHEN RENOWNED Hindustani vocalists Rajan and Sajan Mishra arrived at the Radisson MBD hotel in Noida to perform in the Vasant Utsav, many of the young things frequenting the bar and other `happening' areas of the hotel hadn't a clue who they were, and those who did, couldn't tell the veterans apart from their young tabla accompanist. It's all part of the great flux that is modern India, where the timeless classical arts are being marketed in five-star commercial hubs. But Pandit Rajan and Pandit Sajan Mishra have bridged the gap between royal patronage and corporate sponsorship gracefully, it seems, with dollops of humour besides.

Humour, incidentally, is something they find lacking in young people today. They hold the education system responsible for the situation, since it has reduced learning to merely working towards a degree, whereas the goal of education is "gyan ke patal kholna". It should teach one humility, etiquette and confidence to face the world.

Learning a classical art requires discipline no doubt. But artistes are known to be whacky too. "Yeh to kalakar ki masti hai," says Pandit Rajan Mishra, quoting an incident when an eminent artiste's car was stolen and in reporting the matter to the police, could not remember its registration number, but graphically described the decoration hanging from its mirror. "Here is a man who remembers long strings of rhythmic patterns, huge swara passages! I too am capable of inviting people for a meal and forgetting all about it," he says, and younger brother Sajan adds, "We don't remember the registration numbers of our cars either."

Running a gurukul in Dehra Dun and Varanasi, these exponents of the Banaras gharana feel the "bhraant" that classical music is difficult should be demolished. The explosion of popular music does not mean that classical music is disappearing, but they feel distressed at the way "society's thekedars" are leading the way. "Those who sincerely try to promote classical music don't have the means, but those who do, want only pop. Recording companies say classical music doesn't sell, but ask them what percentage of their publicity budget goes into promoting such albums as compared to pop music!" So the brothers don't entirely blame classically trained artistes who dump the parampara for quick stardom via the pop and fusion route.

Anyway, they point out, such shallow efforts dry up eventually. But look at stalwarts likeBhimsen Joshi, Kishori Amonkar, Ravi Shankar and others of the old guard: They stuck to their guns and have been going strong for half a century and more. Ravi Shankar, though, did his share of experimental compositions. "Pandit Ravi Shankar never compromised with his own music - not the tala, not the laya, not the sur, not the raga. He made Yehudi Menhuin play Indian ragas, as also Zubin Mehta's philharmonic orchestra. As long as you safeguard the maryada your own tradition, it is healthy fusion, but not if you do it for cheap publicity," clarifies Rajan Mishra.

Tea is brought into the room, but it is the last thing on everyone's mind. Just before a concert is not the time to indulge in lots of eating. But diet has played an important part in their preparation. "We used to get plenty of desi butter - you know, the white kind - when we finished our daily riyaaz," recalls Pandit Sajan, accepting a cup of tea. "Also, lots of almonds, milk, curd." As youngsters, they were plied with these goodies by their mother and grandmother, but as age catches up with them, the power foods are limited to almonds.

This rich diet, feel the brothers, equipped them with stamina and resistance. "We stay up for three nights in a row, performing daily and still survive. But today's kids! Make them stay up one night, and the next day, they can't do a thing," says the elder brother, while the younger one adds that food is no longer pure.

Also, feel the brothers, who count Ritesh and Rajneesh Mishra, Sarathy Chatterjee, Sonali and Manish among their notable disciples, the quality of life is bound to deteriorate since society has moved away from nature. "Today's children have never played in the mud, never fallen in the dust. Even schools are air-conditioned," they rue.

As another example of their own good health, the brothers, who travel the world as concert artistes, recall with a laugh how they created a flutter in a hotel kitchen in Germany when they asked to drink ordinary tap water instead of mineral water. They are also game to try out cuisines of the world. Of course, since they hail from Varanasi, sweets are always welcome. Otherwise, it's "saadha bhojan - dal, chaawal, sabzi," explains one brother. "And paan, adds the other. Echoes the first, "And paan." This is a partnership as good as their taans.