Pakistanis listen with hearts, not minds

Pandits Rajan and Sajan Mishra, leading representatives of the three hundred year-old tradition of khayaal gaiyiki talk to Ally Adnan about their distaste for fusion, the great hindustani classical musicians of our times and a preference for amateur listeners over ...

Pakistanis listen with hearts, not minds
Pandits Rajan and Sajan Mishra belong to the Benares gharana in India. The recipients of the Padma Bhushan, Sangeet Natak Akademi, Gandharva National and Tansen Samman awards, the two maestros have released more than twenty albums of their music during their illustrious career spanning five decades. They have performed virtually all over the world – Austria, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Oman, Qatar, Singapore, the Soviet Union, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, UK, the USA  and many more countries – and are considered two of the greatest musicians of our time.

Before partition there was just one Hindustani Sangeet; how has the once-common musical tradition of Pakistan and Northern India changed and diverged over the course of the last sixty-seven years?

The tradition of music has not changed; not one bit. The same music is practiced in Pakistan and in India. When Malkauns (a pentatonic melody) is sung, the same five notes are used in India as are used in Pakistan, and the same rules are followed. Hindustani Sangeet - the music of Pakistan and Northern India - is a well-established discipline.

[quote]Even the scions of major gharanas of music are releasing albums of fusion music. This breaks our hearts[/quote]

The change that has occurred has been in the musical ethos and not in the tradition. At the time of partition, Pakistan was home to some of the greatest musicians of the time. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, Ustads Nazakat and Salamat Ali Khan, Ustads Amanat and Fateh Ali Khan and Roshanara Begum were giants of Hindustani Sangeet, all of whom belonged to Pakistan. Sadly, during the years that followed partition, Pakistan saw a decline in the popularity of classical music. India, on the other hand, continued to focus on its musical tradition. Music conferences, concerts and shows were held regularly, new students were inducted into the discipline and the state sponsored the art of classical music. As a result, we see many more classical musicians in India today than in Pakistan. There seems to be a greater interest in popular and fusion music in Pakistan today; even the scions of major gharanas of music are releasing albums of fusion music. This breaks our hearts. We believe in upholding our traditions and wish that they would return to the music of their forefathers. The void in classical music that exists in Pakistan today is tragic. We need more Amanat-Fatehs, Nazakat-Salamats and Roshanaras to fill the void.

Ally Adnan, Pandit Rajan Misra & Pandit Sajan Misra
Ally Adnan, Pandit Rajan Misra & Pandit Sajan Misra


The list of major gharanas of khayal - Agra, Bhindi Bazaar, Delhi, Gwalior, Indore, Jaipur-Atrauli, Kirana, Mewati, Patiala, Qawwal Bachay, Rampur-Sahaswan, and Sham Chaurasi - does not include the Benaras gharana. In fact, Benaras is often referred to as the gharana of thumri (a genre of light classical music) and not one of khayal. Why is that?

The gharana is a relatively new institution, no more than four hundred (400) years old. It was predated by the vaanis of Dhurpad (the oldest form of classical Indian music). In ancient times, we had five styles of singing known as the geetis. These have been recorded by seventh century historians as the Shudh, Bhinna, Gauri, Vegsur, and Sadharani. These styles of singing evolved into the four vaanis of Dhurpad: Gauri, Khandar, Nauhar, and Dagar. The gharanas came into being centuries later.

The institution of gharana was established to preserve and to pay homage to the musical thought, practice, style and aesthetics of the masters of Khayal. The distinct music of the master was the foundation of a gharana. A gharana was said to have been established if the master’s musical tradition survived and was practiced by three, or more, generations of musicians.


Benaras is the oldest city in the world. As such, it has the oldest and most well-established culture and traditions. Benares has always been regarded as the center of all arts rather than just a gharana by historians and musicians. The aura and beauty of the city has attracted artists from all over the country for centuries. A number of musicians, of all gharanas, and from all over India, have migrated to Benaras during the course of history and made the city their home. Benares is, therefore, home to masters of Dhrupad, Dhamaar, Tirwat, Prabhand, Nivand, Hori, Khayal, Thumri, Dadra, Tappa, Tarana, Chaturang, Tap-Khayal, Tap-Tarana, Chaiti and Kajri – virtually all genres of Hindustani Sangeet. No other city can make this claim. The school of music that has emerged as Benares gharana is, therefore, not limited to Khayal but encompasses all genres of music. Consequently, it is sometimes not regarded as a gharana of khayal but a school of all forms of music and associated arts.

Music is complete only when we have Gayan (vocalist), Vaadan (instrumentalist) and Nirtan (dancer). Benaras is the only gharana that represents the Gayan - Vaadan - Nirtan trinity. No other gharana can make this claim.

[quote]India continued to focus on its musical tradition but in Pakistan it declined[/quote]

In an interview with Thakur Jaidev Singh, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan talks about the bond between the Patiala and Benares gharanas. What is the relationship between the two?

In the nineteenth century, the Maharaja of Patiala hosted a week-long jalsa and invited musicians from all over India to participate and compete in this event. A young duo of vocalists from Benares, brothers Parshadi Mishra and Manohar Mishra, were amongst the invitees. The two listened to other musicians perform for seven days but did not get a chance to perform themselves due to their young age and the large number of senior musicians present. The Maharaja noticed that the two youngsters had not performed and asked them to sing at the very end of the conference, just before he was going to award the prize. The musicians decided to sing in the styles of everyone they had heard at the conference, one at a time, before singing in their own style. The Maharaja appreciated their ability to sing in the style of all gharanas and awarded them the grand prize at the event even though musicians of the caliber of Miyan Tanras Khan were amongst the performers at the jalsa. This gesture of the Maharaja endeared the two young performers to Patiala and the subsequent celebration of their victory in Patiala immensely pleased musicians from Benares who began to visit and perform in Patiala on a regular basis. Knowledge of music thus came to be shared freely, and on a regular basis, between the two gharanas which developed many similarities in their music over the years.

[quote]The tying of the thread symbolizes a lifelong commitment of love and sincerity[/quote]

A Ganda-Bandhan (ceremony held to commemorate the formal apprenticeship of a student with the teacher) is an important part of our musical culture. Please tell us about your Ganda-Bandhan.

A Ganda-Bandhan is one of the most auspicious occasions in the life of a musician. In the ceremony, the Guru ties a thread, the Ganda, to the wrist of the Shishya. The tying of the thread symbolizes a lifelong commitment of love and sincerity that the Guru and Shishya make to each other.


In our culture of music, you do not tie the thread to your own children and grandchildren. Therefore, our  Ganda-Bandhan was not done by our father or our grandfather. Our thread was tied by my father’s Uncle whose name was Bade Ramdas Ji Mishra. We learnt from our real grandfather, Sur Sahai Mishra, from our father, Hanuman Prasad Mishra, and from our uncle, Gopal Prasad Mishra but the formal Guru was Bade Ramdas Ji; one, because we were not his grand children and, two, because he was the most senior musician in the gharana at the time.

Our ceremony was a simple one. The focus was on a vachan (oath) we made that day by reciting the verse:


three times. The verse means that a person who is dishonest with his teacher, or with his friend, ends up either penniless or a leper. A lot of discussion took place about the respect a student must have for his teacher at our Ganda-Bandhan. Fruit and sweets were distributed to all those present at the event and we gave gifts to our teacher, his wife and his family. The tradition continues even today; even though we live in Delhi, we send gifts to our guru’s family on Guru Purnima (Hindu festival honoring teachers) and other holy occasions. The rituals at a Ganda-Bandhan vary from gharana to gharana, and different Gurus and Ustads have their own preferences for the rituals of a Ganda-Bandhan, but the essence of the ceremony is always the same. It binds a student to respect, love and obey his teacher and to learn with honesty and integrity. There is a saying in Urdu:


(ba adab ba naseeb

be adab be naseeb)

which means, loosely, that the one who is respectful is also the one who has good fortune and the one who is disrespectful is the one without good fortune. A student must understand and believe in the saying for the Ganda-Bandhan to be complete. Students of music are taught to respect elders and seniors. A Ganda-Bandhan is a celebration of the respect a student has for his teacher.

Pandit Rajan Mishra
Pandit Rajan Mishra

What was your education like?

We were very fortunate to have had very kind teachers. They did not force us to practice all day; our riyaaz was limited to two to three hours a day but our given education took place round the clock. The education entailed having serious discussions about music, listening to stories of great musicians of yesteryears, learning to appreciate the styles of the various gharanas, and developing an understanding of the power of blessings. Our Uncle would tell us stories about accompanying Roshanara Begum on the sarangi. He would tell us how she would dress up for a concert, sing on stage and engage the audience. Our father used to tell us about the temperament of Ustad Fayyaz Khan; details about how he dressed up, how he walked on to the stage and how he wore his many medals. He would tell us about performances of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. Our teachers would tell us about the qualities of great musicians of all gharanas.  In addition, we would accompany our father and Uncle to their performances and attend all major conferences of music. These tours afforded us the opportunity to listen to the music of great masters. The exposure played an integral part in our learning.  Riyaaz is but a very small part of an education in music.

You have talked about having had the good fortune of listening to a lot of great musicians. Which musicians have inspired you?

All great musicians have inspired us but a few names come to mind readily. First and foremost are Ustads Salamat and Nazakat Ali Khan. There is, of course, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. We are huge fans of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Ustad Amir Khan, Ustads Fateh and Amanat Ali Khan. We hold Kishori Amonkar Ji in high regard. As young musicians, we used to love attending the concerts of great musicians and eagerly sought opportunities to sing in front of them. It is our great fortune to have sung in front of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and many other great masters. Our regret is not having had the opportunity to sing for Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and for Ustad Amir Khan.

Pandit Sajan Mishra
Pandit Sajan Mishra

Why is it important for you to sing in front of senior musicians - for education and critique, or for blessings?

Only for blessings. Our education was done at home and our teachers analyzed, assessed, evaluated and critiqued our singing as a part of our training in music. They taught us their own music and also shared the qualities of the music of other gharanas with us. We did not want an assessment of our singing from the masters; we wanted - and needed - their blessings. Getting the opportunity of getting an aashirwaad from the masters is invaluable.

What is it that you like about the music of some of the masters you have mentioned?

The masters had countless qualities. It is difficult to enumerate them completely.

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was a strong and powerful singer. He had a flawless grasp of sur. His notes were perfect both in pitch and in frequency, and he could sustain a note for as long as he wanted while maintaining volume, pitch, frequency, and tone. In addition, he had a remarkable ability to render very long taans. No one in India, and no one in Pakistan, has ever sung taans as long as those of Pandit Ji. We have heard him sing in forty-eight beat vilambit (slow tempo), starting a taan at the sam (first beat) and ending it after a full aavardi (one complete rhythmic cycle) at the next sam, without once pausing to catch breath. His breath-control was amazing. No one could match his tayyari in the sixties and seventies. He was a giant of Hindustani Sangeet.

Ustad Amir Khan was a true chintak (thinker). He spent his entire life reflecting on various aspects of music - sur, raag, taal, bandish and much else. Hindustani Sangeet owes a great deal to his thoughts and deliberations; rarely has the world seen a more serious contemplation of music. He was known for expertly using Meerkhand (a difficult singing style in which numerous permutations and combinations of notes in a raag are used systematically) passages in khayal. Ustad Amir Khan was the king of Meerkhand. His tayyari was remarkable. He used to incorporate musical passages in multiple layas (tempos) in a single taan and sometimes combine various types of taans in a single passage. No one has ever rendered a choot taan (a taan in which an entire octave, or a set of notes, is skipped in ascent or in descent) better than Amir Khan.


[quote]Ustads Salamat and Nazakat Ali Khan had immense feeling and emotion[/quote]

The music of Ustads Salamat and Nazakat Ali Khan had immense feeling and emotion, the power to bring listeners to tears. They understood the unique sentiment of each raag and had an uncanny ability to communicate it to their listeners. The two Ustads had a great command over rhythm and sang in certain taals – sulfakhta, farodast, ikwaii – that are rarely, if ever, used by vocalists in India and Pakistan. Their tayyari was outstanding  and they were able to deliver all types of taans - Bol (taan in which words of the bandish are employed), Sapat (taan in which notes are used in order), Koot (taan in which notes are used out of order), Gammak (taan that employs exaggerated vibrato), Geetkaari (taan that employs cluster of notes) – accurately at high speeds with both ease and facility.

Ustads Amanat And Fateh Ali Khan are able to completely fill the canvas of the vilambit khayal. They completely, and accurately, render the full text of a bandish from sam to sam spanning the entire aavardi of the taal. When singing in slow tempo a lot of vocalists have trouble filling in the period from one beat to the other; a lot wait for the end of the aavardi to sing the mukhra (the opening phrase of the bandish). The way these Ustads of Patiala render a bandish in vilambit bears testimony to their lineage and their expertise. They are two of the greatest khayal singers of our time.

Bhimsen Joshi, Ustad Amir Khan, Salamat and Nazakat Ali, and Amanat and Fateh Ali Khan
Bhimsen Joshi, Ustad Amir Khan, Salamat and Nazakat Ali, and Amanat and Fateh Ali Khan

In your opinion, which ones of the young musicians today show the greatest promise?

There are a lot of good classical singers in the current generation. Sanjeev Abhyankar is a gifted vocalist. Rashid Khan is one of the top vocalists in India today. Kaushiki Chakravarty is very good. We have a great fondness for the young Arshad Ali Khan and feel that he will make a great name for himself in the world of music.

[quote]Sarangi players today are not capable of accompanying classical vocalists[/quote]

A large number of notable vocalists – Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Amir Khan, Ustad Abdul Kareem Khan and many others – were sarangi players as well. Yet, the sarangi has fallen out of favor as an accompanying instrument amongst vocalists. One of your teachers – Pandit Gopal Prasad Mishra – was India’s premier sarangi player of his time; but you no longer use sarangi in concerts. Why is that?

It is true that we belong to a family of sarangi players. It is also true that there is no better instrument in Hindustani Sangeet than the sarangi. That being said, it has become increasingly difficult for us to perform with sarangi players. There are very few good sarangi players in India and Pakistan today. The ones who are young are focused more on technique than on raagdari (knowledge and practice of raags). Sarangi players today are not capable of accompanying classical vocalists. They do not rehearse with vocalists and do not get proper education in the theory of Hindustani vocal music. They are more interested in fusion and commercial music and their exposure to serious vocal music is limited. Some have changed the strings of the sarangi, opting to use nylon strings for the guj (bow) instead of hair from a horse’s tail. These changes have resulted in hurting the sound of the sarangi and have destroyed its beauty. We don’t enjoy singing with such sarangi. We used to sing with Ustad Sultan Khan, Ustad Latif Khan, Pandit Ramesh Mishra and many other sarangi players, but the sarangi – as it is played today – is not for us.

Tappa is a genre of light classical music associated with Benares. What is the reason behind the popularity of the tappa in Benares? 

The tappa was invented by Miyan Ghulam Nabi Shori who was a singer in the court of the Nawab of Awadh in the eighteenth century. Miyan Shori was a restless soul and wandered the deserts of Punjab in his quest to add new dimensions to his singing. He developed a liking for the sound of the bells adorning camels in Punjab and combined it with his tremendous skill in rendering taan to produce the tappa. He returned to Gwalior from Punjab but did not find peace in the region and finally settled down in Benares. The tappa was greatly appreciated by the people of Benares and the genre quickly gained popularity among vocalists as well as listeners in the region.

Historically, the people of Benares have been religious. The great pandits of Benares preferred to live in Benares and rarely traveled to perform in Muslim courts. The bai jis (female vocalists) who were their students, on the other hand, travelled far and wide and popularized the music of their teachers. The tappa was a difficult song and required mastery of taan for proper rendition. The bai jis used the genre as a vehicle to demonstrate their musical virtuosity all over India. The tappa, therefore, came to be associated with Benares.

[quote]People who have great knowledge of music tend to be biased and staid as an audience[/quote]

The audience for classical music can broadly be divided into two categories – The Kan Ras (        ) who enjoy but do not necessarily understand music and the Jaankaar (         ) who understand the theory and practice of music well. Who do you prefer to sing for?

Truthfully, we like to sing for people who enjoy and love music. People who have great knowledge of music tend to be biased and staid as an audience. We like to sing for people who derive pleasure from listening to us and who demonstrate their pleasure candidly. An audience that is engaged in our performance is the best one. We fondly remember a concert of ours in the Netherlands where a few Pakistani listeners were present in the audience. We do not think that they had very deep knowledge of classical music but their love for music was palpable. We formed a spiritual connection with this group of listeners and they accompanied us on our musical journey throughout the concert. They put their heart and soul into listening and we did the same with our singing. These Kan Ras people elevated the level of our performance to one that we do not achieve often. Pakistanis tend to listen using their hearts and not their minds. We love that and it is for that reason that we have a great desire to perform in that country. We have travelled the world but our journey won’t be complete until we sing in Pakistan.