Songs of revival

  • Rustic charm: The Santhals have a rich tradition of song and dance. An effort is being made to bring it into the mainstream in its pure form | Salil Bera
  • Keepers of a legacy: Students during a practice session at Hariharpur village in Uttar Pradesh | Pawan Kumar
  • Early lessons: Young Manganiyar singers during a performance.

Once known for their rich musical traditions, six villages are trying to keep the legacy alive and pass it on to the next generation

At the break of dawn, the melody of the sarangi flirts with the fleeting beats of the tabla. A playful jugalbandi of the two seems omnipresent in this hamlet. As one meanders through the narrow roads sandwiched between lush green fields of wheat, chickpea and potatoes that share the canvas with the bright yellow blooms of mustard, a soulful rendition in bhairav—a morning raga in the Hindustani classical music—fills the air.

A peep into the kutcha courtyards of the humble homes reveals the source of this music: children immersed in riyaaz (practice). For young boys and girls of Hariharpur, a hamlet 6km from Azamgarh in eastern Uttar Pradesh, music is a way of life.

Children begin the practice in the wee hours and it is the job of the older men in the house—fathers, uncles and grandfathers—to teach them the nuances of swar (musical notes) and lay (rhythm). The riyaaz continues after the children return from school, and the evening slips into the night in the lap of music.

Sarangi, harmonium, sitar, dholak and tabla are part of every household. The very mention of a jamming session is enough to draw every artiste out of the house. School becomes the first casualty as children are eager to perform before the great maestros from their hometown, who occasionally visit to train the younger generation.

Rahul Mishra, 15, a class IX student, sings an old bandish (composition) in Raag Bhimpalasi while his elder brother Nitish accompanies him on the tabla. Their father, Ajay Mishra, an accomplished vocalist who shuttles between Mumbai and Hariharpur, prods the boys to increase the pace. The boys’ faces brighten up when Pandit Sudarshan Mishra, a Kolkata-based musician who is also their granduncle, nods in appreciation.

Three-year-old Priyansh is irritable as he is running a high temperature. But he cannot resist running his fingers on the harmonium placed next to him. And it is no childish fiddling—the kid strikes the right notes. “Our children start singing ‘Sa, re, ga, ma’ even before they learn to speak,” says Ajay.

Hariharpur is perhaps the only village in India where music is an integral part of every household. It is home to the Mishras, a closely-knit community of 60 Brahmin families who have fought poverty and the lure of city life to play custodians to the musical heritage of Hariharpur gharana. But today, the village is facing a bleak future as families are either moving out or giving up music as it has become too difficult to eke out a living in the village. Farming no longer remains sustainable.

The Mishras are believed to be the descendants of court musicians of the Mughal era. They claim two saint singers, Harinam Das and Surnam Das, as their ancestors who came from Handiya village in Allahabad to perform in the durbar of the Nawab of Azamgarh. Impressed by their music, the nawab offered them as much land as they could manage to cover in an entire day walking from dawn till dusk. The brothers travelled across 989 bighas and stopped near an open well and settled there.

If Azamgarh’s notoriety strikes despair, the refined culture of this nondescript village evokes awe. “Many artistes do not identify themselves with Hariharpur fearing the Azamgarh tag, which rings an alarm in people’s mind,” says Ajay.

The gharana has its own trademark, which even the great masters acknowledge. “Hamare gharane main gayak swar aur lay se khilwad karte hai [Our vocalists play around with the notes and rhythm]…. Unlike most gharanas which specialise in a particular instrument, our musicians are all-rounders,” says vocalist Sudarshan Mishra.

Pandit Mohan Mishra, a tabla artiste who works with the Kathak Kendra in New Delhi, says, “Changing times have compelled us to deviate from classical music and cater to popular demand. The compositions are now getting replaced with Bhojpuri lok geet [folk].” Sarangi, a traditional stringed instrument, too, has very few takers.

In the past few years, Delhi-based Indian Trust for Rural Heritage and Development has been running ‘Project Hariharpur’ to preserve the heritage, and has built a school to help the children study and live closer to the village where they can learn from the great maestros.

A few hundred kilometres from Hariharpur is Rampur, another village in Uttar Pradesh that is struggling to keep its musical legacy alive. The 175-year-old Rampur-Sahaswan gharana originated in Rampur and blossomed under the royal patronage. However, the village no longer has a musical aura as all its accomplished artistes have moved to different parts of the world. The gharana that produced seven Padma awardees would have been relegated to the pages of history if not for the efforts of Ustad Rashid Khan, a descendant of Ustad Inayat Hussain Khan, the founder of the gharana, who hailed from Sahaswan.

Rashid Khan created the Shakhri Begum Memorial Trust in 1999 to promote the gharana by hosting concerts, and instituting scholarships and awards in Kolkata.

Like the Mishras of Hariharpur, the Rampur-Sahaswan family is said to have descended from two brothers—Karim Bux and Rahim Bux, who belonged to the Dhrupad (vocal) tradition of music. The style of singing is closely related to the Gwalior gharana, but is unique for its taans (fast tempo) and tarana (symphony).

Migration has often created microcosms, where art blossoms with local patronage and evolves into a legacy. But the ravages of time bring rich legacies at a crossroads like in the case of Rudrapatnam, the sangeeta grama (music village) nestled on the banks of the river Cauvery.

If you come across any Carnatic musician with the initial ‘R’ in his name, it can be safely assumed that he hails from Rudrapatnam, a village 240km from Bengaluru. Legend has it that a spiritual guru by the name Naacharamma left Sengottai in Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu in the 10th century and settled on the banks of the river Cauvery in Hassan district of Karnataka. Her followers—all Sanketi Brahmins—settled in two villages, Koushika and Bettadapura. While one group pursued the study of yajna (ritual of sacrifice) and the Vedas, the other pursued music and, eventually, settled in Rudrapatna.

In the 1950s, of 600-odd houses in the village, 150 belonged to Sanketi Brahmins. But over the decades, they abandoned the village, first during an outbreak of plague, and later seeking royal patronage.

The village witnessed a revival in 1961 when some families organised the Ati Rudra Yagna. Four decades later in 2001, a group of musicians, including vocalist R.K. Padmanabha, formed the Rudrapatna Sangeetha Samiti with the aim of reviving Rudrapatnam as a sangeeta grama. In 2008, the samiti built a temple dedicated to music. Shaped like a tanpura, the temple is aptly called the Sapthaswara Mandir.

Music festivals, like the Rudrapatnam Sangeetotsava which is held every May, were started. “Musical festivals were the only way to get all of us together,” says Padmanabha. “We instituted an award in the memory of Naacharamma and added more festivals. Poor infrastructure has hindered development, but music lovers have raised funds. Soon, a residential facility for visiting artistes will be built.”

83musicalsession Master class: A musical session in progress at Rudrapatnam village in Karnataka | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

The Cauvery connects the missing links in history. Like the Sanketis who settled in Rudrapatnam, Telugu Brahmin scholars from Andhra Pradesh settled in Thiruvaiyaru, 13km from Thanjavur, in Tamil Nadu in the 17th century.

‘Thyagarajar veedenge? (Where is Thyagaraja’s house?)’ The question comes as no surprise to the people of Thiruvaiyaru, though the person being referred to lived here more than one and a half centuries ago.

The village has emerged as a pilgrim centre, especially for musicians, as composer-musicians Shyama Shastrigal, Thyagaraja and Muthuswamy Diskhitar, who are known as the trinity of Carnatic music, were born here in the 18th century. ‘Thyagaraja Illam’ on Thirumanjana Street has been recently renovated. A little farther, on the northern bank of the river Cauvery is the temple where Thyagaraja attained jeeva samadhi (salvation). It is now the venue for the world famous Thyagaraja Aradhana, a five-day music festival organised by Sri Thyagabrahma Mahotsava Sabha.

Thiagaraja Sarma, 36, a descendant of Thyagaraja and the priest at the samadhi temple, says, “I belong to the sixth generation of Thyagaraja swami. Our family has followed the musical tradition for generations and we perform the daily puja at the temple. We specialise in music and pursue the spiritual path set by the great saint.”

While Thyagaraja’s disciples went about propagating his teachings, it was Bangalore Nagarathnamma, temple dancer and a devotee, who used her earnings to build a temple at the site of the samadhi. The temple was inaugurated on January 7, 1925 and Nagarathnamma spent the rest of her life teaching music there. In fact, she was instrumental in getting women musicians to perform during the Thyagaraja festival. Today, more than 500 women musicians take part in the festival. Her samadhi lies opposite to the saint’s tomb.

“A music college has been established by the Tamil Nadu government. Today, free music classes are held at the samadhi,” says Bhanu, who lives opposite to the Thyagaraja Illam. “Musicians visit the samadhi all through the year to make an offering to the guru. People consider it a privilege and auspicious to sing before the samadhi.”

The artistes of rich musical traditions seek not just an opportunity to earn a livelihood but also create a strong partnership to preserve the traditions within the community. In that respect, the Manganiyars of Marwar are on the right track.

The music of the Manganiyars has been resonating in the nondescript villages of Barmer and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan for centuries. But today, it stands as a mute witness to the fragmentation of this musical tradition.

Seventy-year-old Pempe Khan Manganiyar sings ‘Shubraj’, a song that describes the illustrious lineage, history, achievements, honour and pride of his jajmaan (patron) while his three-year-old grandson, Azad Khan, tries to emulate him.

A clan of professional folk singers, the Manganiyars are unique because though they are Muslims, they sing songs in praise of Hindu deities and to celebrate Hindu festivals of Holi and Diwali. With patronage on the decline, Manganiyars are losing both their livelihood and musical legacy.

Three years ago, Hamira, a village in Jaisalmer witnessed a rare sight when more than 120 artistes came together for the Manganiyar Milan Utsav as part of an initiative by Jaipur Virasat Foundation and Manganiyar Lok Sangeet Sansthan. The intention was to try and bridge the gap between the old and new generation of singers and draw attention to the fragmentation of the community.

“Manganiyar musicians were an integral part of the jajmaan’s household and they also travelled with him,” says Vinod Joshi, researcher and community director of JVF. “While the Manganiyar women sang in the courtyard, the men sang outside the mansions. The children travelled with their parents and not just learnt the songs, instruments and etiquette, but also shared a special bond with the jajmaan’s family.” They also had a strong guru-shishya tradition. “The parents would find a teacher outside the family to teach the young kids,” says Joshi. “But today, the families no longer travel together and villages have no good music teachers. This is widening the generation gap and affecting the quality of music among the younger generation.”

In 2002, a group of like-minded people, including folklore singer Komal Kothari, John Singh (founding trustee of JVF), H.H. Gaj Singh II of Jodhpur and Vinod Joshi started the foundation in Jaipur to preserve and promote the traditions through advocacy, collaborations and income generation activities for artistes.

In 2006, the foundation set out on a tour of villages to interact with artistes, document their art, and forge a relationship to plan festivals for talent hunt. “During the tour, we found exceptional artistes who never appeared in the mainstream music circuit,” says Joshi. “These artistes performed only in their village fairs and festivals. We roped them in to perform at the Jaipur Heritage International Festival and Rajasthan International Folk Festival in Jodhpur held every year.”

A major grouse of the community is that the popular culture today is forcing them to give up their traditional compositions. “The community is a treasure trove of more than 700 traditional songs,” says Joshi. “They have a song for every mood and moment, which has been passed on from one generation to the next orally. Sadly, nothing is documented. Only 10 to 15 popular songs are now in circulation.”

82ThyagarajaAradhana Divine rhythm: The Thyagaraja Aradhana music festival held at Thiruvaiyaru in Tamil Nadu | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

Even kamaicha, the traditional string instrument made of mango wood with its hollow part covered with goat skin, is going extinct. JVF introduced a monthly pension of Rs 2,500 for senior musicians who taught children. They were encouraged to perform at festivals, collaboration events and private ceremonies. Gradually, music schools have mushroomed across the villages.

The flip side of the revival plans is commercialisation and, eventually, alienation of the musicians from their roots, say experts. As musicologist Dr Jayasri Banerjee, who studied the impact of public presentation of Santhal music in Burdwan and Birbhum districts, noted, “Taking the adivasi culture or music outside their everyday lives and natural performance contexts like festivals, rites and rituals is leading to drafting of literacy and family planning songs, and the imposition of Bengali linguistic tendencies. This distorts the formal structure of Santhal music and its different genres.”

The world of Santhals, the single largest tribal community in India, spread across West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, Bihar and beyond, is rich in its song and dance traditions. There is no Santhal woman who cannot sing and dance, and no Santhal man who cannot beat the drum and play the flute, it is said. Educated Santhal men like Dr Boro Baski, trustee of Ghosaldnga Bishnubati Adibasi Trust, Santiniketan, and Gokula Hansda, a Santhal educator and co-founder of Kulhidhuri, an organisation committed to preserving Santhal traditions, are trying to bring Santhal music into the mainstream in its pure form.

In one such project, Baski encouraged the Santhal children to make their own music album. Called ‘Ale Ato (Our Village)’, the album was released in June 2015 at “Hul” festival in Dhansara village near Santineiktan. Another music band, Sange Bariet, now performs in and around Santiniketan and is a hit among the youth.

Hansda, on the other hand, has been motivating educated Santhals to collect and sing Santhal songs at festivals throughout West Bengal, Jharkhand and Bihar to encourage young Santhal boys and girls to hold on to their roots. “The children are getting influenced by Hindi film and pop music and losing touch with their rich tradition. Education has brought a conflict in their identity,” says Hansda.

Last January, an exhibition of Santhal traditions was held at the National Museum in New Delhi. While efforts are being made to keep the musical traditions alive, the question is: would the mainstream be open to recognising these vanishing realms?

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