The Arts

Why the Sankat Mochan Music Festival in Banaras is So Special

The audience at the Sankat Mochan festival, Banaras, on April 29, listening to sitarist Neeladri Kumar perform Raga Jhinjhoti.

The audience at the Sankat Mochan festival, Banaras, on April 29, listening to sitarist Neeladri Kumar perform Raga Jhinjhoti.

Varanasi: The world of Hindustani classical music and dance is one balanced, precariously one might say, between borders of different kinds. These include, to speak in clichés, the borders between the old and the new, the provincial and the metropolitan, the “authentic” and the commercialised. It is a world in which one’s natural sense of sur and laya, or pitch and rhythm, and one’s nurtured tayyari and talim, or practice and training, are equally crucial for recognition – but never enough.

In this uncertain world, the annual Sankat Mochan Sangeet Samaroh is like an oasis of space and time for artists of all types to not only pause and refresh themselves, but also to reconnect with the reasons why they are performers in the first place. But in being this, the festival also makes apparent the cracks and chasms that exist in the world of the Indian classical arts.

India’s main music festivals include Sankat Mochan itself, the Doverlane Conference in Kolkata, Saptak in Ahmedabad and Sawai Gandharva Bhimsen in Pune (these are some of the most famous; there are several others). Sankat Mochan is different from the others in important ways. Unlike Sawai Gandharva and Doverlane, and indeed almost all concerts in metropolitan cities, it doesn’t take place in a black box theatre. Unlike Saptak, and again like many concerts in big cities, it does not require a pass to enter.

When there's no place inside, find a window.

When there’s no place inside, find a window.

Sankat Mochan happens in Banaras’s most popular temple to Hanuman, present here as “the allayer of worries.” It is free and open to all. Its set-up and ethos ensures little separation between artists and audience. There are no designated VIP areas. People come and go, nap when they want and wander to the yard in the back to meet their favourite artists. The stage, created on the verandah that faces Hanuman in his sanctum, is not closed off: the audience crowds the courtyard right to the base of the stage, and fans, friends and students of the performers even sit on the stage.

Established in the 1970s, the Sankat Mochan festival continues the practice of performance in temples that is today quite rare. Performing in Sankat Mochan – no matter what the performance or who the performer (Muslims perform each year at the festival) – is considered a form of shringar, or “decoration” for the god in question, as well as hazri, or attendance in the god’s court, and shraddha and prem, or respect and love for the god. The audience and artists are united in this project of pleasing the god, and therefore “audience,” “artist” and “performance” cannot be defined in those Western terms.

Hanuman, or “Hanuman ji,” as he is known to everyone in Banaras, is not usually associated with music and dance but rather with physical prowess. But, like the particular nature of the performance and the performer, to which god the festival is dedicated is largely unimportant. In its form as a collective project of devotion towards Hanuman, the festival demonstrates the continued power of bhakti for many kinds of Indians.

A woman in the audience.

A woman in the audience.

The notion and practice of bhakti first became popular during the 16th and 17th centuries when poets like Mira, Tulsidas and Kabir wrote and sang against the rigidity of Brahmanical Hinduism and preached, in simple, witty, passionate and intimate terms, a personalised form of devotion to a god of one’s choosing.

Bhakti is a philosophy that emphasises not religiosity and ritual, but the individual and the humane.

A festival like Sankat Mochan – in which artists perform for free, citing their devotion to Hanuman as a reason for doing so, in which ordinary people turn up in the hundreds all night long to listen to “classical” music (they do not necessarily think of it as “classical” but just as good music and a form of meditation and celebration), and in which the overall ethos is one of the intimate, the humble and the humane – is an example of living, practiced, everyday bhakti that is quite amazing to witness, and is a striking reminder of how it continues to infuse life for many in India’s smaller places with meaning.

Because it happens in a temple, Sankat Mochan is also different from the other festivals in not providing payments to its artists.

This is a remarkable fact, for performers who otherwise charge fees in the lakhs for a single performance. Vishwamohan Bhatt, Pandit Jasraj, Kumar Bose, Akram Khan and others agree year after year to perform for free at the temple.

Vishwamohan Bhatt performs at 1 am on May 2.

Vishwamohan Bhatt performs at 1 am on May 2.

In the greenroom before his performance on the third night, I ask Vishvamohan Bhatt, the mohan veena player, why artists who are otherwise busy traveling the world take time out to perform at Sankat Mochan for free. Bhatt responds that it is out of bhakti for Hanuman and because of the chance to present one’s art in a siddh (pure) place. His is a response I hear echoed by most of the other artists I speak to over the next few nights of the festival.

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A view of the audience

But these artists also hasten to add, as does Bhatt, that it is the quality of the audience that makes performing here irresistible and unlike all other performance experiences. In Bhatt’s words, the audience here knows the skill of “dad dena” or true appreciation. They listen without the slightest restlessness and know to say vah, vah at just the right places. At the same time, if they don’t like what they hear, they will get up from under the nose of the performer, regardless of his or her reputation, and leave.

Outside in the yard behind the temple, where artists are brought as they arrive and where other artists, fans, students and journalists socialise, I meet Rajan Mishra, the famous Delhi-based vocalist from Banaras. Mishra explains that in other performance contexts, artists generally feel pressured to compete with one another and show off their technical skill, but here, because no payments are involved, artists perform purely for the audience and the audience feels free to react honestly. This, he says, creates nad-brahma, or a cosmos of sound, between the artists and audience – which is the true goal of Indian music.

The tabla player Sanju Sahai, visiting from London, is among the crowd at the back, and explains it to me like this: “The black box auditorium is not actually meant for Indian classical music. Nowadays many artists decide before their concerts exactly what “improvisations” they will perform – which is totally antithetical to the system and philosophy of Indian music. It is only at baithak-style concerts like this that artists are pushed to their potential. We need more concerts like this.”

Ashish, a young vocalist-in-training, whom I bump into next, has shining eyes because he has met one of his heroes, vocalist Ulhas Kashalkar, presently guru-in-residence at the Sangeet Research Akademi, Kolkata. Ashish puts it eloquently: “This festival transforms your very feelings and thoughts. As a student, no inspiration is more real than interacting with your favourite artist on such equal, personal terms. The artists become learners here too. This equality between artist and student, and artist and audience, is above any veneer of ‘professionalism’ – it is the real goal of the arts.”

In this way, the festival provides a service to artists. It becomes much more than just a series of performances but a kind of testing space for artists. This is important because for Indian artists today, such platforms and opportunities are rare, rarer than they should be. And it is important because it makes clear that structures and systems define how people behave and what direction their endeavors take. That is, if patrons were not so keen to organise modern, Western, black box style concerts and instead organised baithak-style ones, perhaps Indian classical artists would be performing differently, and better.

The cruel truth behind the charm

But while Sankat Mochan is a model for patrons and artists all over India, it also presents the paradox that seems to be at the heart of the Indian classical performing arts.

For Rajan Mishra, and his younger brother Sajan, coming to the festival each year marks a kind of homecoming. The singing duo left Banaras for Delhi about three decades ago, on the encouragement of their father, the late sarangi maestro Hanuman Mishra, to make their name – and they did exactly that. For the metropolitan audiences among whom they have gained phenomenal popularity, making them among India’s top artists today, their names are symptomatic with a particularly “Banarasi” style – of performance and persona simultaneously – that is at once forgotten and exotic, an object of fascination and nostalgia.

Rajan and Sajan Mishra with their accompanists and students in the greenroom.

Rajan and Sajan Mishra with their accompanists and students in the greenroom.

Ironically, in Banaras, the brothers are desired for the opposite of all that – for personifying the modern and the international, for embodying the success that any struggling Banarasi artist wants for himself or herself (and is rather at a loss at how to attain). The brothers’ performance at Sankat Mochan – deliberately scheduled as the very last and hence the climax of the festival – is attended enthusiastically by ordinary Banarasis and by friends and family members because they represent, so well, the potential of Banaras – a small, provincial place with a proud history but a deep helplessness.

For another artist too, Sankat Mochan marks a homecoming, but of a different kind. Sanju Sahai, the only surviving descendant of Ram Sahai, the legendary “founder” of the Banaras gharana, moved to London three decades ago, also to earn his living and make his name. In the interim, he has been almost unheard within India as a performer – until he decided a few years ago, on the encouragement of well-wishers, to make himself more known. He first performed at Sankat Mochan in 2012, and then returned to perform in 2015, and again this year, 2016. When asked about his decision to return to India and to the festival, he says that although he lives abroad, his soul is in Banaras, because his music is of Banaras, and that his colleagues and family from Banaras have been encouraging him to start performing more within India. In other words, he needs Banaras, and Banaras needs him. Like the older and established Mishra brothers, Sahai could become an example, for Banaras and for the world, of an artist from the city who has “made it.” But in order to prove his credentials, he needs the city’s endorsement.

This symptomatic relationship would be true of any artist who has reached or hopes to reach a certain level in performance and fame. There are of course dozens of artists from Banaras who are scattered across the country and the world, but they have gotten amalgamated wherever they are: they are not associated with “Banaras,” and they do not make Banaras particularly proud.

Rajan and Sajan Mishra and Sanju Sahai make not just interesting stories in themselves but also poignant examples, of the larger systems currently at work in the world of the Indian classical performing arts.

When all is said and done, the fact is that Banaras as a performance style and as emblematic of a certain aesthetic and philosophical culture, celebrated the world over, fails to support its own artists sufficiently – so that they are forced to leave. This is because there is not enough money in Banaras. Only a handful of private patrons exist. There are virtually no government initiatives to support the Banaras gharana and its exponents. Varanasi may be unique in many ways, but in not managing to do justice to its artists, it is similar to other small cities that have been big centres for the classical arts – Dharwar in Karnataka, for instance. As Kaushiki Chakraborty, who had her debut performance at Sankat Mochan on April 27,points out, Banaras has not given back to its artists in the way, say, Kolkata has.

As the example of the Mishra brothers and Sanju Sahai makes clear, the artists that participate in Sankat Mochan are most likely those that are already international successes. Many of Banaras’s talented but struggling artists are not featured in the festival. Herein lies the cruel truth behind its charm and magic.

Although everyone enjoys Sankat Mochan and treats it as an opportunity for inspiration, not everyone present at the festival is quite as starry-eyed as Ashish, or the Mishra brothers, or Sanju Sahai. Lingering on the periphery of the crowd at the back, a talented singer from the city discusses with a pair of friends how he must start using social media to advertise his music school. For most “middle” and “lower rung” artists who do not find success through performance, opening an institution for music training is the only alternative, and comes with its own host of uncertainties. Similarly, another Banaras-based instrumentalist complains to me that bigger stages, in Banaras and elsewhere, should give “smaller” artists a chance too, and not just keep inviting the international names.

How can Indian artists be supported and the Indian classical arts strengthened and expanded in ways that are aesthetically sensitive and historically imaginative, while also becoming commercial, viable, modern and forward-looking? This is a question as old as the arts itself. But it is one that all stakeholders – the artists, aficionados and patrons – need to find answers to.

Note: This article has been edited to correct an erroneous reference to Dharwar being a part of Maharashtra. The town is, in fact, in Karnataka.

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