Sankat Mochan Festival - Centenary Year

Centenary Celebration of Sankat Mochan Sangeet Samaroh, Banaras

This year, the festival saw a never before – seven all-night music sessions, a total of 60 concerts. (There was a last-minute concert cancellation of Kaushiki Chakraborty). Sankat Mochan is the largest music festival in North India, surpassing even the 13-day-long festival in Ahmedabad, Saptak.

Held inside the Sankat Mochan temple precincts, the festival has evolved over the years into encompassing classical dance as well. The music on offer now includes light music and Carnatic music too.

This time, the stars included Punjabi pop singer Jasbir Jassi, playback singers Sonu Nigam and Javed Ali, bhajan exponent Anup Jalota and ghazal singer Talat Aziz. The classical singers comprised Jasraj’s grand nephew Swar Rattan Sharma, Nagaraj Havaldar, Ulhas Kashalkar, Armaan Khan (son of Rashid Khan), Sangeeta Katti Kulkarni, Deepika Varadarajan, Rahul and Rohit Mishra,  Neeraj Parikh, Jayateerth Mevundi, Ajay Pohankar, Prabhakar Diwakar Kashyap, Venkatesh Kumar, Vidushi Malini Awasthi, Vidushi Kalapini Komkali, Rajeshwar Acharya, Vishwanath, V Kankana Bannerji, Rashid Khan and Sajan Mishra accompanied by his son Swaransh.

Four santoor exponents were Tarun Bhattacharya, Satish Vyas, Abhay Rustom Sopore and Shudhasheel Chatterji. There were four flautists in the North Indian tradition, Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Pravin Godkhindi, accompanied by his son Shadaj, Ronu Majumdar, accompanied by his son Hrishikesh, and S Aakashin a jugalbandi with violinist Yadnesh Raikar. Sitar was represented by Shahid Parvez Khan, Niladri Kumar, Purbayan Chatterji, Shakir Khan, Banaras-based Supriya Shahand first time at this festival Ankush Nayak. Modified guitar exponents were Vishwamohan Bhatt and his son Salil and first-time exponent Thakur Chakrapani Singh from New York.

The violin was represented by none other than the doyen N Rajam with her daughter Sangeeta; Yadnesh Raikar played a jugalbandi concert. There was one sarangi solo by Moinuddin Khan of Jaipur. Shehnai, another instrument that has very few performers today, was represented by Bhaskar Nath. Surprisingly there were only two sarodiyas, both from the Maihar gharana,  Basant Kabra from Jodhpur and young Indrayudh Majumder from Kolkata.

The dancers were Gaddam Padmaja Reddy (Kuchipudi), Bharatanatyam by Rama Vaidyanathan and Shirisha Shashank, Odissi by Ratikant Mohapatra, Vidushi Sujata Mohapatra, and Sanchita Bhattacharya, and kathak by Rajendra Gangani.

Carnatic musicians were L. Subramaniam, Shashank Subramaniam, U Rajesh, Sivamani and vocalist Tirumale Srinivas.

Despite the festival being known for its showcasing percussion, this time, there was only one tabla solo by Banaras gharana exponent Sanju Sahai, a mridangam solo by Yella Venkateshwar Rao, and drums by Sivamani.    

As usual, the uniquely Banarasi demonstration of appreciation, with raised hands and loud cries of Har Har Mahadev rent the airtime and time again through the nights. With so many concerts, it was impossible to catch every presentation, and some concerts stood out.

Singing duo Diwakar and Prabhakar Kashyap, disciples of the Banaras doyens Rajan-Sajan Mishra, engaged the audience beautifully. Starting their concert post-midnight, the brothers, who are also professional teachers, started with the early morning raga Lalit. They sang with gravity and poignancy, embellishing each phrase in the manner popularised by their gurus in a beautiful rendition of the appropriate composition, Pawan putra Hanuman. The ambience they created was mellow and peaceful. However, the vilambit portion was perhaps a tad over-prolonged. Slowly building up the tempo of their recital, the duo next sang a tarana composed by the late Rajan Mishra, Eho Mahavir Bajrangi, in raga Arana (despite it being a late night raga, its rendition due to the appropriate lyrics did not jar.). Succumbing to the enthusiastic audience, the duo also sang the iconic Patiala gharana drut composition popularly known as Taan Captaan, perhaps wanting to demonstrate their vocal prowess; one felt ending with the tarana would have had more impact. They concluded with a bhajan. They were expertly accompanied by two Banaras gharana veterans; Arvind Azad from Pune on the tabla and Dharamnath Mishra on the harmonium. Vocal support by their nephew and disciples was noteworthy. 

Delhi-based Bharatanatyam dancer Rama Vaidyanathan made her debut presentation at the festival. Intelligently only presenting devotional pieces, Rama kept her act crisp and fast-paced; the audience was in raptures at her varied depictions of  Lord Hanuman, Sree Krishna, Ardhnareeshwara and Lord Rama. Combining her skill as a dancer with beautifully expressed abhinaya, Rama’s presentation was complete in every respect. Accompanying her expertly was Sudha Raghuraman and her team, all Delhi based. 

Mumbai-based sitarist Niladri Kumar played with Banaras gharana tabla doyen Kumar Bose. As he was about to start, the traditional midnight singing sewa to the Lord interrupted him, and he sensitively picked out the notes of the singing on his sitar, giving accompaniment to the kirtan of Seeta Ram. Kumar Bose softly accompanied him.

Perhaps in deference to the veteran tabla player, Niladri avoided the traditional aalap-jor-jhala, proceeding directly into the vilambit composition in raga Jaijaiwanti, playing with charm, giving importance to melodic phrases, focusing on maintaining a mood of prayer. He showcased his gharana’s speciality of work on the kharaj (bass string) beautifully, not giving importance immediately to layakaari.

Keeping one note as the muquam (resting place), Niladri wove interesting little music stories around the note before moving on. Later, his lightning-speed sawaal-jawab interaction with Kumar Bose drew tremendous applause. Niladri concluded with Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram

Malini Awasthi started with a beautifully appropriate composition in Behag and then confined herself to her forte, thumri. Indeed, each one was a delight. The Banaras audience are huge fans, and she managed to satisfy expectations deftly, also singing a traditional chaiti (sung in the month of Chaitra). Lingering over notes, she created a mellow ambience redolent of a bygone age of leisure. She was expertly accompanied on the harmonium by her guru Girija Devi’s guru bhai, Dharamnath Mishra, himself a very fine singer. On the tabla was Banaras gharana doyen, Sanju Sahai, who is UK based but makes it a point to come every year for his annual haazri at the Sankat Mochan Sangeet Samaroh. 

Banaras-based Rajeshwar Acharya had performed in the festival in the early 1950s as a pre-teen, making him the oldest living performer. Awarded the Padma Shri two years ago, the veteran singer gave a succinct presentation, focussing on appropriate compositions rather than confining himself only to those ragas appropriate to the time. He started with a beautiful composition dedicated to Lord Hanuman, in raga Jog. Shifting gears, so to speak, he then sang a thumri in raga Des, focussed on the playful antics of the baby Lord Krishna. Adopting an unusual, most pleasing conversational style of rendering the thumri, the doyen in manifold ways sang, Mein nahin maakhan khayo. Bhairavi is never sung in the middle of a festival, it is always reserved for the last item, but Rajeshwar Acharya announced that in any musical offering to Lord Hanuman, convention need not be upheld, as the Lord gives ‘anumati’ (permission) to his ‘bhakts’! He thus sang Jogi mat jaao in raga Bhairavi, having successfully created a most satisfying ambience of devotion. He justified the inclusion of lighter genres in the festival, saying that everything that was not disrespectful should be allowed in the centenary year of the festival as Hanuman-ji liked all types of music.

For this writer, the most satisfying concert was by Jodhpur based sarodiya, Basant Kabra. Disciple of the reclusive Annapurna Devi (sister of Ali Akbar Khan and estranged wife of Ravi Shankar), Basant Kabra is not heard as often as he deserves. This was his second appearance at the Sankat Mochan festival; his concert was the last, in the early morning hours. He played raga Bilaskhani Todi. He exhibited a confident playing style from the opening strokes, moving decisively into expertly etching out the raga with brilliant, assured strokes of notes. Keeping up the pace, he moved into a cohesive jor, not meandering to stretch the concert out as is so common these days. He played as a master plays, without the need to justify his music, by explanatory note phrases to establish his musical points. He went straight for the kill, in a manner of speaking. He showed the essentials of the raga with beauty and pathos, establishing it as only one who knows it intimately can, and later, also showed his virtuosity as an instrumentalist. His layakaari was as resolute and purposeful, the strokes strong and impactful. On the table was Kolkata based Samar Saha, of the Banaras gharana.

 PC: Rakesh Sinha