Veteran music producer Jay Visvadeva has many years of experience organising concerts in the UK and bringing over some of the biggest names – including Pandit Rajan Misra*. The recent loss of the iconic Khyal vocalist was a shattering blow to all those who love Indian classical music and in this piece, Visvadeva explains the long tradition which from Rajan Misra emerged and assesses the incredibly rich work he has left behind…
By Jay Visvadeva
Roop, Rang aur Rekha (Form, content & aesthetic presentation)
FROM among the staggering multiplicity of art forms in the Indian subcontinent, the Khyal genre, which means ‘imagination’, has been at a centre stage for a couple of hundred years.
Numerous musician families or gharanas have preserved, fostered, and nurtured this art via one-to-one transmission from master to disciple. These families have faithfully bequeathed their musical tradition upon their heirs, with each generation of artists making their own contribution whilst preserving the essence of the musical canon received from their elders.
The ancient city of Kaashi, also known as Varanasi or Benares is a centre of culture and in its stride it has sustained some of the finest genres of music such as Dhrupad, Khyal, the Purab style of singing, which includes the song types Thumri, Tappa, Dadra, Sawan, Chaiti and Jhoola among others. Some of its greatest contributors, like Siddheswari Devi, Rasoolan Bai and Girija Devi lived and worked in this city. The music hub famously known as Kabir Chaura, where most of the artist fraternity have lived for generations has been a fertile ground for the growth of these forms. Pandit Kishan Maharaj , Pandit Shamta Prasad and Pandit Sharda Sahai were amongst the other great masters who lived here –and the great Ustad Bismillah Khansaheb whose name is synonymous with this city is well known.
Rajan’s family of musicians is one such group that has been practising the art of Khyal and the above-mentioned vocal forms. Theirs is a 300-year-old tradition of the Benaras Gharana. Both Rajan and younger brother Sajan were mentored by the senior elders of the family, which included Pandit Bade Ramdas Misra (brother of their grandfather), Pandit Hanuman Prasad Misra (father) Pandit Gopal Misra (Uncle). Until recently the late Rajan Misra was the custodian of the great Benares tradition.
Through their time Rajan and Sajan performed together with great mastery, mesmerising the world with their beautiful blend of Khyal singing. The Misra elders were essentially masters of the sarangi, a beautiful bowed instrument that emulates vocal inflections in great detail. It was through accompanying the finest khayal singers of their time that Pandits Hanuman Prasad and Gopal Misra came to acquire a wide repertoire of Khyal and other allied musical forms, passing it on, in turn, to Rajan and Sajan, who rose to be the first two recognised Khyal vocalists in their family.
My earliest memories of Rajan are from the early 1980s when I learnt he was performing Khyal with Sajan. The pair performed as a duo, in a Jugalbandi (duet) style of singing. In 1984, I had proposed to invite the two brothers as a part of the Festival of Voices which took place in London and included eminent masters such as Pandit Jasraj, and the Dhrupad duo Ustad Zia Mohiuddin and Ustad Fariduddin Dagar.
I was very much struck by Rajan-Sajan’s duet style of singing and was looking forward to listening to them, but their schedule did not permit a stopover in London when they were touring North America. It was not until a couple of years later around 1986 or so that they performed their first ever concert at a small intimate venue, called the Guild of Transcultural Studies, ‘A Cultural Squat’ in the heart of the tree-lined avenue in St John’s Wood, a large mansion in London, which belonged to the Royal Cambodian Embassy.
These two remarkable brothers held the audience spellbound for over four hours singing a series of great ragas in a Baithak style (a small intimate salon/soiree recital) where the audience showed their appreciation with “Wah! Wahs! Kya Baat hai,” loosely translated “Wow, wow, I’m speechless!”
From this point onwards, my heart was set on bringing the duo to the UK and it was not until 1995, when an opportunity arose. I had curated a seven-day Festival of Arts of India at the prestigious South Bank Centre under the auspices of SAMA and Navras Records.
Rajan and Sajan appeared in two concerts, one a morning performance at the Kufa Gallery, an iconic cultural place where Sanju Sahai and Ramesh Mishra accompanied the brothers. Sanju, a prominent tabla maestro from Benares, now resident in London, is the brothers’ nephew, and the late Ramesh was their cousin and co-disciple of Gopal Misra. They sang beautifully exploring the ethos of each ragas with rarely heard compositions from his vast repertoire. At both of these concerts, the ragas were remarkable choices as Rajan’s Raagdari allowed the performance to reach greater heights.
Rajan was deeply immersed in musical aesthetics, for he loved words, music and poetry.
He often said how important the composition, or bandish aspect was in a Khyal (Gaiki) style. He referred to the words of the composition, (sahitya) and the effects of which gave the emotive nature of ragas. In the ancient treatises which were written in Sanskrit, it is mentioned that each musical note in the raga or scale ‘Sa re ga ma pa dha ni’ – equivalent to ‘Do re mi fa so la ti’ of the western scale – is pregnant with latent power of producing particular feeling or emotion.
In one discussion Rajan had said that there can be several rasas (emotions) in one raga and words as variants bring forth a particular feeling. Rajan’s repertoire was enormous owing to his early training in Benares which laid the foundation of his and his brother’s style of singing. They attained greatness, for never having compromised on their raga performances. If one listened to their raga exposition in – ‘Shri’, ‘Miya’ ki Malhar’, ‘Kaushi Kannada’, ‘Marwa’, ‘Shankara’, ‘Darbari Kannada’, one can see the definitive depth and exploration they both sought. Sajan described their singing as, “We are two different people with different voice textures, yet we reach out to listeners as one voice.”
The duo sang in complete harmony and in a complimentary style giving each other time and space and their singing was deeply immersed in pure sadhana, a dedication rarely seen in the annals of Indian musical history. It really was quite exceptional. This is entirely due to their musical prowess attained through years of training under their great gurus.
Their mentors directed the two siblings to have an open mind and absorb much of the artistic experiences around them. This learning inspiration led the brothers to listen to some outstanding masters of different schools (Gharanas),which influenced their style, enriching their music considerably.
In Rajan Mishra one found a well-rounded personality, both on and off stage, which gave him a rare completeness. His training was an amalgam of daily practice, which chiselled his voice into profound sonority. This instilled the form, content and presentation of raga emotions in his singing style. His immense knowledge and creativity gave a breath of fresh air into his performance thus keeping the essence of raga bhava – adhering to the raga’s aesthetic content with intricate usage of taans, (which are fast melodic phrases.) These flurries of taans gave fluency to patterns which kept the raga structure intact even in the densest moments of creativity.
Such was the confidence on stage with his brother Sajan, who was a great boon to him, providing support, which helped to ground the aesthetic sensibilities in Rajan. He would often state the importance of taking a pause in a performance, listening to the tanpuras, listening to yourself, and taking it all in.
Rajan’s inward and deep introspective path was experienced through Kaashi’s ancient religious and philosophical leanings, which gave him his deep roots. His dialogue with Osho too had the weight of an intellect, when Osho asked Rajan what is a counter point to a musical note, and the latter’s answer of ‘silence’, silenced, Osho even!
In 1973 an important patronage was established when Shri Jagjit Singh ji Maharaj (of the Naamdhari Sabha) was introduced by Shri Gurdev Singh ji (sarod master) to the brothers at a festival organised by him.
The worldwide Indian music community was stunned by the news of Pandit Rajan Misra’s premature demise, silencing one of the most remarkable voices in this genre – a victim of the current coronavirus pandemic. For Rajan was no ordinary singer, he was an extraordinary artiste of his generation who, adored by his audiences and considered a truly great artist, believed that his best had yet to come.
Pandit and Ustad are terms of veneration commonly used when referring to Indian classical musicians of distinction.
Jay Visvadeva is chief executive and artistic director of SAMA Arts, one of UK’s oldest arts organisations, which organises a wide variety of cultural events – for more see http://sama.co.uk/
*The family prefer the spelling of the name as Misra
With special thanks to:
Vibhaker Baxi MD Navras Records
Arnab Chakrabarty – sarod master
Saloni Gandhi – Curator Bhairav se Bhairvi tak – World Tour 2018
Below – Jay Visvadeva recommends a selection of Pandit Rajan Sajan’s
performances from Youtube
THERE were a host of tributes following Pandit Rajan Misra’s death. He was 70 and died from complications caused by coronavirus following treatment in a New Delhi hospital.
Among those expressing their condolences and offering their gratitude towards his huge musical legacy were Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and legendary songstress Lata Mangeshkar.
There had been urgent appeals for a ventilator to help Pandit Misra recover from a heart attack on the morning of his demise, but unable to locate one he died from a second heart attack in the evening, it was reported. A temporary covid hospital in Varanasi has now been named after him now.
The late Padma Bhusan winner is survived by his wife, Bina, daughter Ritu Ashish Rauniar, and two sons, Ritesh and Rajnish, both singers.
Pandit Rajan Misra, Indian classical musician, khayal vocalist, born 1951- April 25 2021.
Raga Miya Ki Malhaar
Raga Durga and Nand