Performing at the temple is not easy — the recitals are interrupted by temple rituals at midnight and the break of dawn
Hindu belief has linked the classical music tradition with gods and goddesses — the rudraveena is said to have been created by Lord Shiva himself, another veena was named after Devi Saraswati, the bansuri is associated with Lord Krishna, and the legendary Lord Hanuman apparently was an accomplished rudraveena and pakhawaj player.
The Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple in Kashi, said to have been established by Goswami Tulsidas himself in the sixteenth century, maintains the tradition of pleasing Lord Hanuman through music. An annual musical celebration has been held in the temple precincts for decades, commemorating Lord Hanuman’s lunar birthday, with musicians from all over the world invited to present their music free of cost to the deity in all-night music sessions. Dance performances have also been permitted; the style of music is eclectic and the offering includes classical and devotional music. Performers as varied as US jazz artiste George Brooks, percussionist Sivamani, ghazal king Ghulam Ali from Pakistan, bhajan maestro Anup Jalota, playback singer Kavita Krishnamurty, the US-based Ustad Aashish Khan and “Nightingale of the South” Bombay Jayashri have all performed their “haazri” at the temple.
Performing at the temple is not easy — the recitals are interrupted by temple rituals at midnight and the break of dawn. The heat is immense; the temple has no soundproof green rooms and other such amenities that top-class musicians take for granted — one recalls an unnamed, somewhat anxious Ustad a few years ago picking his way between the cows tethered nearly to reach his vehicle! (The cows are now at a discreet distance!!)
Keeping to the performance time slots is a challenge. The enthusiastic audience sometimes refuses to let its favourite artistes vacate the stage for the next artiste! One recalls a fulminating Padma Vibhushan Dr Sonal Mansingh performing alone without her co-artistes, as they had to leave to catch the train home for forthcoming concerts. Her performance timing had been messed up as Padma Vibhushan Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma decided to play another short piece, which required the retuning of his 100 stringed santoor.
The proximity of the audience, too, can be unnerving. The artistes are literally only a few feet away, and with typical Banarasi insouciance are quite capable of audibly uttering “bhai, jama nahin” to the chagrin of the performer! On the other hand, the loud, rousing appreciative cries of “Har Har Mahadev” with upraised hands far outweighs any clapping or standing. As the late Pt Rajan Mishra once observed, “In India, we clap to chase away crows; it is not a traditional gesture of appreciation.”
This year, at the five-night festival, first-time performer Deepika Varadarajan from Chennai said: “The energy of the audience was wonderful. In the South, we are used to performing in temples, and there is no doubt a different type of energy. But here, in Kashi, unlike in the temple concerts in the South, the audience is stationary, immobile and not transitory. They sit only to listen. It’s a wonderful experience.”
For many artistes, it’s a time to just chill and relax in each other’s company. Music festivals nowadays are very structured; and staying beyond one’s performance time is not encouraged by organisers. No such considerations apply in “Baba’s Darbar” — Pt Jasraj used to stay the duration of the entire six-day festival in the temple guesthouse with his entourage of disciples. Artistes pop into the temple to hear each other; staying up all night sometimes. At times, they even fly out of the city to play other concerts, and then return to Varanasi for a concert two days later! In this edition of the festival, young tabla exponent Ishaan Ghosh of Mumbai played as an accompanist, then returned two days later to play a solo with his father Pt Nayan Ghosh!
Music “addas” are held at Diamond Hotel all through the day and night; one can also hear sounds of a rigorous sitar “jhala” being played at 3 am behind a closed hotel door, as the artiste didn’t have any other time free for “riyaaz”. “One can’t take the Sankat Mochan audience for granted; many understand music really well,” shared sarodist Biswajit Roy Chowdhury who has been a regular since 1978. “Being accompanied by the finest tabla or pakhawaj exponents is another unique feature of this festival. I cherish having played with so many legends at Sankat Mochan,” he added. In fact, the tabla performances are so intrinsic to the festival that UK-based tabla maestro Sanju Sahai makes his annual pilgrimage home coincide with the Sankat Mochan Sangeet Samaroh.
Earlier, there were loudspeakers outside the temple precincts too, so the entire area nearly up to Assi Ghat used to resound with music through the night. For many locals, it was a week of a total change of routine — sleeping from around 8 am to 3 pm; then getting ready for the next night’s music.
The somewhat chaotic arrangements of yesteryears make for treasured memories. One recalls a leading sitar player perched upon a friend’s scooter, precariously balancing his sitar on his lap, and racing from Diamond Hotel at 2 am to reach the temple stage on time, as the vehicle sent to pick him up had been hijacked (perhaps to procure the famous Banarasi “paan” for an outstation maestro).
The combination of music, camaraderie, devotion and a shared perspective produces a magic unmatched anywhere else making the Sankat Mochan festival an unmissable treat for the soul.