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India Today
June 22, 1998


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VARANASI
Rhythms of Change

It is ironic that Kabir Chaura is home to both the ascetic and the sensuous.

By S Kalidas

Rhytms of ChangeIt is, paradoxically, a detached island of peace and solitude in an environment throbbing with the sound of music and rhythm. When the simple weaver couple Niru and Nima came to stay here with their adopted prodigy Kabir (circa 1440-1518) in the 15th century, it was probably a deserted spot on the periphery of one of the world's oldest holy cities. Today, the Kabir math in Varanasi is very much in the hub of things, so hidden by the maze of houses and galis (lanes) surrounding it that no rickshawala can reach it without being guided by local residents.

Trying to find the entrance to the Kabir Math, you come across a cluster of street signs dedicated to some of India's most hallowed names from the world of Hindustani classical music and dance, like Pandit Kanthe Maharaj Marg and Sitara Devi vithi. As you stand trying to decide which lane to take, your ears register the sound of Raga Puriyadhanasri emanating from behind the closed doors of a modest two-storey house. It bears a small slate nameplate announcing that in it once lived the guru of gurus, Pandit Bade Ramdas, who taught a galaxy of national stars from Siddheshwari Devi and Girija Devi to Rajan Mishra. As you take in this bit of musical history, Sajan Mishra -- the younger brother in the renowned Rajan-Sajan duo -- walks out from the adjacent house with his young son for a paan. Rajan and Sajan's father, Pandit Hanuman Mishra, at 82, is the country's oldest sarangi wizard who still plays occasionally. Around the corner is the house of the king of intricate rhythm and India's seniormost master of the tabla, Pandit Kishan Maharaj. Welcome to Kabir Chaura, India's only surviving musicians' quarter, which is still alive with the sounds of song, rhythm and ankle bells.

The Kabir math itself stands on an eight-acre plot where the saint-poet's wooden sandals and his rudraksh rosary are enshrined and where the remains of his adoptive parents are buried. It is also the centre of the Kabir Panth, whose members are followers of Kabir's secular, pacifist and mystical vision. The current head of the math is not around but an inmate, Gopal Das Shastri, shows us around. In post-liberalisation, post-nuclear, consumerist India, the Kabir Panth in its place of origin seems sincere and dedicated, but devoid of a sense of purpose.

It is difficult to say when exactly the Kathak-Mishras -- a brahmin community which practised the art of kathavachan, in the Varanasi-Ayodhya region -- came to settle here. As you sip rose sherbat in the cool drawing room full of old photographs of musicians, trophies and awards, Pandit Kishan Maharaj tells you about the locality. "We Kathak-Mishras have been here for at least 250 odd years. Soon we were joined by some Kayastha families and then came the Yadavs, whom we settled here so that we may have an adequate supply of milk, ghee and curds. Music and dance is strenuous business and you need to take care of your health."

How has Kabir Chaura changed over the past few decades? "The most evident change is in the status of music and musicians in our larger society. Till my father's generation, we were dependent on tawaifs (courtesans)," recalls Maharaj. "Today, sons and daughters of respectable people take to music, and we are no longer looked down upon."

But since the emergence of Rajan and Sajan as vocalists of international stature a decade ago, Kishan Maharaj rues that no child from the Kathak-Mishra families of Kabir Chaura has been able to make a mark in the field of tabla or sarangi -- two instruments that epitomised the Varanasi music scene. "Other children from beyond have come here to learn and made a name for themselves, but not our own," says Maharaj rather sadly, blaming it on the changing lifestyle and the pressures of school education.

So having gained the world through their art, the children of Kabir Chaura are today on the brink of losing their vocation altogether.

 

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