“Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” ~Mark Twain
There are four eras of classical Indian Music. The first was the Vedic Cult, which began approximately 2000 BC and lasted until 1000 BC. The Pranchinkal Period (1000 BC to 800 AD) came next and was followed by the Middle Period (800 to 1800 AD), which featured much influence from the Mughals and other Muslims. Finally, the Present Period is marked by the influence of Mr. Mandit Bhatkhandey, who revived Indian classical music and developed its system of notation.
Chronologies like these, presented in isolation and out of context, hold minimal interest for me, but the ways in which people talk about them are often telling. For example, musicians I have encountered speak in reverent tones about Mandit Bhatkhandey, and they reserve a similar sense of reverence for the ancient Vedic Cult.
One musician who speaks with reverence about both Mandit Bhatkhandey and the Vedic Cult is Deobrat Mishra, a renowned sitar performer and teacher, who I met and interviewed while in Benares, known to westerners as Varanasi. Benares is famous for its classical music, and the city has its own style of performance. While on tour, Deobrat and his father play in their city’s style, with its tumeri singing providing elaborate ornamentation. It is not always what the audience, who is used to the styles of Ravi Shankar and other popular sitar artists, expects to hear, but it is what Deobrat is compelled to perform. Precedent is important to Deobrat, and it seems that history, tradition, and even legend are alive in him and his music.
Deobrat Mishra, with Jeff Dyer, in his home and music academy
The same can be said of his city. The old city of Benares is a maze of small alleys lined with houses, apartments, and shops of every kind, and while wandering the curves and crannies of those alleyways it is easy to see how Mark Twain arrived at his description. Same with the famous ghats, or terracing, which descend into the Ganges, or Ganga, River. They appear ancient, surrounded by crumbling buildings streaked with the wear of time, and the masses of pilgrims approaching the holy river add to the effect.
However, Benares does not transcend history and legend, but rather, I believe, is defined by it. At the center of this “City of Lord Shiva and the holiest place of pilgrimage in northern India (Keay, 33)” is the Dashashwamedh Ghat, the place of the ten horse-sacrifices. According to legend, Shiva lost his city, and in an effort to regain it he challenged the city’s King Divodasa to perform ten horse sacrifices perfectly, with Lord Brahma observing them to make sure no mistake was made. If the king failed with even one sacrifice, the city would be Shiva’s. However, Divodasa performed all the ceremonies perfectly, impressing Brahma and gaining much merit for himself and his city. This is why contemporary pilgrims flock to the Dashashwamedh Ghat to bathe in the sacred river and absorb the blessings of the ten horse sacrifices. This ghat is also the place of the Ganga Aarti, the nightly ceremony praising the river goddess Ganga, attended by hundreds of pilgrims who clap and sing along to the ritual (Kheay, 33).
The Ganga Aarta Ceremony performed in the Dashashwamedh Ghat of Benares
History and the legends of Shiva also attend to India’s music. When I met Deobrat Mishra, the first thing he did was recite the history of music in India, cataloguing for me its four eras. Then, his eyes widened as he returned to the Vedic Cult to detail the original six ragas and thirty-six raginis, the fathers and mothers of today’s ragas. Legend has it that of the original six, the first five came out of the mouth of Shiva and the sixth out of the mouth of Parvati, his wife.
When I asked about Deobrat’s personal history, how he came to learn and perform music, his answer betrayed a deep sense of history and tradition. “My family is more than five hundred years in Benares music,” he stated slowly and with much pride. “I am the eleventh generation, and my son will be the twelfth.” He then qualified his answer, saying that only five hundred years of his family’s history are documented. It is likely, he believes, that his family’s tradition reaches back four thousand years, to the beginning of music.
Rather than accepting Mark Twain’s description fully, I wish to tweak it, suggesting that Benares, its music, and its people are alive with—and even defined by—history, tradition and legend. For this city, where the buildings look older than they actually are, its substance and even essence are found in people like Deobrat, in the legends they recite and the traditions they perpetuate. It may look older than history, but to understand Benares and its magnetic draw for foreigners, locals, and Indians from around the country, one must understand its traditions and its legends.
Keay, John. India A History: From the Earliest Civilizations to the Boom of the Twenty- First Century. New York: Grove Press, 2010.