Sibling Duos, Magical Partnerships & Rich Gharana Traditions

Sumati Mehrishi on how seven well known musician sibling duos make for a magical partnership and a rich gharana tradition

Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan have something that Yusuf and Irfan Pathan don’t. Benaras Gharana vocalists Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra have it and Australian cricketer twins Steve and Mark Waugh don’t. What makes our sibling musicians richer than money rich cricketer brothers? A rich musical tradition.. Here blood bonds coalesce into a partnership that exists not only on the performance dais over decades, but flowers into an undying repertoire that a nation and its culture could be known or remembered for. They metaphorically (and literally) share the bravest, most ethereal of rides together.

Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra

Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra
Gharana: Benaras
Renderings to revere: Raags Tilak Kamod, Chhayanat, Malhars

It’s the togetherness of two biological brothers— a pair of two gifted geniuses who sing or play an instrument together, knit melodies that come from two different throats, different shahnais or sarods but sound as one. Unlike the Wright brothers who had developed the glider into a plane and could not have the pleasure of testing the first flight together in 1903, the Indian musician brothers are a bunch of lucky riders. They metaphorically (and literally) share a seat for the bravest, most ethereal of rides together.

Some of these blessed brothers are vocalists Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra; grandsons of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan — vocalists Jawad and Mazhar Ali Khan; vocalists Ritesh and Rajneesh Mishra; Mandolin exponent U Shrinivas and his brother, Mandolin artiste U Rajesh; the pair of well known sarangi artiste Murad Ali Khan and his twin brother, sitarist Fateh Ali Khan; disciples of Pandit Ravi Shankar — Shahnai artistes Sanjeev and Ashwani Shankar and Sarod artistes Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan. They learn, perform, live and age together.

Ustad Mazhar Ali Khan & Jawad Ali Khan

Ustad Jawad Ali Khan and Mazhar Ali Khan
Gharana: Patiala
Renderings to revere: Raags Hameer and Jogiya

As the most steadfast, seasoned, beloved and the oldest duo of vocalist brothers in the country today, Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra have quite become a symbol of an unusual style of singing, a duet that reflects the features of the very emotive Benaras gharana so strong, it has become an institution in itself. Their being brothers goes beyond a day to day telepathy — on things like what to sing, and how to sing, what to wear or what to eat. Their bond has an extraordinary element of clairvoyance, a distinct overlap of perception that marks every melody they perform – even the jokes they crack.
But what is it that makes the togetherness and musical journey of these more special than their contemporaries who are solo artistes?

The Pranks

Musician brothers usually have a lot of interesting stories to narrate and a beautiful childhood to remember. One remarkable fact about their childhood—it’s spent under the watchful eyes of a practicing musician uncle or a father (or both) or a doting joint family. So, in their stories, there is always a crazy mish mash of mischief, pranks and people trying to control it for the sake of music.
In the early 1960s, Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra landed into trouble with a prank. Really impressed with actor Shammi Kapoor’s sliding on the snow act in the blockbuster Junglee, the brothers decided they have a similar experience at home. For this, they would remove the mattress and sheet from a wooden bed; sprinkle on it generously loads of talcum powder — and slide. Pandit Rajan Mishra, older of the two brothers, says, “We would wait for our uncle and father to leave home. They moment they would be out, we would convert the bed into an imaginary hill of snow and slide. Sajan Bhai would slide singing ‘chahe koi mujhe junglee kahe’ and would repeat the act often. Once, the prank went wrong. As he was sliding, the side of the bed hit him and he started bleeding. People in the house found out and we were scolded and spanked.”

Amaan Ali Khan & Ayaan Ali Khan

Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan
Gharana: Senia Bangash
Renderings to revere: Raags Puriya Kalyan and Kirwani

Sarod artistes Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan were not always the serious looking duo they are when they are performing. As per their father, world renowned sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, it took him time to train them in a fairly disciplined way. At their riyaz room where the maestro would practice and try to initiate them into sarod playing in the 1980s, Ayaan would get distracted and climb on the maestro’s shoulders. The maestro says, “My training them in music hasn’t been easy. There were times when I would walk out of the music room in anger, seeing them distracted, inattentive or insincere for the swara. I would never ask them to walk out. My anger would eventually subside and I would return to the green room.”

According to Amaan, his brother Ayaan and he would tag along with their father to concerts — not for the music – but the refreshments and eatables they would get after the concerts. At times, when the maestro would be busy performing at an auditorium Ayaan and Amaan would sneak out into the parking lot and start deflating car tyres.

The musical legacy

There is a saying in Hindi, “Ek se bhale do”. It applies to the brother duets most appropriately. For beginners, the Hindustani tradition of music, thrives on and follows different schools of thought and styles of playing and singing the music. These are known as the gharanas of music of khayal singing – khayal — rhythm bound composition which becomes a canvas for thoughts and improvising. Brothers, having been born to a tradition of music are the direct, natural descendants of the style they propagate. This makes them so very special and loved.

Ritesh Mishra & Rajnish Mishra with their Gurus

Ritesh Mishra and Rajnish Mishra
Gharana: Benaras
Renderings to revere: Megh, Malkauns, Todi

The emotional value of their responsibility becomes extremely huge — so huge — that they spend their lives encouraging each other to achieve the best of the desired musical nuances to keep their tradition alive. Like Ustad Jawad and Mazhar Ali Khan, descendants of the rock solid Patiala Gharana tradition that has seen greats like their grandfather Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, father Ustad Karamat Ali Khan and uncle Ustad Munawar Ali Khan establish and change the way music was sung and perceived in the country. Today, Jawaad and Mazhar bhai are walking archives of the inimitable style of the Patiala style of singing and treasures of the store of compositions of this very illustrious gharana. Ustad Jawaad Ali Khan says, “The very fact that makes a brother duo special is the fact they sing the under same tradition. This makes them best suited for khayal singing. They explore on one thought differently. There are two minds and throats, knitting up thoughts together in ways different and similar at the same time. This gives them us an upper hand. The most illustrious of maestros singing solo sometimes do not have this luxury.”

Brother duos not only represent their gharana, but also become the forbearers of the art, their style and sometimes even an instrument – like the Shahnai which is fast fading from the Indian classical scene. Sanjeev and Ashwini Shankar , sons of acclaimed Shahnai artiste Pandit Daya Shankar and grandsons of shahnai legend Pandit Anant Lal are such a duo. Being disciples of Pandit Ravi Shankar is only one of the many sacred privileges. Owing to the difference in age, very much like the other pairs of brothers we are featuring in this story, they had begun learning at different times.  Over years of practicing together and being taught over different sessions through the day, they have knit a style and sound that has become an important part of the non percussion classical heritage and fusion music. Sanjeev Shankar says, “We have spent the most precious times under our guru Pandit Ravi Shankar. Thanks to the contribution of our grandfather who would drag us back to shahnai practice when ever we would crave for playing in the colony park during the evening, we have achieved a sound which is so unified in character that sometimes, I fail to tell whether it is my shahnai I am hearing on monitors or records or Ashwani’s.”

Ashwini Shankar & Sanjeev Shankar

Sanjeev and Ashwani Shankar
Gharana: Benaras
Renderings to revere: Madhuvanti, Shuddh Sarang

Sitar artiste Fateh Ali Khan, the twin brother of well known sarangi artiste Murad Ali Khan is the bravest of them all. He not only surprised his father the well known sarangi maestro Ustad Ghulam Sabir Khan by choosing sitar over the sarangi in the Moradabad gharana of sarangi artistes, he dares to play a duet with his brother in the classical format. The brothers have given their gharana, another aspect open to theoretical and practical research with their duet. Though Murad has collaborated with better known artistes like Shubhendra Rao and Sanjeev Shankar and has accompanied the stalwarts of vocal music, it’s a Murad- Fateh concert we really wait for. Says Fateh Ali Khan, “Murad Bhai and I are usually busy with our own projects. But when we are together, we realise that duets are very special to us. Being his twin, I feel there is more I can replicate and improvise on his music than any other musician can.”

Interestingly, the Shahnai brothers and Murad Ali Khan received the Bismillah Khan Yuva Award, 2009.

The emotion

Their strengths sometimes ball up into weakness. Ashwani Shankar, the younger of the Shahnai brothers gets a lumpy throat when he is asked about what performing his brother means to him. His eyes well up and he laughs at himself. Ashwani says, “There have been so times when both of us give each other a new line of thought during a performance. We even pull each other out of confusions. At times he says he takes my opinion more often than his wife’s, but that’s not really always true.”

The duet brothers stand up for each other. If one is baulked at the idea of walking a ramp, the other convinces him into it. Usually the older ones like Pandit Rajan Mishra, Sanjeev Shankar and Ritesh Mishra make up for the reticence in the younger one, by being fairly expressive. Then, there are tasks assigned to the younger brother. Like Pandit Sajan Mishra is supposed to make all the arrangements and preparations of paan for the duo, no matter which part of the world they are performing. Once, Pandit Sajan Mishra was worried about not finding paan leaves in a European country. So he applied the ingredients to spinach leaves instead and the two brothers munched on them merrily.

Fateh Ali Khan & Murad Ali Khan

Murad Ali Khan and Fateh Ali Khan
Gharana: Moradabad
Renderings to revere: Puriya Dhanashree, Mishra Pilu

Ritesh and Rajnish Mishra are evidently dependent on each other.  At a concert of Malhar ragas during the rainy season last year, the brothers were giving a full blooded performance, delivering a tricky characteristic aspect in a Malhar when Rajnish’s eyes wandered over to his gurus Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra who were seated in the front row at the India Habitat Centre. The emotional burden of this tough musical expression was so huge that Rajnish broke down as soon as he looked at his gurus, who have trained the duo over the decades. While he was gathering himself, Ritesh paused for a moment and broke the awkwardness, explaining why his brother broke down. Ritesh had said, “These two brothers sitting in the front row, our gurus, have such a magical presence that we sometimes break down in the pressure of delivering a Malhar as good as their.”

Pandit Rajan Mishra says, “Ab to haal yeh ho gaya hai ki hum beemaar bhi saath padte hain. Through God’s grace, we are spiritually connected and don’t really fear death and losing each other.”
There have also been a couple of times when they have gone solo. Were they comfortable? Ustad Mazhar Ali Khan says laughing, “There was a concert where we had to split for an evening owing to commitments in two different cities. Though we gave our best, it was odd singing solo.”

Of similar Kurtas and dhotis

Two sibling musicians dressed in similar kurtas, two similar dhotis and similar smiles negotiating a melody in reflections of improvisations. What’s so pleasing about this twin dressing? The image is more than heart warming – of Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra performing together in kurtas that are designed, stitched and embroidered keeping their togetherness in mind. Their disciples Ritesh and Rajnish Mishra are equally fashionable and wear similar kurtas to concerts. Pandit Rajan Mishra adds, “Before we set out for long tours, I select Kurtas for both of us from our kurta room. While we are getting ready for a concert, I hand him his kurta, which is slightly smaller in size and has a small ‘S’ embroidered at the bottom on the wrong side.”

The month of February is one of the busiest for musicians. As the Mishra brothers, leave for yet another destination, we only wish their togetherness and the musical camaraderie never really ends.

Similar, but not really the same

Having played the same instrument as your elder brother’s isn’t easy. Especially, if the brother is the world renowned maestro, Mandolin U Shrinivas, you are bound to be compared to his musical genius for as long as you perform. But U Rajesh carries it all with aplomb. If Shrinivas surprises and engages the likes of legend guitarist John Mclaughlin in the monstrous music collaboration like ‘Remember Shakti’, Rajesh tricks the greats like Pete Lockett into pace and rhythm puzzles. Yet, Shrinivas and Rajesh are no equals.

When Rajesh was born, his brother, Shrinivas, barely nine years of age had already given his debut performance at the Thyagaraja Aradhana Festival in Andhra Pradesh. When Rajesh was learning to crawl, Shrinivas was already being marveled at for the extreme ease he would set his fingers with over the mandolin frets to play Carnatic Ragas.

U Shrinivas & U Rajesh

Mandolin U Shrinivas and Mandolin U Rajesh
Renderings to revere: Shanmukhapriya, Nata, Charukeshi

Today, when Shrinivas is hailed as the guy who helped pitting the staccato instrument like a mandolin against all technical and aesthetical odds, suiting it for the traditional solo format and the global music scene, Rajesh prefers to being referred to as – merely — his disciple. In a conventional concert scene like Chennai’s, Rajesh conveys his reverence for Shrinivas most diligently.  “I should never be compared to him and people usually understand that. He is nine years older. Plus he is a genius, literally. He was born to be a musician and I had always wanted to become a pilot. It was during a pious occasion at Kanchipuram, where Shrinivasji had performed that he was suggested to help me become a full fledged musician. I never looked back after that. Today, I treat him more as a guru than an older brother. ”

Shrinivas and Rajesh really are like chalk and cheese, except for the fact that they play the same instrument. Shrinivas, has the aura of a grounded music legend, and Rajesh, the quirkiness of an experimental artiste. At concerts and events in Chennai, Shrinivas enters the venue first – reticent and smiling. At their fusion duets, Rajesh, who has a great penchant for rhythm, structural innovations in the mandolin and new sounds surprises people by unraveling new playing-techniques. Shrinivas says, “Rajesh is more experimental and I love to see him like that. He has a set of his own disciples and it’s very fascinating to see how different he has an artiste and a guru.”

At one of their performances in Chennai a few years ago, Rajesh created a whole set of new sounds by standing and playing an unconventional mandolin with impressive amplification and additional gadgets operated by his feet. He adds, “But Shrinivasji is more modern in a few ways. Liking our music is like liking rasgulla and gulabjamun. We are so different.”

©Sumati Mehrishi

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