Ever since I heard the news of the passing on of my dear mitra Rajan (Mishra) bhai, I’ve been unable to sleep. It’s as if a part of me has gone with him — a life taken away much too soon,” says Pt Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, the Mohan Veena maestro and Grammy awardee, in a voice choked with grief.
Indeed, the world of classical music has been left bereft with the demise of Pt Rajan Mishra, the elder sibling of the legendary Hindustani classical music duo of Rajan and Sajan Mishra. Last month, the 70-year-old succumbed to Covid-19 complications at a hospital in Delhi. “My heart goes out to Sajan bhai who was inconsolable when I spoke to him. Both the brothers were like a single soul in two bodies,” says Bhatt.
“That’s the thought that came to my mind,” says Kathak danseuse Shovana Narayan, whose association with the brothers goes back to the early 1970s. From her second home in Vienna (she had gone there to visit her grandchildren, but has had to extend her stay due to the lockdown), she says, “When the phone beeped to give me the news, I was in a state of shock.” Her annual (this time online) festival that was organised a few days later was dedicated to the memory of Pt Rajan Mishra.
Talking about those early days when she met the Mishra bandhu, she says, “In a manner of speaking, we all grew up and progressed together on our respective paths — Rajan bhai in classical music and me in Kathak.”
From the time she was invited by the brothers for their cultural festival in Benaras, she says, “our friendship grew and acquired deeper dimensions when we spent over a month touring the then USSR for the Festival of India in the late 1980s.”
Narayan recalls how at a public performance in Delhi, “Rajan bhai suddenly requested me to render an impromptu thumri bhav to their singing, and what an evening it turned out to be! Looking back, it all seems like a fairy tale! Indeed, Rajan bhai’s reputation as a vocalist with spiritual depth and of great merit is unsurpassable. With his death, we have lost a great vocalist, friend and human being, Sajan bhai has lost a great partnership and his sons and students have lost a great philosopher, mentor and guide.”
The mantle of a long 350-year-old family tradition of Benaras khayal gayaki was placed on the shoulders of Rajan Mishra right from the time he stepped into the music world more than 55 years ago. And with the legendary singers Pt Bade Ramdas (his grandfather’s brother) with whom he had the formal ganda-bandhan ceremony, his father Hanuman Prasad Mishra and his uncle sarangi virtuoso Gopal Prasad Mishra as family elders, musical standards were set high right from the time he started out as a four-year-old.
A few years later, he was joined by his little brother Sajan, five years his junior. A strict regimen of riyaaz (alongside their formal education) followed. “However, despite being Guruji’s sons, we were not given any preferential treatment. In fact, they were far stricter with us — that’s what we felt — as compared to the other students,” Rajan Mishra had told me when I had met him at his home in Delhi a few years ago.
And with a laugh he had recalled an incident from childhood in which, upon failing to get a note right, he got such a tight rap on the leg from his father “so much so that the chaap (imprint) of his fingers remained there for several days. My grandmother, who used to love us dearly, gave him quite an earful: “Bachche ko maar daloge kya (you want to kill the child)?”
Creating a niche
Right from the beginning, the family elders had ensured that while the brothers were carrying forth a haloed tradition, they must also create their own niche in the world of music. And, they must always sing together. “This, they felt, would always keep our bonds strong. Saath gayenge to saath rahenge,” he had said.
Now that Rajan Mishra has bid adieu to the world, music aficionados are getting worried: How will his younger sibling sing now? “But he will — for the sake of his brother whom he considered more like a father — that is what he told me when I just spoke to him,” says Manjushree Chatterjee, veteran Kathak artiste who had first met the brothers when Hanuman Prasad had played the sarangi for one of her performances in Calcutta in the 1950s. “They have since called me ‘Manju didi’ and respected me more like an elder sister. In fact, they have sung twice for my dance and music festival.”
The last time she met the Mishra bandhu was in Mumbai. “This was last year a little before the lockdown and we were all together on stage lighting the lamp at a cultural ceremony,” remembers Chatterjee who was “really fond of his gayaki, particularly his rendering of the padant — something that Pt Birju Maharaj also enjoyed immensely.”
“Jitni taarif karo utni kam hai (no amount of appreciation is enough) — not just about his singing, his adaiyagi (performance) of music but also his zinda dili (jovial temperament),” adds Bhatt. He mentions the times when the brothers would visit Jaipur and often stay at his place. “And then, there’d be several rounds of chess between Rajan bhai and my father.” Once, after a performance in Jodhpur, Bhatt says that they were in a rush to get back to their hotel to watch the India-Pakistan day-night match. “Cricket was a huge passion of his and mine as well, but to our dismay, none of our rooms had a TV set. So we immediately checked out and with our group members went around looking for another hotel — one that had a television — to enjoy the rest of the game. Khub mehfil jamti thi (what get-togethers those were) and how he would regale us with his great sense of humour — these moments will be treasured by all of us. With his passing, a vacuum has been created that can never be filled,” he adds wistfully.