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Posted at: Nov 21, 2015, 3:41 PM; last updated: Nov 21, 2015, 3:41 PM (IST)

Hariharpur’s classic sound of music

A backward UP town has never let poverty string a wrong note in its unique tuning with classical music
Hariharpur’s classic sound of music
It’s a common sight in Hariharpur, two young boys doing riyaaz on the sarangi to the accompaniment of tabla.

A small town tucked in Azamgarh district of eastern Uttar Pradesh, Hariharpur can surprise any visitor with the tenacity of 50-odd households to keep the tradition of classical music alive against all odds. The most pressing of these — poverty.   

Azamgarh is one of the most backward districts of the country. Barely a two-hour ride from Varanasi, close to 10,000 residents of Hariharpur, mostly farmers, are hopelessly undermined by the vagaries of nature: floods and droughts. The man-made problems of power cuts and fluctuating market rates make it hard to sustain a living. But the hardships have failed to take away music from their lives. The town wakes up to the notes of Bhairav  even before the rooster crows. Chances are, as early as four in the morning, you will listen to ragas being practised in the kutcha courtyards, sung by five to eight-year-olds, or practised on the strings of the sitar or sarangi. Before the elders get busy with the business of making a living, pre-dawn is devoted to pass on their rich tradition of music to the young.    

The origin of this strange passion finds its roots in a legend. Close to 300 years back, Hari Namdas and Surnamdas, two saintly singers, who were rajgayaks of the Nepal Naresh, came to stay in Hariharpur, then a village. They were leaving it in search of a new patron when the Nawab of Azamgarh offered 989 bighas of land to the artistes to practice and propagate their art. They never left the village.

About 50 closely-knit Brahmin families of Hariharpur (all Mishras), now turning to farming for lack of patrons, have carried this tradition forward without fail. The town has produced stalwarts of Hindustani classical music such as Pt Chhanulal Mishra (Padma Bhushan), the late Pt Samta Prasad, Pt Sarda Maharaj, related to Pt Birju Maharaj (Padma Vibhushan), Pt Ganesh Prasad Mishra, Pt Pannalal Mishra, a sarangi exponent, Pt Dinanath Mishra, et al. Despite such a rich background, the community of musicians faces difficulty in sustaining their legacy because of lack of civic infrastructure and educational facilities. 

Unlike Dharwad region, known for its musical giants like Sawai Gandharva, Bhimsen Joshi, Mallikarjun Mansur, Gangubai Hangal and Kumar Gandharva to the contemporary vocal exponents like Venkatesh Kumar, Kaivalya Kumar Gurav (which forced the Karnataka government to open a music academy in Hubli), limited facilities and restricted opportunities have left the musical legacy of Hariharpur in real danger of being lost.

All the talented musicians from the town leave to earn a living in the world outside. Just the way the court singers had moved from Nepal to Hariharpur 300 years back. “Our elders tell us there were about 100 families that practised music in Hariharpur, now we are reduced to 40-50, still struggling to carry forward the tradition. The main reason is poverty and migration,” says Pt Bholanath Mishra, a senior vocalist at AIR, Delhi. “We are six brothers, all pundits of music, but we are scattered due to lack of work opportunities in our town; a few are with AIR, the rest are teaching music in colleges or schools,” adds Pt Dinanath Mishra, based out of Kolkata.

Undeterred, Veena Mishra sends her six-year-old son to get lessons in sarangi without fail, even if it means missing out on his regular school. She lives in a house with a thatched roof. “He can learn English and maths anywhere anytime, this opportunity is rare,” she says with conviction. No wonder, though most women remain uninitiated and untrained in music, when they sing the traditional bandish on dholak for weddings and other festivities, they follow the raga tradition. “It’s in the air of Hariharpur, just by listening to music being practised all the time they imbibe music without following the rules of raagdari,” says Snehlata, the first woman from among the Mishras of Hariharpur to be  allowed to sing on stage.

Such changes are coming about with the efforts of the Delhi-based Indian Trust for Rural Heritage and Development (ITRHD), which is working on Project Hariharpur — to preserve the town’s unique musical heritage. They have roped in masters like Pt Chhanulal Mishra to periodically return to their town to infuse fresh life into the fading tradition. ITRHD has also opened a school in the town where close to 90 children are given food, clothes and education, free of cost, to help them sustain the tradition.

It has been organising the Azamgarh Festival for the past three years in cities like Delhi and Lucknow to offer a stage to the artistes of Hariharpur to reach out to a wider audience. Hariharpur percussionists play the unique purabiya baaj that involves 10 sets of tabla. Another percussionist has developed the art of playing a few unique tals with just one hand. He improvised his art after losing an arm in an accident. 

The idea behind showcasing the cultural heritage of the Azamgarh region; the black potters of Nizamabad, the Banarasi saree weavers of Mubarakpur and the musicians of Hariharpur, who carry the humble role of passing on their traditional artistry to the future generations despite facing dire financial conditions, is to provide external interventions so that the traditions do not die. Showcasing them to the outside world is aimed at exploring opportunities for rural tourism in this region that struggles for survival on a day-to-day basis.  As a result of these efforts, the Department of Tourism in UP has shown interest.

Varanasi attracts close to 52 lakh tourists per annum on an average; in 2013, the number of foreign tourists alone was 2.85 lakh.

To link the artistes and artisans with the world outside, ITRHD has attempted social interventions too. “We prodded Pt Dinanath Mishra to let the girls from the family sing on the stage,” says Archana Capoor, an executive member of ITRHD. He was not sure if his wife would agree. But, the cousins Snehlata Mishra and Shilpa Mishra left the audience mesmerised during the Azamgarh Festival held in Delhi from November 1 to 7, with their mature and flawless rendering of thumris, dadras and chaiti. Then followed a performance in Raga Yaman by Arpit, 15, and Ashutosh Mishra, 16. 

A group of 32 musicians from Hariharpur displayed their art to re-affirm that poverty is not a deterrent for preserving a rich heritage.


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