On Lord Hanuman’s birthday, a date decided as per the lunar calendar every year, artistes from all over India come to Varanasi to pay musical homage to the eternal bachelor musician.
The venue is the unpretentious Sankat Mochan Mandir, which has, in the last 90-odd years grown in both size and stature. So, what was earlier a humble two-day offering to being one of the largest festivals in North India, featuring over 100 artistes over six nights. The repute is such that once Pt Jasraj even flew back from the US to keep his musical date with Lord Hanuman. Such is the pull of Sankat Mochan Sangeet Samaroh.
The festival starts at 7.30 pm and ends around 6 am the next day. All the artistes perform for free. Yet, they clamour for an opportunity to perform there, with calls to the mahant, Professor Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, pouring in from early March, much before the dates of the festival are announced!
The organisers pay for the travel and stay of all artistes, making the event a logistical challenge. Local volunteers — young musicians and sewaks at the mandir — pitch in, dividing day and night duties amongst themselves. In the words of Arun Chatterji, who has been associated with the festival since the 1960s, it’s like “hosting a baraat”. “We try everyone goes back happy.”
Pt Badri Narayan, an accomplished percussionist who is on the organising committee, says that meeting the artistes’ requests for dates can be challenging. Sonu Jha, priest at the nearby Durga mandir, who has been handling artiste pickups for more than 10 years now, says, “It is seven nights of being awake, but it’s an honour.”
A truly inclusive event, the sangeet samaroh has featured foreign artistes like George Brooks and Carnatic musicians like Dr Yella Venkateshwara Rao, Dr L Subramanium, Pt Kadrigopal Nath. This year will feature a vocal Carnatic recital by Bombay Jayashri Ramnath. In her words: “It’s an honour to be invited to sing at the Sankat Mochan Sangeet Samaroh. Singing in a temple has always been special for me and I am really looking forward to this concert.”
Though essentially devoted to classical music, the festival has featured ghazals by Ghulam Ali Khan, Pankaj Udhas, Anup Jalota and Hariharan and even qawwali. Seeking divine blessings is not confined to the faithful. Muslim artistes like Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Ustad Rashid Khan and Ustad Nishat Khan have been happy to give their haazri too. “Seeing the hands of the audience go up in acclaim and their cries of Har Har Mahadev, equivalent to a standing ovation, is all one wants as an artiste,” the latter says.
Dance too has been included in the festival with the likes of Pt Kelucharan Mohapatra, Pt Birju Maharaj, Sanjukta Panigrahi, Chitra Visweswaran and Sonal Mansingh gracing the stage.
However, the arrangements are not fancy. One has to make way through cowsheds to reach the temple courtyard. Here, artistes sit on a raised platform, beneath which, barely a foot away, sits the eager crowd. The proximity can be unnerving, said a young artiste. “It’s like you can see the disapproval in a trice.” There are more spectators in the balcony above and on the sides… still more watching the proceedings on giant screens behind the temple. The 35ºC searing heat is hard to adjust too — instruments play up and need constant tuning, but the receptivity of the crowd more than makes up for any physical discomfort.
Listeners from as far away as Canada and the UK and various social strata experiencing the unique vibe; it is usual to be seated next to a rickshaw wallah. That is why one keeps coming back to Sankat Mochan. It’s like an addiction.
The festival is on from April 23 to 29.