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Sounds of siblings

There's something magical about performing music with your brother. Blood bonds coalesce into fulfilling partnerships. Seven sibling musician duos explain what it's like.

music Updated: Feb 26, 2011 16:27 IST
Sumati Mehrishi

Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan have something that Yusuf and Irfan Pathan don't. Vocalists Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra also have what the Australian cricketer twins Steve and Mark Waugh don't - a rich musical tradition.

What makes sibling musicians more affluent than the infinitely more cash-rich cricketer brothers? That isn't hard to explain. An artistic tradition is a fount of never-ending wealth. However much you mine it, there's always more to be found. And when you're performing with your brother… well. Blood bonds coalesce into a partnership that exists not only on the stage, but also flowers into an undying repertoire that a nation and its culture could be known or remembered for. There are so many artiste siblings today - vocalists Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra, to start with. Then there are the grandsons of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan - the vocalists Jawad and Mazhar Ali Khan. Also melding their voices are vocalists Ritesh and Rajneesh Mishra. Sarangi meets sitar with Murad Ali Khan and his twin brother, Fateh Ali Khan. Pandit Pandit Ravi Shankar's disciples, the shahnai artistes Sanjeev and Ashwani Shankar are well known. Then there are the Mandolin brothers - Mandolin U Shrinivas and Mandolin U Rajesh. And who has never heard (let alone heard of) the sarod artistes Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan?

They learn, perform, live and age together. They are adored, appreciated and criticised as a duo. As Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra, the oldest duo of vocalist brothers in the country today, show, being brothers goes beyond day-to-day telepathy. 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 makes the musical journeys of these sibling artistes more special than those of their solo contemporaries?

Brothers in arms

Musician brothers usually have a lot of interesting stories to narrate and a beautiful childhood to remember. Mostly, there is 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 - and people trying to control that mischief for the sake of music.
In the early 1960s, Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra got into trouble thanks to a prank. Really impressed with actor Shammi Kapoor's sliding-on-the-snow act in the blockbuster Junglee, the brothers decided they'd create a similar experience at home. To achieve this, they would remove the mattress and sheet from a wooden bed, sprinkle it generously with talcum powder - and slide. They pulled it off successfully for a while. "We would wait for our uncle and father to leave home," laughs Pandit Rajan Mishra, older of the two brothers. "The moment they were out of the door, we'd convert the bed into an imaginary hill of snow and slide. As we did, Sajan Bhai would sing chahe koi mujhe junglee kahe." But nemesis was waiting. "Once, as he was sliding, he hit the side of the bed and started bleeding," continues Pandit Rajan. "So we were found out and scolded and spanked."

Sarod artistes Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan were not always the serious looking duo they are when they are performing. According to their father, the world-renowned sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, it took time to train them to become fairly disciplined. When they were very young and practicing in the riyaz room, says the maestro, Ayaan would often climb onto his father's shoulders. "At times I would walk out of the music room in anger, seeing them distracted, inattentive or insincere," says the maestro. "But I would never ask them to walk out. My anger would eventually subside and I would return to the riyaz room." According to Amaan, he and his brother Ayaan would often accompany their father to concerts - but not for the music. They were attracted by the refreshments they'd get after the concerts! And sometimes, when the maestro was performing, Ayaan and Amaan would sneak out into the parking lot and start deflating car tyres.

History in the hearing

There is a saying in Hindi - 'ek se bhale do.' It's an apt description of musicians who are brothers. For beginners, the Hindustani tradition of music thrives on and follows different schools of thought and styles of playing and singing. These are known as the gharanas of music of khayal singing. ('Khayal' is rhythm-bound composition that becomes a canvas for thoughts and improvisation.) Siblings, having been born into a tradition of music, are the direct, natural descendants of the style they propagate. This makes them very special and loved. 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. That's the story of Ustads 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.

Today, Jawaad and Mazhar bhai are walking archives of the inimitable Patiala style of singing and treasure troves of the compositions of this very illustrious gharana. "The very fact that makes a brother duo special is the fact they sing the under same tradition," says Ustad Jawaad Ali Khan. This makes them best suited for khayal singing in which two minds and two throats knit thoughts together in ways different and similar at the same time. "This gives us the upper hand," continues Ustad Jawaad Ali Khan. "The most illustrious of maestros singing solo do not have this luxury." Brother duos not only represent their gharana, but also become the glory bearers of the art, their style and sometimes even an instrument - for instance, 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. The fact that they are disciples of Pandit Ravi Shankar is only one of their many privileges. Owing to the difference in their ages (very much like the other pairs of brothers we are featuring in this story), they began learning at different times. But over years of practicing together and being taught during different sessions through the day, they have knitted together a style and sound that has become an important part of non-percussion classical heritage and fusion music.

"We have spent the most precious times under our guru Pandit Ravi Shankar," says Sanjeev Shankar. "Thanks to our grandfather who would drag us back to shahnai practice whenever we tried to play in the colony park, we have achieved a sound which is so unified in character that sometimes, I can't tell whether it is my shahnai I am hearing on monitors or records or Ashwani's."

Sitar artiste Fateh Ali Khan, the twin brother of 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 of the Moradabad gharana of sarangi artistes, by choosing the sitar over the sarangi, he dares to play duets with his brother in the classical format. The brothers have thus given their gharana another aspect open to theoretical and practical research.

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. "Murad Bhai and I are usually busy with our own projects," says Says Fateh Ali Khan. "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 with his music than any other musician can." He's probably not the only person to believe that. The shahnai brothers and Murad Ali Khan received the Bismillah Khan Yuva Award, 2009!

Similar but not the same

Learning and playing the same instrument as your older brother's isn't easy. Especially when 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 legendary guitarist John Mclaughlin in the monstrous music collaboration 'Remember Shakti', Rajesh tricks 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 old, had already given his debut performance at the Thyagaraja Aradhana Festival in Andhra Pradesh. When Rajesh was learning to crawl, Shrinivas was already being marvelled at for the ease with which his fingers ran over the mandolin frets to play Carnatic ragas.

Today, when Shrinivas is hailed as the guy who helped place a staccato instrument like a mandolin even in the traditional solo format and the global music scene, Rajesh prefers to be referred to as - merely - his disciple. "I should never be compared to him and people usually understand that," says Rajesh. "He is nine years older than I am. 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 suggested that he help me become a 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. In 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. "Rajesh is experimental and I love to see him like that," says Shrinivas. "He has a set of his own disciples and it's very fascinating to see how different he is 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. "But Shrinivasji is more modern in a few ways," says Rajesh. "While we are touring, he experiments with food and I stick to good old Indian curries. He is a movie buff and likes everything - from Hollywood stuff to Tamil cinema. Liking our music is like liking rasgulla and gulab jamun. We are so different."

Ties that bind

The fraternal tie is very, very strong. Ashwani Shankar, the younger of the shahnai brothers, gets a lump in his throat when he is asked what performing with his brother means to him. His eyes well up and he laughs at himself. "There have been so many times when both of us have given each other a new line of thought during a performance," says Ashwani. "We even pull each other out of confusion. At times he says he follows my opinion more often than his wife's, but that's not really always true."

Brothers stand up for each other. If one is not sure about the idea of walking a ramp, the other convinces him into it. Usually the older brother - for instance, Pandit Rajan Mishra, Sanjeev Shankar and Ritesh Mishra - makes up for reticence in the younger brother by being fairly expressive. Then there are tasks assigned to the younger brother. For instance Pandit Sajan Mishra is supposed to make all the arrangements for and preparations of paan for the duo, no matter which part of the world they are performing in.

Once, Pandit Sajan Mishra couldn't find paan leaves in a certain European country. So he applied the ingredients to spinach leaves instead and the two brothers munched on them merrily. Ritesh and Rajnish Mishra are clearly dependent on each other. At a concert of Malhar ragas during the rainy season last year, the brothers were giving a full blooded performance of a particularly tricky aspect of the raga when Rajnish's eyes wandered over to his gurus Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra who were seated in the front row. The emotional burden of this tough musical expression was so huge that Rajnish broke down as soon as he saw his gurus. Ritesh paused for a moment and broke the awkwardness, explaining to the audience why his brother broke down. "These two brothers sitting in the front row, our gurus, have such a magical presence that we sometimes break down under the pressure of delivering a Malhar as good as theirs," Ritesh said."Ab to haal yeh ho gaya hai ki hum beemaar bhi saath padte hain," says Pandit Rajan Mishra. "Through God's grace, we are spiritually connected and don't really fear death and losing each other."So strong is the tie, that performing solo feels strange. "We had to split for an evening owing to commitments in two different cities," laughs Ustad Mazhar Ali Khan. "Though we gave our best, it felt odd to sing solo."

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. Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra perform 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. "Before we set off for long tours, I select kurtas for both of us from our kurta room," says Pandit Rajan Mishra. "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."


Pandit Rajan and Sajan Mishra

Gharana: Benaras

Renderings to revere: Raags Tilak Kamod, Chhayanat, Malhars

Ustad Jawad Ali Khan and Mazhar Ali Khan

Gharana: Patiala

Renderings to revere: Raags Hameer and Jogiya

Amaan and Ayaan Ali Khan

Gharana: Senia Bangash

Renderings to revere: Raags Puriya Kalyan and Kirwani

Ritesh Mishra and Rajnish Mishra

Gharana: Benaras

Renderings to revere: Megh, Malkauns, Todi

Sanjeev and Ashwani Shankar

Gharana: Benaras

Renderings to revere: Madhuvanti, Shuddh Sarang

Murad Ali Khan and Fateh Ali Khan

Gharana: Moradabad

Renderings to revere: Puriya Dhanashree, Mishra Pilu

- From HT Brunch, February 27

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