In the 1970s, when tabla artiste Vishwanath Misra aka Hanuman Misra and his musician friends were to perform on foreign shores, they would have to follow a strict directive from the government-run Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR)—no discussing Indian politics in hotel rooms or elsewhere. ICCR’s rationale: India was a new nation and the political scenario was still raw and vulnerable.
This is one of the many instances in Misra’s life that mirror the kind of times in which he blossomed as an artiste. They were politically trying and insecure times, but there was also a sense of euphoria for the nation as a whole, until the Emergency was announced in 1975.
Born in UP’s Azamgarh village, Misra came from a rich line of performing artistes for whom riyaz was religion. But politics was an unavoidable reality. He recalls the times when workers from the Congress party would come campaigning to his village, sporting their symbol of two bullocks. “Villagers would get together in crowded bullock carts to vote in a free India, and parents would write patriotic songs for their children, to be sung at schools during Independence and Republic Day celebrations,” he recalls.
Dressed in pristine white, with a red tilak on his forehead, he recounts his traditional upbringing among renowned names in the field of performing arts. Misra’s first guru was his father, Badri Misra. Later on, he learnt the art of accompaniment from his elder brother Channulal Misra and after that he was under the tutelage of tabla maestro “Gudai Maharaj” Pandit Shanta Prasad.
A performing artiste since the age of 13, Misra is sensitive to the changes in his field: “There used to be a lot of mehfils at that time, and many enlightened people used to be present. Sometimes, even the maharajas used to attend. Even after independence, maharajas such as the Maharaja of Darbhanga would come to these mehfils.”
In 1963, Misra moved to the Capital to join the Kathak Kendra where his uncle, Kathak doyen Shambhu Maharaj, was teaching. Also a sarangi player and singer, he was a tabla accompanist in his uncle’s performances. He has performed with legends such as Siddheshwari Devi, Bhimsen Joshi, Girija Devi, Birju Maharaj, Amjad Ali Khan, Shovana Narayan, Uma Sharma— many of whom he first met when they were students.
Misra was also part of ICCR’s delegations to the first Indian Culture Centre in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1975. He was accompanied by sitarist Vikas Bhattacharya, singer Bholanath Chatterjee and dancer Pratap Pawar. “We had to go to villages with our instruments in order to promote Indian culture. There were times when the conditions were terrible, but the fact that we were there to make our arts known to our own people, who had emigrated there 200 years ago, kept us going,” he says. “Before our performance, we’d study local music styles and start our programme with that. Once we had the audience’s interest, we’d slowly shift to our style of playing, drawing rhythmic parallels between both the styles.”
But Misra believes times have changed for the better. “Today’s classical performers are impatient with the traditional way of performing a classical piece. Instead of building up to a fast tempo, they start with fast beats. But still, people know more about our culture and they appreciate it much more now.” At his home, the tradition continues, but suited to the changing times. His son plays the tabla, but is a graphic designer by profession.
After having performed with the sarangi and the tabla all over the world, Misra says he still loves his job of teaching music at the Kendra the most. “I hope that my training is reflected in all facets of my students’ lives.”
It’s not often that Misra thinks about his year of birth. But he says that when he does, he considers himself lucky: “I can’t help but wonder how, in spite of being born in 1947, I was born in an enslaved country but,” he says, breaking into a smile, “I’m glad that about a month later, we attained independence and I could grow up in a free country.”