It is a pleasant summer dawn in Banaras, some five years back. Several music students, connoisseurs, and tourists have gathered on Assi Ghat to welcome the sun with a promising musical morning on their minds. On the stage is 13 years old Daliya Mukherjee, who starts to introduce the initial notes of Raag Bairagi Bhairav. The rays of the sun start to fall, sparkling the sacred water of Ganga. The hearts and minds of those present feel the elation as the voice of the young singer begins to expand and beautify the raag.
The city of Banaras, one of the oldest living cities in the world, is considered to possess some mythical powers. The city does something to its inhabitants. Yes, this could very well be true. Maybe that is the reason why Hindustani classical music has flourished here for centuries. There has been a long string of musicians who have come out from this city. Bismillah Khan, Rajan Sajan Mishra, Girja Devi, Gudai Maharaj, Kishan Maharaj to name a few. Daliya Mukherjee and Juliya Mukherjee come from this long rich tradition. They are like tiny but precious beads that are ready to shine and dazzle the world of Hindustani classical music.
Daliya(18) is the elder and is more poised and careful in her expression and choice of words when she speaks. Juliya (14) is more giggly with an easy smile and sweet charm. The culture they represent comes forth very easily when you start a conversation with them. You realise that they not only learn and perform classical music but they seemed to be living a life totally immersed in it.
Their father is a noted table player and their mother is an avid singer herself. “Our parents were our initial teachers. Coming from a lineage of musicians, music came naturally to us. We were only four when we started our formal training in music under Pt. Debashish Dey. He is not only our teacher but a father figure as well,” says Daliya.
Daliya is clear that she wants to make a career in classical music. Juliya on the other hand has a different dream. “I want to be an IFS, though I will continue my life in music as well,” says she, with a little smile. But you can see the determination in her eyes. It is clear that they both possess the discipline and the ability to put in hours of practice into perfecting something they want. This ability must have come from their rigorous training as classical singers. We know they will achieve what they want.
The duo is already showing a lot of promise as classical musicians. They have performed in stages in many Indian cities, from the shores of the Arabian sea (Mumbai) to the highs of the Himalayan mountain range (Kathmandu, Nepal), and in between in big cities such as Delhi, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Raipur and Raigad among others.
Their collective dream is to perform in Banaras’s famous night-long music festival called Sankat Mochan. “It will take another decade of training before I think I will be ready for that festival,” says Daliya.
At the young age of 18, Daliya can sing over 250 raags. While reminiscing her most memorable performance, she tells, "In our music school, there's a level test which comprises of eight levels. To pass them all, you need to prepare around 100 raags. When I sat for that test, I passed six levels and was awarded the title of 'Shilpayan Praveen'. That honour means a lot to me and that's why it was such a special performance."
Juliya, along with being a vocalist, also accompanies her sister on Harmonium. She enjoys sketching as well and learns Kathak too in her school. Both the sisters start and end their day with mandatory riyaz. Their father is the one who plays the bad cop when it comes to their practice. The sisters tell us, "Our father is very strict when we are practicing with him. Just as we get back from our classes, he sits with us with his Tabla for our practice. We often get scolded by him as well during the practice sessions. While we learn from our guruji, it is our father who makes sure we perfect what we learn."
Music has been such an intrinsic part of their lives that both the sisters hold a deep understanding of not just the technicalities of Hindustani classical music, but the soul and meaning of it too. For Daliya, the best part about music is that it contains no sort of boundaries, it is free. She says, "You cannot contain music in any boundaries, be it linguistic, political, religious or something else. Like every other art, it is free and that feeling of liberty is a very important takeaway from music." While for Juliya, music is a way of self-expression without having to say something.
Having performed in several settings and cities over the years, Daliya believes that the type of audience plays a big role in how they are left feeling after a performance. It also affects their choice of music to perform as well. She says, "If we have an audience with little understanding of music, we choose more popular raags that they can comprehend. However, if we have revered musicians in our audience or people who have deep understanding of music, I like to perform more rare raags, something they'll like."
Along with deep understanding of music, what makes both the sisters true musicians is the respect they have for the artform. They have been advised by people to participate in reality shows, but both the sisters have rejected the idea. Daliya says, "Music is like saadhna (a form of meditation) for me. The more I practice, the more I get better. Just as I said that classical music is free of all restrictions, I myself would like to be that way. While I like to hum pop music, I don't particularly enjoy performing it. Reality shows and Bollywood music is not the path I want to carve for myself. I know that the whole world is leaning towards pop culture, but there's no harm in being a purist, if I may say so. I don't want to put any restrictions on me and my music. "
While it takes rigorous training to be a Hindustani Classical musician, it is expected to rob the kids of their childhood and fun. However, that stands untrue in the case of Mukherjee sisters. They say that they never missed out on anything because of the musical training. In fact, their guruji never even asked them to avoid or skip food that may affect their throat. Daliya tells us, "We enjoy ice creams and every other food like any other kid. Our guruji never put any such restrictions because he feels that if we don't eat everything, it will make our throat very sensitive to everything cold and sour. We are allowed to eat anything, just not before any performance."
Like a true Banarasi, both the sisters are fond of chaat, Kashi Chaat Bhandar being their favourite spot. They enjoy watching films too, Sur Sangam and Katyal Karchad Ghusli are among their favourites. When it comes to travelling, both the sisters prefer mountains above all. The dynamics of a sibling relationship are also very evident in their case. While both the sisters fight a lot among themselves, they always stand and protect each other, just as they do when they sit to play and sing music together.