Dr. Gopal Shankar Misra


The liquid and expressive sound of the vichitra veena lends itself wonderfully to Indian classical music's general aim of making an instrument emulate the human voice. Although there are many types of veena to be found in India, it is still comparatively rare to hear the vichitra veena played to any high standard outside the sub-continent. Moreover, the style of playing to be heard on this disc comes from a much-defined family tradition in Banares, Northern India.

As a teenager, Dr Gopal Shankar Misra took up his father's earlier mission to establish the veena in the panoply of Indian instruments and to carry it out into the world. Not only was it unusual for the vichitra veena to be taken out of the country but it was also unheard of for it to be moved out of the classical or light tradition. The Ananda Shankar/State of Bengal tour of 1998 was the first step in this development and Gopal, a member of the touring group, was very interested in matching up the veena in different ways than the usual Hindustani combination of tabla and tanpura. However, the need remained for a high quality studio rendition of the vichitra veena in its classical setting. Such a project had not been attempted for some time, and certainly not in such completely empathetic conditions.

These recordings were made just after successful appearances at the 1999 WOMAD Festival when the party joined up with producer John Leckie at Real World Studios. Everything clicked. Gopal had made friends with Andy White and his musicians in the next studio. He was as adept with a table tennis bat as he was with the veena. The days consisted of music, good food and conversation. It was one of those late summer weeks where everything seemed still, a pause button had been pressed, and the countryside slumbered. Out of the stillness came these beautiful sounds. A month later, in Bhopal at a concert dedicated to his father, Dr Gopal Shankar Misra died. The summer was just turning to autumn in England. It was not possible to press rewind.

Dr Gopal Shankar Misra The story started in the late 1920s with Dr Lalmani Misra, Gopal's father and guru. A gifted multi-instrumentalist he learnt to sing over 70 pieces in the Druphad and Khayaal styles before he was 12. He played both the tabla and sitar at a distinguished level and turned with great virtuoso aplomb to the vichitra veena. Famous in India, his international career was elevated on becoming musical director and composer for Uday Shankar's groundbreaking dance company. Alongside his performing schedule he had an excellent academic life, which culminated in his becoming Dean of the Faculty of Performing arts at Banares Hindu University until his death at a relatively early age. This left the 22-year-old Gopal to carry on the work. The family eventually attained Gharana status when the third generation - Gopal and Padmaja's son and daughter, Gandharva and Shruti - began to excel at the veena. It was much later on that the Uday Shankar connection was to lead directly to this disc, when Gopal was invited to join the 1998 UK touring and Real World recording project made by State of Bengal and Ananda Shankar, Uday Shankar's son.

Gopal was born in Kampur, India in 1957. Surrounded by and growing up with music, his interest deepened following an international tour with his father. He had studied vocal music and sitar since the age of four and started with the vichitra veena at 15 years old. The aspirant son had taken some time to persuade his father to teach him the instrument but perseverance, born out of an instinctive attraction to its possibilities, eventually won out. When his father died, his devotion to the veena intensified. In playing it, he felt closer to his father, and from this was able to draw much comfort in the coming years. At the age of 22 he was appointed lecturer in music at Banares Hindu University and shortly afterwards became Doctor of Music in sitar. Over the years he became a "Grade A" Indian musician, making many concerts and radio recordings whilst taking on new students for the veena. He toured extensively in India, USA and Europe and was fulfilling his father's wishes by introducing the instrument to new situations and audiences. It was through Gopal Shankar Misra that the vichitra veena finally found wider international fame. The veena is associated with Saraswati, the Goddess of learning in Hindu mythology. In Hindi "vichitra" means peculiar and the veena is part of a family of chordophone or stringed instruments said to predate the sitar. Gopal's playing style is inherited from his father who brought the instrument to prominence in Northern Indian music. There are other veenas to be found in the south of the country. The vichitra veena is made of a broad, fretless, horizontal arm or crossbar (dand) around three feet long and six inches wide, with two large resonating gourds (tumba), which are inlaid with ivory and attached underneath at either end. The narrow ends of the instrument on this disc are fashioned into peacock heads, the national bird of India - a most appropriate carving as Gopal often drew a metaphor between the colours in the bird's tail and the musical range that the veena offers.

There are four main playing strings and five secondary strings (chikaris), which are played openly with the little finger for a drone effect. Underneath them are 13 sympathetic strings tuned to the notes of the appropriate raag. The veena has a five-octave range. Two plectrums (mizrab) identical to those used for sitar are worn on the middle and index fingers of the right hand to pluck the strings, and a glass ball (batta) is moved with the left across the main strings to create melody (there can be a distance of up to two inches between notes). Olive oil or butter is put on the strings to ease the playing action. The veena was often used to accompany the Dhrupad style of singing and this did not allow for much intricacy or embellishment around the notes. Whilst there are beautiful portamento passages (meend) on this disc where the notes glide effortlessly into each other, the dramatic and vigorous plucking style, the jumping from note to note (krintan), was a stylistic departure developed in Gopal's family tradition. The soft drone of the tanpura and the expressive tabla playing around the astonishing voice of the veena make this CD a unique and beautiful testament to Gopal Shankar Misra's lifetime of work.

Real World

Writings of Dr. Gopal Shankar Misra

Alan James, April 2000

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