Profile: Dr. Gopal Shankar Misra and the ‘curious veena’

To me, Dr. Gopal Shankar Mishra (1957-1999) is one of the most underappreciated Indian artists of the last century. He mastered many modes of music in his short life, absorbing an open-minded creative outlook from his father Dr. Lalmani Misra – a musical prodigy who was reportedly appointed as the Assistant Music Director of Calcutta’s Shehanshahi Recording Company in Calcutta at the tender age of 12. The elder man had studied sitartabladhrupad, and bhajan devotional song in depth, as well as scoring for films and opening innovative, progressive music schools for children of all castes and creeds.

He first chose to instruct Gopal, his son, in the sitar, but soon introduced him to the vichitra veena (literally, ‘curious veena’) – a seldom-seen fretless slide instrument with headstocks shaped like peacocks that somewhat resembles a Hindustani variant of the Carnatic gottuvadhyam. It has around 22 strings – four for main playing, five for rhythm, and thirteen for sympathetic vibration. The musician holds a large glass ball (batta), which, with the aid of coconut oil, slides along the playing strings to produce an ethereal, liquid melodic texture.

Gopal enthusiastically took up his father’s mission, working tirelessly throughout his life to gain respect for the rare, fragile instrument on the North Indian classical stage – while also playing and teaching the sitar to a superb standard. He greatly expanded the elder man’s nascent Misrabani repertoire, taking it far beyond its Dhrupad roots, and even sampled some cross-cultural fusion with State of Bengal & Ananda Shankar (another student of his father’s).

Misra’s final album – 1999’s Out of Stillness – is, for me, one of the best in Hindustani history. Recorded at Bath’s Real World Studios shortly after his set at the WOMAD festival, it captures the vichitra veena’s fluid articulations in rare, pristine quality via a spellbinding, hour-long rendition of Raag Darbari Kanada – a slow, austere form with a lineage stretching back to the solemn atmosphere of the Mughal durbars (royal courts).

Sadly, the master would unexpectedly pass away around a month after the recording session, whilst at a concert dedicated to his father in their birthplace of Bhopal. Still only in his 40s, he left behind countless ideas that had yet to come to fruition, sketching out some of his vision for the future of the vichitra veena in a tantalising online essay which includes section titles such as “New dimensions to spiritual approach in music”. No instrument sounds quite like his – and few will ever match his mastery of any instrument.

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