Gopal Shankar Misra (born 1957 in Kanpur, died 13 August 1999 in Bhopal) was an Indian musician and music teacher, who played the vichitra veena.
Misra’s father, Lalmani Misra, was born in the 1920s and became a singer and instrumentalist who performed dhrupad and khyal, and played the tabla, the sitar, and revived the vichitra veena by creating playing-technique for it. In his early years he had toured the globe as music-director to dance troupe of Pt. Uday Shankar. Dr. Lalmani Misra was a performing musician and an academic, who served as Dean of the Faculty of Performing Arts at Banaras Hindu University, where he worked as a teacher and administrator, until his death in 1979.
This left the 22-year-old Gopal a challenge of work unfinished. 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 resurface a generation later, 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 Kanpur, India in 1957. His sister, Ragini, was born some years later. His mother was Padma. 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 was interested in cricket and other sports.
At the age of 15 his interest in music turned serious. His father introduced his son in 1975 at Varanasi. Chhotelal Mishra disciple of Pandit Anokhelal Mishra, accompanied Gopal who performed a rendering of Marwa, Chandrakauns and Pahadi on sitar.
Gopal’s mother died of cancer on 5 April 1977. His father, Lalmani Misra, took the children around the country, performing and meeting academics and musicians. As a visiting Professor at Penn University, Misra had to leave for a semester (January to June 1978). He recorded ample music lessons for Gopal and Ragini so that both excelled in their respective examinations. On his return, he developed an ache in his back and had to rely more on his children. Gopal and Ragini thereby received training in academics of music, which served them much later on.
After the passing away of his mother, Gopal had become devoted to his father and sister. When his father died, he started training his first student while he himself was learning. As time went by students travelled from all over to learn Sitar and Vichitra Veena. His most dedicated disciple was his sister, Ragini.
Today Ragini is the sole exponent of Misrabani. She plays the complex Misrabani compositions on Jhoomra Tal. Ragini credits her brother for instilling the innovation of their father so well, that she can play the toughest of compositions almost instantaneously. She presented 16 Pearls (at a seminar organised by Bhatkhande Deemed Music University at Lucknow in 2005) a non-stop string of sixteen compositions in sixteen different Raga-s, starting from sixteen consecutive beats on Trital. Gopal Shankar also inspired his sister to take up another instrument – jal tarang when she was in school. Ragini has also been recognised as the first woman player of jal-tarang following Sitar gatkari in her presentation.
At this juncture, his devotion to the Veena intensified. In playing Vichitra Veena, he felt closer to his father and through this, was able to draw much comfort in the coming years. Having observed his father’s chaste style of living, Gopal bid adieu to his natural youthful manner and strictly followed an ascetic like life-style. At the age of 22 he was appointed lecturer in music at Banares Hindu University and shortly afterward became Doctor of Music in Sitar. He had also studied Sanskrit for his M.A. degree. Over the years he became a “Grade A” Indian musician, making several radio recordings and giving concerts, while encouraging a number of students to take up veena.
Teaching at Banaras Hindu University exposed him to many potential learners. Having inherited the art of imparting tid-bits of skill as well as wisdom about theswaroop (nature) of Raga, he had already taught his sister Ragini while still a student himself. Now, his ability to teach with patience was fully exploited. His students were not limited to a single instrument. Kamala Shankar played guitar while Taranga Vilasini sports a santoor. Students from Korea, Sri Lanka, Canada, France, Germany etc. would come to Varanasi to learn with him. He was equally at home with theory and demonstration, and would often repeat his father’s advice, “Don’t discuss, do it”. Completely at home with technology, his visual sensibility were equally strong. He would capture finger movements and other postures accurately on video, which proved immensely useful to his students. All his students would record their sessions with him and return only after they had perfected the phrase or melody. His teaching was effective as it was inspiring. Many of Gopal Shankar’s students are now teaching music at various levels.
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. It evolved from the ancient Ban and later was known as Batta-Been. Gopal inherited the style known as Misrabani, from his father who had brought the instrument to prominence in Northern Indian music.
Gopal Shankar Misra was an acclaimed artiste of Sitar who was invited all across Indian and abroad. But because Vichitra Veena held a special meaning for his father, he could not let it lie silent. 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 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. Along with portamento passages (meend) 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, Misrabani.
Through the efforts of Gopal Shankar Misra, a course of D.Mus. in Vichitra Veena was to be started by College of Music and Fine Arts, BHU when his sudden demise at Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh) on 13 August 1999 while attending a function (an annual feature of Madhukali) held in the memory of his father, Lalmani Misra bereaved besides his family, a number of existing and potential disciples. He had authored the third part of Sangeet-Sarita, a series started by his father for middle-school students. Adept in the school of Misrabani, he contributed to this true Tantrakari style through performance as well as composition. A short article,Vichitra Veena: Innovations and Practices outlines his involvement and future plans for making this instrument more approachable. His major work dealing with compositions of vocal and instrumental music together in a single volume is yet to see the light of day. Those learning Vichitra Veena with him have turned to sister Ragini Trivedi who has been a guardian mentor to children, Shruti and Gandharva.