Traditionally, the relationship between guru andshishya (student) was very similar to that between parent and child. In many cases, of course, the guru and shishya were parent and child. But even when they were not related, it was customary for the shishya to live with the guru, do chores around the house, and receive not only lessons, but the kind of informal instruction that is only possible when there is constant daily contact.
Laxmi Ganesh Tewari’s relationship with Lalmani Misra was not exactly the traditional guru-shishya relationship, but it naturally evolved as close to that ideal as modern times would probably permit.
“I first met him when I was a student at an evening college at Kanpur, where he was principal,” says Tewari. “I thought he was an incredible figure when I saw him interacting with everyone. He always treated everyone with courtesy and compassion, and never saw anyone as an inferior. A complete stranger could knock on his door, and if he thought that person needed his attention, he would even skip an important meeting to continue talking to him. Anyone who came to him, he would help him. I knew right from the start that I wanted to spend as much time with him as possible.”
For a while, it seemed that fate would separate them, but it just as quickly brought them together again. Misra received an offer to create a music department at Banaras Hindu University (B.H.U.). When he left, practically everyone in Kanpur came to the train station and begged him to stay. Tewari took a job as a typist for an insurance company, and told the company to send him anywhere they chose. As chance would have it, they sent him to Banaras, where he was able to re-establish and deepen his relationship with Misra. “He was my local guardian,” says Tewari. “At first, he let me house-sit for him over the summer when he was away from school. When he got his own residence on campus at B.H.U., I actually moved in with him, and really became
part of the family. I still have stuff stored at his house, even after all these years. He insisted that I begin a serious career in music, and gave me constant musical advice. Because he was primarily an instrumentalist, he did not have an active repertoire of traditional vocal pieces. So he created a whole series of compositions especially for me, with beautiful melodies and profoundly poetic lyrics. This was a very special blessing, for which I will always be grateful. Eventually, however, he recommended that I study vocal with Pandit Madhav Vaman Thakar. He had something wrong with his throat, so he was not able to teach me vocals in the best possible way. I had a tabla teacher also, because he insisted that it was essential for a musician to fully appreciate rhythm. But although I had several other gurus besides him, he was my ‘umbrella guru,’ who watched over and coordinated my growth as a musician.”
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As a young man, Misra’s main interests were tabla, vocals, and sitar, but he also acquired some fame from performing on the jaltarang—a set of china bowls filled with water that are struck with sticks like chimes. However, he reached an important crossroads when he saw Abdul Aziz Khan play the vichitra vina while both of them were performing on All India Radio. Misra’s contributions to music and scholarship were diverse. He created one of the first doctoral programs in classical Indian music; wrote several pieces of orchestral Indian music, including an opera based on the life of Mirabai; and toured as music director for the Uday Shankar dance company. But after he was inspired by watching Abdul Aziz Khan play, the vichitra vina became his primary instrument, and the central musical focus of his rich creative life.
Like the pedal steel used in American country music, the vichitra vina has a rectangular body with strings that are played with a glass slide. However, it also has the buzzy jawari bridge of the sitar, two resonating gourds, and usually has a carving of a peacock at one end in homage to Goddess Sarasvati. It has many expressive capabilities that don’t come easily to the sitar because the slide makes it possible to do both upward and downward sruti with equal facility. But it is also much harder to play the fast scales that are popular with contemporary sitar virtuosos, and to keep good intonation without the sitar’s frets. This is probably one reason that Misra and his son Gopal Shankar Misra were almost the only prominent performers on the vichitra vina in the latter part of the 20th century. Because both of them died so tragically young, it is essential to preserve the their legacy in their few available recordings. DVDs are especially valuable, because they enable us to see exactly how these uniquely expressive sounds are produced.
Misra’s performances on this DVD certainly have the potential to inspire young players who are looking for their instrument. Each raga unfolds naturally, effectively using space in the early parts of each movement, and then building up to a powerful climax featuring chikare (strumming), fast scales, and gamak(wide vibrato). He also creates a very wide dynamic range by alternating between forceful picking with two mizrabs (sitar fingerpicks), and quietly subtle slides. Misra is, like so many great Indian musicians, a traditionalist with a truly original sound.
Tewari has produced this DVD at his own expense, and intends to use all earnings from sales to establish a memorial scholarship in Misra’s name at the music department at Sonoma State University. This last great service to his guru is also a service to all of us who hear this music.
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.