Pandit Lalmani Misra
Pandit Lalmani Misra: A Portrait
by Laxmi Ganesh Tewari
About 30 km west of Kanpur, near the River Ganga, stands the ancient temple of Khereshwar (or Kshireshwar) Mahadev. According to legend, Lord Rama established the temple while visiting the Valmiki Ashram in Bithoor. The temple is in the ancient village of Tarapati Ka Nevada, which is mentioned in Gazetteers. The village is said to date back to the times of Gautama Buddha, where artifacts of archaeological importance continue to be discovered even now. The ancestors of the late Dr Pandit Lalmani Misra were residents of this village. His father, Pandit Raghuvanshi Lal Misra, spent his childhood in this village, and later moved to the city of Kanpur for business reasons. As a member of the Kanyakubj Brahman community, he was a Sanskrit scholar and a pious man. His mother, Rani Devi, was also a devout woman. To this deeply religious couple was born a son, Lalmani, their last child, on August 11, 1924. Raghuvanshi Lal Misra owned a sweets shop in Kanpur. The storefront was on the first floor, and the family lived upstairs, where Lalmani was born. His father's specialty, called gilauri, was so renowned that a batch would sell out within a couple of hours of its making. The communal riots of 1930, in which freedom fighter Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi lost his life chaperoning Muslim families out of a predominantly Hindu neighborhood, changed the character of entire neighborhoods in Kanpur. Lalmani's father lost his home and business, but managed to escape with his wife and children. The family settled in Kolkata where Lalmani's education continued. It was here that his mother developed an interest in music. These were times when music carried a stigma and was considered unsuitable for people from good families. Kanyakubj families were particularly orthodox on this issue. For Rani Devi, who might never have had the opportunity in Kanpur, being in Kolkata was akin to going abroad and finding freedom from community opprobrium. Her husband found a storytelling priest by the name of Govardhan Lal, who also knew music well. He started teaching her on his folding harmonium. After returning from school, little Lalmani would sit in on his mother's lessons, his curiosity piqued. It was a couple of weeks later that Rani Devi excused herself from class to fetch refreshments, leaving Lalmani alone with her teacher. The little boy then proceeded to play all the alankars on the harmonium the teacher had taught his mother. The teacher was astonished.
That day, the teacher told the father that his son had a keen ear and mind, and he would teach the boy for no charge. Whatever he taught the boy, the boy would teach his mother. His father agreed, and Lalmani's formal instruction began. In addition to the Ramayan, Govardhan Lal also knew some dhruvapads and bhajans. Within three months, little Lalmani had memorized them all. Impressed by the child's prodigious nature, the teacher began to take the boy with him on his engagements; during the breaks in storytelling, the child would sing. Thus, from childhood, Lalmani began to perform and be encouraged by the audience response. After this, Lalmani attended the Gupta Sangitalaya on Chitpur Road. There, in big letters, a sign read: "Learn to play harmonium within two months, guaranteed." The teacher, Vishwanath Prasad Gupta, was an accomplished player, and here young Lalmani developed his skill, learning many types of songs. Two months later, Lalmani's father inquired of the instructor: Does my son know enough music now to stop? The teacher explained that music is a difficult art, and can't be learned even in two years. He also said, your child is very talented, allow him to continue his study. When he has learned all I can teach, I will recommend another teacher. Although well-versed in Sanskrit, Lalmani's father was not knowledgeable about music. He allowed Lalmani to continue his music studies. Coincidentally, he showed the boy's horoscope to an astrologer, who said firmly that the boy was destined for fame in music, and should receive appropriate training. Lalmani learned dhruvapad and dhamar with Pandit Kalika Prasad. As a boy, he got the opportunity to sing with accomplished mridang masters such as Dulli Babu. After hearing him, Mehndi Hussain Khan, disciple of Ustad Vazir Khan of the Rampur Seni Gharana, taught him khayal singing. By the age of 12, he knew more than 1,500 different bandishes by heart. He became well-known throughout Kolkata. Whoever heard him sing was charmed. As a result, he started to get invitations from record companies, theater companies, and film companies. He acted, sang, and performed in some films. Of these, Shehnai Recording Company and East India Bharat Lakshmi New Theater are notable. During this period, Lalmani began to be drawn to instrumental music. He studied the sitar with Shukdev Ray of the Malik gharana of Bihar. He studied dhruvapad and bhajans from Swami Pramodanand Brahmchari. Swamiji was a great nation builder. Adopting the principles of the Congress, he worked for the upliftment of the nation. His national songs would fill audiences with patriotic fervor. Swamiji toured with Lalmani throughout Bihar, organizing vocal music and tabla concerts. During this time, an aristocrat in Munger district appointed Lalmani, then 16, to be the family music tutor. After the death of his father in 1937, Lalmani returned with his mother to his ancestral village, Tarapati Ka Nevada. In 1941, he participated actively in the youth agitation launched by Principal K.B. Phalke, composing songs and melodies appropriate for youth.
In 1944, impressed with his talent, Balkrishna Pandeya, then the Principal of Kanyakubj College, Kanpur, appointed him music instructor. At first, the students protested this decision, showing no interest in music. But his charisma and hard work won them over, and soon the college became a renowned center for voice and music instruction among institutions for men. Although his main areas of interest were singing, tabla, and sitar, Lalmani began to perform on the jaltarang on Akashvani Radio. As a result, most people thought of him as a jaltarang performer. In addition to teaching at Kanyakubj College, Lalmani Misra also taught at Subhash College, Unnao. From 1944, he began to be influenced by the batta been of Ustad Abdul Aziz Khan of Patiala. Around 1946, he came to the realization that the veena is primarily a Hindu devotional instrument. The responsibility of preserving its tradition lay primarily with Hindu artists. If the Hindu tradition that had survived due to the efforts of Muslim musicians now disappeared, the responsibility for its demise would lie with Hindu artists. Therefore, he learned to play veena in the traditional manner from Abdul Aziz Khan and began his practice in secret. In 1950, on the invitation of Dr Ratanjankar to the Bhatkhande Jayanti in Lakhnau's Morris College, he performed on the vichitra veena for the first time. Encouraged by the response of the artists and connoisseurs in the audience, he made the vichitra veena his primary instrument. In 1946, Lalmani Misra established the Kanpur Orchestral Society, and created many compositions. He composed music for plays, as well as directed several of them. In 1947, together with close associates he founded the Bharatiya Sangeet Parishad in Kanpur; under its auspices the Gandhi Sangeet Mahavidyalaya was established on August 16, 1947. He resigned from Kanyakubj College to dedicate his full attention to the new institution. In 1951, the world renowned dance maestro Uday Shankar appointed him the music director for his troupe. Lalmani Misra was just 27. In 1951 and 1954, with Uday Shankar's troupe, he toured countries like Sri Lanka, England, France, Belgium, America, and Canada, to very favorable reviews of his music direction and veena concerts. A Hollywood film company invited him to help make an Indian film. Not used to the atmosphere in the West, he turned the offer down. After returning to India, he was asked to compose music for Hindi films. But his interest in music scholarship and teaching pulled him back to Kanpur. In the course of his world travels, he came to realize that musicians require higher education as well. He went on to receive a Sahitya Ratna, an M.A. from Agra University, and a Ph.D. from Kashi Hindu Vishwavidyalaya. In 1955, in his capacity as the first Registrar of the Akhil Bharatiya Gandharva Mahavidyalaya Mandal, he organized the work of the institution. But the growing demands of the job took him away from his music practice, and he gave up his duties at the Mandal. At the urging of friends, he became Principal of Gandhi Sangeet Mahavidyalaya in 1957. Sangeet Martand Omkarnath Thakur wanted him to join the Music Department at Kashi Hindu Vishwavidyalaya. After much persuasion, he agreed to leave Kanpur for Varanasi, and joined the Instrumental Department as Reader in 1958, believing that it was not the title but the work that brought greatness to an artist. He made many major advances in the field of music instruction at Kashi Hindu Vishwavidyalaya. After intense effort, he created a veena on which all the exercises in Bharat's Sarana Chatushtadi could be played, and the 22 shrutis recorded by Bharat could be heard and played. After hearing these shrutis on his veena, Indian and Western scholars alike praised his achievement. He studied both academically and empirically Indian instruments of the ancient, medieval, and modern eras, and proved that Amir Khusro had nothing to do with the evolution of the sitar and the tabla. The sitar evolved naturally from the ancient tritantriya veena, and the tabla from the pushkar vadya. The modern sarod and medieval sursingar and rabab are evolved forms of the ancient chitra veena. His research findings in the field of music created a sensation, and debunked many commonly accepted myths. Lalmani Misra helped create and reform the syllabi of prominent educational institutions and universities. Having created many instruments, he demonstrated them to the public. After the publication of material for smaller classes, he started work on books on Vedic music and the sitar, but could not complete them due to poor health. Lalmani Misra is one of those seminal artists of the music world who excelled as a performer, critic, and scholar. According to him, India has two types of scholars: academic and empirical. The empirical scholar is the one that tests ancient principles on the platform of contemporary music, and puts his faith in its growth and evolution. On the other hand, the academic scholar worships tradition at the cost of new currents in art, and wants the artist to retreat in the past rather than look forward. Lalmani Misra was working on specific research, such as Vedic music, the rebirth of dhruvapad-dhamar, and the promotion of instrumental music, when he suddenly took ill. At the age of 55, on July 17, 1979, he left the music world and ended his tenure on earth prematurely. Lalmani Misra himself wrote parts of this biography, but could not complete it due to poor health. I have filled in the missing parts with the help of those who knew him firsthand.
— Laxmi Ganesh Tewari • Translated by Arvind Kumar