Not everyone can learn to play an ancient instrument like the Rudra veena. Fewer still manage to build it from scratch. Meet the tax officer who has turned a room in his SoBo home into a raga lab
Suvir Misra credits his mother for his passion and his brother for his career. We are in the studio of his Malabar Hill home which has been converted into a workshop for veena making.
"I was inclined towards music since childhood," says the 1993-batch Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officer currently posted in Mumbai as the Commissioner of Central Goods and Services Tax (CGST) & Central Excise. His father, says Misra, was worried about his future. "I had been devoting more time to learning the rudra veena [than to academics]. Fortunately, my mother was supportive," he says about the instrument that's considered one of the oldest, and even finds a mention in Vedic texts.
Misra started playing the tabla at age 14 and after two years, switched to khayal and sitar simultaneously under Delhi Gharana guru Goswami Radha Krishna. He learnt Ajarada Gharana tabla under Ustad Bandu Khan for two years. He later studied the sitar under Shri NR Rama Rao, a disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar; Agra Khayal gayaki from Pandit Rama Rao Naik, a disciple of the legendary Ustad Faiyaaz Khan, and Gwalior Khayal gayaki from Shri KN Ienger, a disciple of Shri HG.Moghe of Mumbai.
But it was the veena that Misra took a deep liking to. He is proficient in playing three types of veena—rudra veena, Saraswati veena and the surbahar. While the rudra veena is predominant in Hindustani classical music, the Saraswati veena, named after the instrument that the Indian goddess of culture and knowledge holds, is at the centre of Carnatic music. The surbahar, which looks like a large bass sitar, was invented in the early 19th century and seems to have fallen out of favour with musicians in the mid-20th century when the modern sitar, which allowed for almost all styles to be played, and at a good speed, found fans.
Although Misra eventually decided to give a shot at the civil services exam—after his brother Dr Sudhir Misra, currently an additional director general of police in West Bengal, cracked the examinations—the veenas remained his passion.
A rare left-handed artiste, Misra is a disciple of Dhrupad legend Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar. It's Dagar who taught him the rudra veena. He plays the instrument, by combining the fluidity and subtle nuances of the vocal Dagar style or 'gayaki ang' with the traditional tantrakari (plucking) techniques. He explains, "Khayal is the vocal Hindustani style where fast taans or fast succession of swaras are used in improvisation. However, the rudra veena does not allow for fast passages. But, through the use of three-finger veena techniques of the rudra veena, and rearranging the strings on the Saraswati veena to suit the Khayal style, faster movements of Khayal can be played with meends and gamakas."
But, Misra's love for the instrument runs deeper than just the music it produces. He is also keenly interested in how the veena is made, how different woods affect its sounds and has, over the years, learnt to repair them too.
He recalls first wanting to buy a rudra veena in 1990 and heading to Kolkata to make the purchase. The rudra veena, which according to mythology was crafted by Shiva as a tribute to the beauty of Parvati as she lay in repose, an arm thrown across her breasts, has a long tubular body made of wood or bamboo with a length between 54 inches and 62 inches. Two large, round resonators, made of dried and hollowed gourds, are attached under the tube. Twenty-four brass-fitted raised wooden frets are fixed on the tube with the help of wax. There are four main strings and three chikari strings. It was an instrument that would have cost him R50,000 to purchase. "So, I started experimenting with making my own after collecting raw material including different sorts of teakwood and rosewood. This was in the 1990s," he recalls. The experiment has continued well into the next millennium.
Much of Misra's time at home is spent at his studio workshop where he conducts research on wood material, looking to further enhance the acoustic properties of the rudra veena. The air-conditioned room is equipped with a variety of tools and clamps. "Earlier, I had to visit repair centres each time an instrument needed fixing. Eventually, I started spending time with the karigars to learn the techniques. I found it interesting enough to open a small [repair] workshop at home," says Misra. He adds that his job as a tax enforcer has taken him to Delhi and across Uttar Pradesh, giving him access to the karigars with a rich history of classical music culture.
Misra, who prefers to use rosewood, teak, jackfruit and bamboo to craft his instruments, has made four rudra veenas. "It takes me around six months to make one piece because the wood requires multiple rounds of treatment in order to extract a rich sound experience."
In fact, Misra's fascination with the rudra veena brought filmmaker Rajesh Bhatia to his door. Bhatia, who recently made a documentary on the fading popularity of the instrument, says the 90-minute-long film focuses on the few people left who continue to play it. Misra finds screen time in the film because he is among only five Indians who play the rudra veena at an international level. The music from this instrument, says Bhatia, is said to appeal to the divine and carry celestial energy.
It's perhaps to ensure that the legacy of his favourite instrument continues that Misra is taking pains to teach the next generation pro bono. He has four regular students who are training in the rudra veena and in vocal Dhrupad, and are aged between one year and 24. The teaching is wrapped up early morning before Misra sets off to work.
Yet, his career hasn't taken a backseat. Where he has been awarded the Shikhar Samman 2017 by the Madhya Pradesh Government and Swati Tirunal Award by the Dhrupad Mela, he has also learnt programming languages like Java, C# and Python, and developed applications for Android phones including a chatbot for GST using Tensorflow, that answers citizens' queries on new GST laws.
The music—his wife Preeti says the notes from the rudra veena add a positive vibe to the house every morning—has taught Misra the discipline needed to tackle high-pressure situations at work. Post-retirement, Misra hopes to set up a centre for learning of Indian classical instruments, establishing a gurukul in Mumbai and Delhi "where only Indian students will undergo training to play classical instruments". And, just as he has, his students too will learn the manufacturing of the instruments "taking my existing workshop to the next level".
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