The third and last master of the Vichitra Veena we present here is the unfortunately very neglected Pandit Ramesh Prem. Recently there was announced a CD by him in the series "Rare Instruments" from ASA Music, but apparently never got published. Here we present an EP published in 1967 and a radio program broadcast on All India Radio in 2000.
Many thanks to KF, who put these recordings from his collection together and made a nice CD out of them.
Saying bye to Vichitra Veena
By Vandana Shukla
It will pain the already agonised hearts of the culturally-conscious that in a country of 90 crore people there are no takers for one of the oldest instruments of the Indian classical tradition — the Vichitra Veena. Of the total number of three Veena players in the whole of northern India, only two survive, both now in the dusk of their lives, witnessing an almost certain extinction of their beloved instrument. Pandit Lal Mani Mishra from BHU died fighting for the cause of the survival of this instrument to get a few students sponsored by the government or some private agency. His son, Gopal Mishra, has been running from pillar to post for many years in vain. Now, it is only Shri Gopal Krishan in Delhi who plays the Veena, sometimes for the AIR and Doordarshan. Ramesh Prem, who hails from Ferozepore, is now settled in Bombay is the other player. He says that in a country where honours come only posthumously, it is futile to expect any kind of recognition for such a non-glamorous effort. The system recognises only a chosen few, who are given awards after awards, even though they have not made any original contribution to the art. Even the media follows the beaten track and people working quietly in small corners remain marginalised.
This, in essence, is the tale of this highly gifted couple who have been fighting to protect the last bastions of a crumbling citadel of traditional music. Ramesh and Geeta Prem are both gifted artistes. He plays the Veena and she sings melodies in the evening of their life. They do not nurture any hopes for the revival of this instrument anymore. At the same time, they say, they have stopped being bitter about the apathy of the system. They have quietly chosen their individual diversions — Geeta feeds and looks after stray dogs on the streets of Bombay and is popularly known as Kutton wali auntie, while Ramesh composes hymns in praise of his guru, Shri Paramhansa Yogananda. His compositions have a deep serenity expressed in the simple language of the heart, like a soothing balm for the troubled heart.
A devotee of Yogoda Satsang Society of India, he travelled from Bombay to Chandigarh to pay his obeisance by playing his Veena on the 47th mahasamadhi day of his beloved guru, whose blessings, he says, have freed him of his agonies. So, if other mortals have not embraced his instrument, it’s fine with him. He knows his master has accepted his music and this very thought gives him peace and solace. With the blessings of the guru there is more music in his life than it was ever before, he says.
Ramesh’s love for music began as a forced diversion. His father, an eminent lawyer who was writing a few books on law, found his noisy children a nuisance. To keep them busy, he arranged for a music teacher and Pandit Shruit Ratan started giving lessons in vocal music to Ramesh and his sister. Ramesh learnt his lessons faster than expected and developed a discerning ear for the intricacies of ragas and different talas, so, in the annual summer sojourns to Nainital, which was a regular feature, a tabla teacher was arranged for him at Nainital. Having learnt tabla, he started playing the sitar and continued playing it for many years.
Then, he listened to Ustad Abdul Aziz Khan, the court musician of Maharaja Patiala, playing the Veena on Lahore radio station. The sound of Veena with its deep resonance pulled him to this instrument like a magnet. He knew this is what he had been wanting to play all the while. He would listen to all the programmes of the ustad, which were quite frequent those days, religiously for about five to six years. It goes to the credit of Ustad Abdul Aziz Khan that Veena was revived in these modern times. Otherwise, it would have died long back. Ramesh moved to Lahore and decided to learn under the tutelage of the ustad. After five years of futile chase for the ustad, Ramesh realised he had to look for some other teacher. At the same time, he did not want to compromise on the choice of his instrument. When he met Mohammed Sharif Khan Poonchwale, son of Khan Sahib Rahim Khan, the court musician of the Maharaja of Kashmir, the ustad told him to pursue sitar, since he found his baaj good on the instrument. But at his insistence, he agreed to teach him playing the Veena. Ramesh learnt playing the Veena in gayaki ang. It was at his insistence that his ustad taught him the meend style of playing theVeena. Then came Partition and he had to leave Lahore, but he brought along his love for Veena.
The desire for further refinement of his art took him to Abdul Walid Khan Kiranewale, who was his sister’s ustad in vocal music. The aesthetic ease and serenity of the Kirana appealed to him, and through his single-minded devotion he learnt playing the Veena in the gayaki ang of the Kirana Gharana. Jawahar Lal Mattoo, another illustrious disciple of Ustad Walid Khan, taught him the intricacies of Layakari, the most difficult and rare patterns of rhythm, like Aad, Kawad, Khand, Rupak, Tipalli, which are often not used by popular performers as they are difficult to master. The audiences also fail to recognise and appreciate the intricacies of traditional gatkari. What they recognise is only faster beats in the Dogun and Chargun style etc. It is for the wizards to enter the arena of intricate gatkari. Prem’s creative mind, not satisfied by mastering the tradition alone, made many innovations in the instrument itself to attain a wider canvas for his musical inspirations.
It takes 10 to 15 years’ single-minded devotion to get familiar with this instrument. Mastery over the instrument takes even longer.
A world ailing with short-sightedness fails to recognise the depth of serenity as well as pitfalls. So, when the winds of change blow, they also remove what is precious and preservable. It is to the credit of the Prems that they have been holding on to this tradition against all odds. Despite policy consolations of Prasar Bharati, there is no system of royalty being offered either by AIR or Doordarshan. Refinement of art often leads to refinement of temperament. Prems feel incapable of making the rounds of the corridors of power for personal gains.
Perhaps, the next generations will get to see this aesthetically designed instrument only through the glass panes in a museum, devoid of its deep resonance, since it is only the touch of deft human hands that makes it reverberate with music.