I first heard Vishwa Mohan Bhatt at a Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth (SPIC MACAY) event in his hometown, Jaipur, in early 2002. His pure, delicate, yet fiery music—Bhatt often describes his playing as “aggressive”—immediately caught my attention, and is something that sets him apart from his more introspective contemporaries.
The Grammy Award winner is the best-known exponent of the Mohan veena, an instrument that he himself developed. Born into an illustrious family of musicians from Rajasthan—both parents were noted vocalists and music teachers—Bhatt grew up listening to morning ragas like Bhairav, Ramkali, Kalingada, Asawari, Jaunpuri, and Lalit. He started his musical training with his brothers, Shashi Mohan Bhatt and Ravi Mohan Bhatt, from whom he learned vocal music and violin.
During the learning stage, Bhatt regularly heard the great classical musicians Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Amir Khan, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, and Pandit Nikhil Banerjee. Further, he would copy the way Pandit Ravi Shankar walked, talked, and played the sitar. Little did Bhatt know that he would later go on to become Shankar’s disciple! Surprisingly, Bhatt never received formal music training in his formative years. Even the Mohan veena was an accidental development.
The turning point in his life came in 1968 when Bhatt was a fifteen-year-old boy learning the sitar at his father Manmohan Bhatt’s music school. It was here that he met a German girl who had a Spanish guitar. When he first saw the guitar, he was motivated by a desire to create a unique sound and technique of his own that would integrate various traditional instruments. Fascinated by the idea, he bought the guitar from the girl before she left India.
Bhatt then patiently experimented with the instrument, removed its six strings, and incorporated new strings to suit the needs of Indian classical music. What eventually emerged was a highly modified concord arc-top guitar—an Indian version of the Hawaiian slide guitar designed to play Indian classical music—which he started playing lap-style.
The Mohan veena has nineteen strings, which include three melody strings, four drone strings, and twelve supporting or sympathetic strings. The instrument has a carved, spruced-up top, mahogany back and sides, and a flat, fretless rosewood fingerboard. Sound is produced by sliding a steel rod on the strings. It’s an amalgamation of sound and techniques of traditional Indian instruments like the vichitra veena, sitar, sarod, santoor, and sarangi, all in one.
At the age of twenty, Bhatt embarked on a professional concert career. At first, promoters were wary of him and his off-beat music. However, after his debut appearance in Mumbai received good reviews, the oddity of his instrument began to work in his favor. Immediately after his first concert, HMV approached him to record.
He has now been playing the instrument for almost half a century and has performed in more than eighty countries. I spoke to him recently about his unique style of music and the journey of collaboration with various Western artists.
Neha Kirpal (Rail): You have successfully Indianized the Western Hawaiian guitar by changing its design and shape. The percussive sound that the Mohan veena creates is part-Indian, part-Western. Would you say that it is closer to the Indian style or the Western? Talk to us a little about this baaj (unique style of music) of yours.
Vishwa Mohan Bhatt: The age-old traditional veena is the mother of all stringed instruments. The one-stringed veena is called the Ektaar veena, the hundred-stringed veena is called the Shata Tantri veena, and the forty-stringed veena is called the Swar veena—which becomes a harp if held vertically. The violin, which has four strings, is originally known as the Dhanush veena. The original name of the guitar (six-stringed veena) is the Kashyap veena.
I created the Mohan veena to bring back this glory of the veena. The versatile instrument has a variety of sounds, and it can convey the deeper elements of music as well as join beautifully with other instruments and streams of music. Thus, it is highly capable of rendering Indian classical music, blues, jazz, folk, and world music. At the same time, its greatest advantage over traditional Indian instruments like the sitar, sarod, and veena is its natural ability to play and incorporate traditional Indian styles like the Tantrakari Ang and the Gayaki Ang.
Thus, my music is based largely on ex tempore creativity, and every raga at every concert is played like a new one. The phrases and patterns are all weaved as per my imagination at that point in time.
Rail: You are known for your fusion and pan-cultural collaborations with various Western artists such as Béla Fleck and Jerry Douglas. You appeared in the Crossroads Guitar Festival (2004) organized by Eric Clapton, and also released a duet with guitarist Kapil Srivastava for the composition Merry Love Rain (2016). Folk musician Harry Manx, who studied with you and your son for five years, plays the Mohan veena. Counting Crows’ bassist Matt Malley is your student and friend and also plays the Mohan veena. Australian musician Lawrie Minson also learned the Mohan veena from you and your son. Tell us a little about this concept of collaboration between Hindustani alap [the improvised introduction to a raga] and Western classical, and how easy or difficult the process of merging the two is.
Bhatt: When we play Indian classical, it is systematic and complete, with every kind of movement—fast and slow. When we combine with someone in another style, it is quite something else. In all music systems, there are the same seven [diatonic] musical notes, and almost the same rhythms. Music has no religion and no geographic or linguistic barrier. It speaks a universal language.
The collaboration between Indian and Western classical music (especially instrumental) started with Pandit Ravi Shankar. I too wanted to create a bridge between the two, so I researched the possibility of bringing both genres together. The unique character of Indian classical music allows free-flowing and ex tempore creativity, while Western music is pre-composed. It’s most interesting when these two entirely different categories come together to complement each other. It’s totally improvised music where I say things in my language and they respond in theirs.
For instance, I played with the erhu, a two-stringed bowed Chinese instrument. I also played with the oud, an Arabic pear-shaped stringed instrument—as well as with the Afro-American jazz artist Taj Mahal, with whom I released the album Mumtaz Mahal.
Rail: A Meeting by the River, your collaborative album with Ry Cooder, won the Grammy Award for Best World Music Album at the thirty-sixth Grammy Awards (1994). The album, which uses improvisation and voice-like phrasing, contains four tracks. While “Longing” has a structure similar to a raga, you contribute elaborate squiggling asides and swooping nosedives to the hymn “Isa Lei.” Focusing specifically on blues and bluegrass, what are the similarities in idiomatic improvisation across Hindustani classical music, blues, and bluegrass? What are the contrasts between them?
Bhatt: Blues or bluegrass is a bit like Indian folk/traditional music with fixed compositions. The feeling of the compositions and the essential bhaav (expression) of the music all match ours. The styles might be very diverse, but I have discovered technical pathways to bring each of these different varieties under one umbrella. The process I use is to first discover the scale of their songs and then start improvising and collaborating.
For example, I composed A Meeting by the River after listening to some of Cooder’s music that was similar to the scale I used. Then he played a tune which is closer to my music—the composition “Longing” is close to our raga Nat Bhairavi. So I played that, but not in the purely classical way, because when you combine with someone you cannot play your own traditional music; it is so different. So, I changed and combined with him. Sometimes, that can make it easier to improvise. The next composition, “Ganges Delta Blues” is closer to raga Dhani (the pentatonic blues scale). I suggested to him to play something in this scale and then allow me to see what I can do with it. That’s how we did it: recording, composing, recording.