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Indian with a Twist

Vishwa Mohan Bhatt has recorded with Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal

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A musical meeting of two cultures helped expose slide guitarist Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and his instrument, the mohan veena, to a Western audience. A subsequent recording of two different schools of music brought Bhatt's forward-leaning Indian classical music to these shores. "We started recording within half hour of pulling out our instruments," recalls Bhatt, who made the improvisational "east meets west" recording A Meeting by The River with Ry Cooder (the Rolling Stones, Buena Vista Social Club) in 1994. The album, with Cooder on bottleneck slide guitar and Bhatt on his own creation (the mohan veena) brought Bhatt critical praise in the West.

A Meeting by the River was recorded live in a chapel in Santa Barbara, Calif. "It was a completely natural, acoustic sound, with no equalization," Bhatt says. The record won the Grammy for world music that year.

The mohan veena is a modified arch-top acoustic guitar played in the lap. It is based on the more traditional vichitra veena, which is like a sitar but played more like a lap-steel.

"I made the instrument because I was looking for a new sound, which could be very expressive, sort of like the human voice," Bhatt explains, adding that the mohan veena impersonates vocal nuances, known in Hindustani music as gayaki ang, or singing style.

Bhatt brings his new twist on Hindustani music to Barnes Recital Hall on the campus of Winthrop University Sunday. He performs his tradional Indian music with acclaimed tabla player Subhen Chatterjee.

There are two schools of Indian classical music, Carnatic (South Indian) and Hindustani (North Indian). Bhatt is a proponent of the latter style, which is what you hear from musicians such as the sitar player Ravi Shankar. Bhatt also plays Carnatic ragas in Hindustani style when the mood suits the occasion.

He studied sitar with the great Pandit Shankar, but Bhatt also comes from a long musical lineage.

"It's a 300-year tradition as I learned from my father, who learned from his father and both my sons are established musicians and composers. I made the first mohan veena in 1967 and then had a sitar player add the sympathetic strings and it turned into a real instrument. My favorite is one made in 1980, it has the most pure and natural sound of any instrument I've ever played. I use that one mostly in performances. It is loud at times and tender at times, imitating ras and bhav, the mood and emotions, of a human."

Bhatt favors the sustaining vibrations unfurled by his creation.

"I like to sustain the sound as much as possible," he says. The mohan veena is more suitable for this kind of nuance, which imitates the human voice and its subtleties.

Bhatt is based in the city of Jaipur in the state of Rajasthan in western India, where he also teaches the instrument when not on tour.

"I just want to spread Indian classical music. And musicians in the West are very curious about my instrument," he says. "Music flows in your blood, there are only a handful of true musicians who can play well."

Bhatt's numerous works and meditative compositions are imbued with subtle hues of different ragas. Whether on an uplifting morning raga or a resplendent evening raga, Bhatt's skill lies in invoking the mood with a non-traditional instrument. The mohan veena's atmospheric twang appeases even the most hard-nosed traditionalists.

It was Bhatt's expressive interpretation of Hindustani music combined with Cooder's laid-back blues that made A Meeting by the River such a masterwork.

Since then, Bhatt has recorded with Taj Mahal, Bela Fleck, Arabian Oudh player Simon Shaheen, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer and others. Bhatt continues his own musical heritage, but has broken new ground and helped expand and evolve Hindustani music.

Indian Performing Arts Association of Charlotte presents the duo at 4pm this Sunday, May 15. Tickets are $15-$50. Details, log onto http://ipaac.tripod.com or send email: ipaac2000@yahoo.com. For further details on the mohan veena go to www.mohanveena.com.

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