Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt bridges the Eastern and Western traditions of music on the mohan veena, which he himself designed. The world is his stage.
In Thiruvananthapuram for a series of performances conducted under the aegis of the SPIC-MACAY, Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt on the mohan veena left the audience spellbound with the versatility on display. Music, to this maestro, is the “language of God for the benefit of humankind.” Winner of the Grammy Award (1994) with Ry Cooder, for the music album, ‘Meeting by the River’, he was honoured with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1998 and the Padma Shri in 2002. Collaborating successfully with musicians from the West, Pandit Vishwa Mohan has taken the mohan veena to larger audiences across continents but remains tethered to the Indian classical music tradition.
The mohan veena is your brainchild. What prompted you to design the instrument?
Well, the mohan veena was the result of a strongly felt need for an instrument that would incorporate the sound and technique of the guitar, the sitar, the sarangi and the veena. I consider it as closest to the sarangi, since the mohan veena also has the same sustained note. In the sympathetic note, the affinity is to the sitar, for the base note the likeness is to the sarod. Use all strings, then it gets closer to the santoor, and in the sliding, you have the veena. I was looking for a ‘thantrakari’ instrument where the combinations in the jhala for the crescendo part could use the ‘chikari’ string. Kolkata, being home to musical instruments, I get the mohan veena made there.
As a shishya of the legendary Pandit Ravi Shankar how did he impact your grooming?
My eldest brother trained under Pandit Ravi Shankar. I grew up seeing this. He was the ideal. Apart from music, his discipline, punctuality, planning and crystal clear vision had made its lasting impression on me. I had started playing in the Seventies after training within the family’s music tradition, which has an unbroken history of 300 years. It was only in 1983 that I came under the influence of Panditji.
Moving with ease between the distinct worlds of music from the East and the West, how do you manage to strike a balance and appeal to both worlds?
Once you know the music it is easy to trace a common point where both worlds meet. Every music is based on some raga and all you need to do is, identify the scale, then any Indian musician can work wonders. I do not find difficulty in engaging with other musical traditions. Only 10 per cent of my life is devoted to an A.R. Rahman, Eric Clapton or a Vishal Bharadwaj. Interestingly, it is the 10 per cent that brought me the Grammy Award.
Film music is not my cup of tea, although, most recently I have done the music for The Desire a film directed by R. Sharath from Kerala and produced by Shilpa Shetty. A few years ago Bawandar, a Jagmohan Mundhra film, earned the National Award for the music, which was my contribution. Ultimately, my dedication is to our heritage, and therefore to the traditional classical music.
Like everything else in present times, music is embracing technology to attain a flawless quality. How do you approach this change?
Technology has its advantages. You get perfect sound. At the click of the mouse we gain access to all kinds of music by artistes of early times. Whenever I get time I go to YouTube to listen to recordings of the Fifties and Sixties. Now it is possible for me to hear Yo-Yo Ma too. But for technology, this incredible reach would not have been possible.
For my concerts I have turned to technology because when you are playing before a 75,000 strong crowd, technology is important. I learnt this when I played at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival. The sound was not audible to many. After I started using the equaliser and the echo unit, things started working out. Often, there is an accent problem when trying to communicate with the person at the controls. Now I rely on manual support for neutral sound, and even in the worst scenario where the sound system is bad, I can extract the best out of it.
What advice do you have for the new age music aspirant?
While all cultures have features worth emulating, the young should try to learn, adopt, respect and be proud of what our culture has to offer. Spare at least half an hour from the hour day to be with the eldest in the family to learn the virtues of patience and sanskaar from them.