Sound of change as Pt. Debashish Bhattacharya introduces Pushpa Veena to the world

Striking a chord: Pandit Debashis Bhattacharya with Pushpa Veena  

The India International Guitar Festival 2019 arrived with a punch-line: ‘Launch of Pushpa Veena’. One wondered why another veena (string instrument) when this category of Indian instruments already offers numerous varieties since ancient era. The inventor is a celebrated Indian slide guitar maestro Debashish Bhattacharya who is known for his inventive streak - having modified three different Indian versions of the traditional Hawaiian guitar, fuelled by his close association and musical collaborations with internationally acclaimed artistes, instrument makers and his own drawing skills. What drove him to another ‘invention’! But the glittering presence of star musicians on stage and on the giant screen – discussing merits of Pushpa Veena, followed by a brief recital by Bhattacharya on his latest creation, made its official launch at Kolkata’s Birla Sabhagar rather thought provoking.

Indian tradition

The eternal quest for going beyond the specified boundaries has spurred many to reinvent art and its expression. Indian mythology and philosophy prove that going solo according to one’s own beliefs, imagination and needs is the only way to salvation and it leads to 'change' which is constant. Even the Indian concept of ‘dharma’ is not beyond this natural phenomenon of ‘change’ and reforms itself afresh in every era. The whole concept of Indian music is born out of devotion, inspired by Nature, and is hailed as the ‘highest art’ and ‘highest worship’ in which daivi (divine) Gaatra-Veena (human body) plays the most important role because it represents the macro-cosmic music of the universe at the micro-cosmic level. A variety of Maanushi Veena (man-made instruments) strives, down the ages, to imbibe its features.

Scriptures defined that ‘Geetam Vaadyam cha Nrittam trayam Sangeetem ucchyate’ (vocal, instrumental and dance, this trio is called music). Among them ‘Geet’ was numero uno, followed by vaadya (instruments) and nritta (pure dance sans abhinaya) – all of which were the main components of Natya (drama) which aimed at invoking blessings of the deities along with educating and transforming the common people. While geet relied heavily on the linguistic expressions of lyrics and nritta on expressions of face and body, vaadya – a derivative of the root ‘vada’ (to speak), was also meant to speak in its own language, albeit all Indian instruments were made to accompany vocals.

This melodic philosophy became the foundation of Bharat Muni’s Natyashastra (200 BCE) which recognised four categories of instruments: stringed (Tata-Vitata), brass or wood (Ghana), wind (Sushir) and skin (Aanaddha).

Albeit the chronological order of the origin of all these instruments is not known, the resonator of every veena, including that of tambura is called tumba even now. It is made out of the gourd shell in North India. Carnatic musicians use wood-carved tambura. This instrument came to be known as tanpura later, simply because this is capable of giving rise to a pure, rich series of harmonics for a longer period than any other string instrument. This act of stretching (taan) became its identity and also of music; because the lingering, sustained notes – a la vocal – evoke peace and spirituality – the core of Indian classicism.

Instrumental music constantly strived to achieve this sustenance through additions/modifications on different instruments. Skin, essentially used on ancient percussion, treated with layers of chemicals (as seen on the pakhawaj and tabla) produced impressive resonance. Flute (wind instrument) went through a sea change when Pt. Pannalal Ghosh introduced the long bamboo flute with additional holes that facilitated his meditative music to delve deep in the depths of lower octave.

All the ancient stringed instruments including tata (plucked or struck) and vitata (bowed) were known as different varieties of veena. Many, such as vipanchi, kacchapi, kinnari belonging to the lost tradition display their past glory in temple sculptures only. Mattakokila has won the recognition of Myanmar, once a part of greater India. Ekatantri or one-string Veena, relegated to the Oraon folk traditions only, is breathing somehow. However, the tradition of Rudra-veena, Shatatantri-veena (a kind of santoor), Saraswati-veena, Vichitra-veena is still in practice; but all of these are continuously evolving with the needs of changing times.

Ustad Bahauddin Dagar

Ustad Bahauddin Dagar  

According to Ustad Bahauddin Dagar, “Rudra-Veena is a highly demanding instrument and guides me to reinvent its features. It travelled down from the meditative ambiance of temples to regal courts and later to concert stage to face masses. Under the circumstances experiments with its features are natural to give voice to my cherished musicality which still eludes me.” Though it is hard to believe that this torch-bearer of one of the oldest Indian musical lineage is constantly modifying his revered instrument, his latest Kolkata concert proved that he is trying to incorporate modern sensibilities by adding double-note harmony in raga renditions.

New dimensions

Abhay Rustum Sopori

Abhay Rustum Sopori  

“Keeping the tradition intact, one keeps looking for new dimensions,” reasons out the young Santoor maestro Abhay Sopori who displayed amazing note-sustenance recently. “When Papa (Pandit Bhajan Sopori) started playing, he was given a small 25-bridge santoor, each bridge having four strings that covered one-and-a-half octaves only. Initially, he modified it into three-octaves. Later, when his concept of meend crystallised, two and a half octaves more were added along with a sarod-like metal tumba which helped balance the middle octave,” explains Abhay. The senior Sopori also changed the string set up of every bridge; added chikari and tarab strings. The latter enhanced the beauty of meends.

“For vocalised tarana we incorporated bols which were not used in the Sufiana tradition. Till my arrival on the scene, santoor used to have its own bridge. I replaced them with the ones used for tanpura to increase its note-sustenance and changed the structure according to my requirements by clubbing different instruments’ techniques. Now I can sustain any note to my heart’s content; of course microphone plays a very important role in this,” adds Abhay


In the medieval era, several West Asian instruments arrived in India when invaders and traders began to settle down along with their culture. Their sehtaar, rabab, and taus looked similar to fretted veenas, unfretted Kacchapi veena and bowed ravanhattha respectively; and later emerged as sitar, sarod and sarangi – in that order and became an integral part of Indian music. Pandit Radhika Mohan Maitra’s inventive genius inspired him to merge the melodic features of sitar and sarod and create new instruments which would give him the sweet tone of sitar and meend, gamak of sarod.

Niladri Sen

Niladri Sen  

Niladri Sen, a learned musician, says, “Radhubabu had shaped a deep-toned dilbahar with sarod’s skin-clad tabli (drum) and sitar’s long fretted neck while his Mohan-veena has sitar’s wooden drum and sarod’s metal-plated neck that sings out in the mellow tone of a sitar.”

Sitar legend Ustad Vilayat Khan, who was a fantastic vocalist and whose musical vision was immensely inspired by khayal, changed his sitar’s physical dimensions. As usual, he too wished to sing his chosen genre through his sitar. But while doing so he realised that on a plucked instrument one has to keep striking the string to sustain the sound which was too distracting for him. To eradicate this barrier, he increased the thickness of the tabli (on which the bridge rests holding the strings), narrowed the width of the daand (stem), reduced the number of strings and changed the string-arrangements from the traditional shadaj-pancham to gandhar-pancham. These modifications enabled him to play meends covering five notes without plucking. This changed the entire panorama of instrumental music in which microphones played a vital role.

During the British rule, Army bands arrived with a clutch of Western instruments along with the violin and mandolin. Guitar caught the fancy of Bengalis when young Hawaiian musician Tau Moe landed in Calcutta in 1931 with his troupe. Ironically, Moe is considered as the father of Indian slide guitar, which is very different from the original one which introduced the technique of slide. A plethora of newly invented versions of slide guitar arrived, led by Hansveena (by Pandit Ravi Shankar) and a trio by Bhattacharya.

“I tried to get four different hues from my first invention Chaturagui, replete with tarab and chikari strings, which are not a part of Hawaiian guitar. It is capable now of imbibing the entire gamut of ‘Chaumukha’ Indian vocalism. My Anandi is a chirpy version of guitar more akin to mandolin. My Gandharvi is uniquely designed without the tarab strings while several pairs of strings of the same gauge, length and pitch offer amazing ethereal effect,” says Bhattacharya, before explaining the nuances of his latest invention (see box).

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2021 6:21:48 AM |

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