The shape-shifter

Meet Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, who sculpted the Indian avatar of the Hawaiian guitar

Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt with the Mohan Veena.

A sense of magic envelops you the moment Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt takes to the stage and starts performing. As he plays, his Mohan Veena — the instrument that he has himself created — transforms into a charming medium that soothes and enthralls you with its melodious music, transporting you to another plane altogether. “For me, Mohan Veena is a live being, my life-long companion that has been with me from the time I was a young lad,”  says the Grammy-award winner. And that is why, before any concert, he spends a few moments having a tête-à-tête with it. “While checking its saaz, testing all the strings, I ask about its well-being (uska haal-chaal poochta hoon), and apologise if it has experienced any discomfort during travelling,” he smiles. 

And travel is something Bhatt’s appointment book is packed with. Back-to-back concerts across the country and the world keep him so busy that he spends barely three to four days in his home in Jaipur. “I am a sterling example of one who lives out of a suitcase,” says the globe-trotting maestro who was performing in the US a couple of weeks ago and next month, will be touching down in Uncle Sam’s country yet again for a two-week tour of performances in some of its major cities.

Ask him if a few days spent at home are a luxury that he yearns for and he laughs, “Yes, but my children often pull my leg that seeing me around the house is not normal for them.” So now, his wife, Padma, sometimes travels with him. “She often jokes that she has to share space with the ‘other woman’ in my life — my Mohan Veena,” he says with a loud laugh.  

The 68-year-old, who has been enthralling audiences with his musical compositions for close to five decades now, shot to fame in 1967 when he created this famous music instrument. He calls it the Indian avatar, rather the Indianisation of the (Western) Hawaiian guitar with an assimilation of sounds and attributes of the sitar, sarod, sarangi, santoor and veena. “It has 20 strings and took over four years for me to create it,” he says of the instrument that he plays lap-style and christened the Mohan Veena.

Fortunately, all through those years —he was aged around 17 at the time — his parents were supportive. “Actually, we come from a family with a 300-year-old musical lineage. Hence my parents — both classical vocalists — despite wondering whether what I was working on was really worthwhile, somehow felt I was on the right track. ‘Agar kar raha hai to theek hi hoga’, they would say,” smiles Bhatt whose Mohan Veena really became a hit here in India once it became popular in the West.

And besides helping him bag the coveted Grammy for the Best World Music Album in the year 1994 — for ‘A Meeting By the River with Ry Cooder’ ­ — it has also seen him work in Hollywood and apna Bollywood in several films including Lagaan, Saathiya, Dedh Ishqiya and 7 Khoon Maaf.

Trip to the past

Going back to his teenage years, he wonders if he had envisaged the success that the Mohan Veena brought in its wake. “I sometimes wonder what made me do it because I was really too young to think of something so big. But all I remember is that I wanted an instrument that could incorporate the sounds of many of our major string instruments in one. And also one that would give sangat to gayaki,” he recalls.

Dreams backed by vision, passion, and hardwork, more often than not, turn to reality. And in Bhatt’s case, after a four-year effort when he finally played the Mohan Veena in front of his parents, “they were happy and proud that the years I had put into creating it did not go in vain.” And it wasn’t long before the skeptics’ doubts (“Yes, there were many of those around.”) were also laid to rest. But his greatest moment of joy came when the sitar legend, Pt Ravi Shankar, who later became his guru after a ganda-bandhan ceremony, gave his stamp of approval to the Mohan Veena. “The exhilaration I felt that day forms part of some of my most precious memories,” he adds.

Needless to say, the first Mohan Veena that has not just travelled across the world with him but also used in all his early award-winning music, is part of the family heirlooms. But the Bhatts had to almost bid adieu to it when the maestro, as the brand ambassador of Nagaland’s cultural society, donated it to the state’s Hum Music Society. “Although this was done in a bhavuk —­ an emotional moment after a beautiful concert — my family back home wasn’t happy with this decision of mine; sab naraz ho gaye. My son Salil told me that letting it go was like parting with a respected family member,” he remembers.

Peace prevailed when Bhatt explained this situation to people at the Nagaland museum and another Mohan Veena took place of the old one. Adds his son Salil, “There are many memories attached to this particular veena — other than the fact that it was the first one painstakingly created by pitaji, it is also associated with the Grammy that he made the country so proud of. So we felt it should remain only with the family.”

Grammy, what?

Talk of the Grammy and Bhatt remembers how, after the award ceremony in New York, he managed to find a phone to make an overseas call to India (this was in a day and age when mobile phones still had to make their presence felt). “It was late at night here when my mother picked up the phone, and hearing me talk about winning the Grammy, said, ‘Achcha, yeh koi award hai kya?’,” he laughs. By next morning, the media had got wind of it and congratulatory calls kept the landline ringing through the day. “So much so, that my hypertensive mother who had by now realised how big the Grammy was, was so gripped with excitement that she had to be hospitalised for high BP.”

And now, with the Bhatt progeny — Salil is also a veena player in his own right while the younger one, Saurabh, is a sound and recording engineer and produces his father’s music albums — following in his footsteps, the future of his genre of music is in good hands. “Together with them, I have my students all over the world who are also doing their bit to take this legacy forward,” adds the maestro who, after ‘A Meeting By The River’, has worked on numerous other fusion albums including those with Chinese musicians, jazz, blues and Arabian artistes as well. “When you sit and work with musicians from different parts of the world you realise how, despite the geographical distances, you are so close in spirit. And that’s because music binds you together,” he says. 

Sure enough, together with this spirit, a combination of classical, fusion and folk music, is what connoisseurs get a taste of in Bhatt’s musical concerts. “These days, my performances also include ‘Maand’ and the famous ‘Kesariya Balam Padharo Mhare Des’ to give a taste of the rich tradition of Rajasthani folk music to my audiences as well. And they sure love it.”

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