In several parts of the world, musicians got the idea of sliding a smooth firm object along the fingerboard of a stringed instrument. In Hawaii, the object was a metal bar. In Mississippi, it was a bottleneck. And on the Hindustani vichitra veena, it was a glass egg smoothed with olive oil. These instruments are able to do one thing that no fretted instrument can do: travel up and down in pitch without having to mark any distinct notes along the way. Among Blues, Rock, and Hawaiian slide players, this stepless continuum is used for maximum dramatic effect. Often they will slide a fifth or an octave in a single stroke, and sometimes they use those uniquely African-American vibratos and quarter tones that are also found in gospel and blues vocals. But all of these techniques are very different from the ornaments and phrasing of Indian music, for whom sruti are at least as important as the scale notes themselves.
Indian music has many other instruments with this kind of freedom to slide over the scale notes: The sarod, with its fretless fingerboard, and the bowed instruments, the sarangi and the chandrasaran. Even the violin acquires that freedom when it is played Indian style, for the hands can travel all over the fingerboard when the violin is held between the chin and the knee. The goal of all of these technical innovations is to imitate the freedom of the Indian vocalist, who varies his pitch, volume, and tone in so many different ways that harmony seems to be an unnecessary frill. When Indian classical musicians heard the Western slide guitar, a few visionaries were inspired to take on the challenge of using this Western instrument to play classical Indian sruti. And conversely, when Western World music promoters heard about the sliding tones of North Indian vichitra veena master Gopal Shankar Misra, it was natural for them to think of introducing him to Western fans of slide guitar.
Misra had just toured with Indo-popmeister Ananda Shankar, which is probably why he caught the attention of Real World Records. Unfortunately Misra died of a heart attack just before this album was released, at the age of 43. Perhaps his death will romanticize him to western Indophiles, or perhaps it will cause his record company to cut back on promotion because there can be no follow-up album. But whether this album successfully crosses over or not, it has far more substance than any of the gaudy pop pastiches that brought Ananda Shankar his fame. Misra devotes almost all of this album to a detailed and nuance interpretation of Darbari Kanra, perhaps the most challenging and subtle of all ragas. Because the rules governing the sruti of Darbari Kanra are both strict and complex, there is little here that sounds radically different from a sitarist’s interpretation of that raga. There is more sustain than a sitar, and a focus on a range that is a bit lower. But because the vichitra veena has the special bridges which give it a sitar-like tone, the slides sound like sitar meend (bends). There are also almost none of the wide slides that are often mentioned in the textbook descriptions of the vichitra veena. Perhaps this is because they would not be appropriate for the beautiful and dignified mood of this particular raga.
Mohan Bhatt was not the first person to play Indian classical music on the guitar, although he is the best known in the West. When his album with American slide guitarist Ry Cooder won a Grammy, it became easy to forget that slide guitarist Brij Bhusan Kabra had already been written up in Guitar Player magazine, and that his Call of the Valley album had been the top selling classical recording in India. There is no denying, however, that Bhatt made major changes in his instrument to adapt it to playing ragas, so much so that he now calls his instrument a Mohan Veena. This change in name, however, has not stopped it from capturing the imagination of American slide guitar enthusiasts, whose fascination with their favorite instrument is expressed by numerous web sites, magazines, conferences, and record compilations. And by meeting these enthusiasts on their home territory Bhatt has managed to reach an audience that otherwise would never have listened to Indian classical music.
In his new video, Bhatt both describes and demonstrates his many innovations. He begins with a detailed description of the form of a Hindustani raga, clear enough to help almost anyone deepen their appreciation. He then performs, masterfully accompanied by tabla great Sukvinder Singh, and the performance is well captured by both sound engineers and cameramen. The camera work is active enough to simulate where the eye would normally go in a live concert, without the MTV busyness that plagues most musical documentaries. The main focus is the performers’ hands, (both tabla and guitar) with just enough cuts back to the whole scene to give a sense of a live performance. Bhatt’s playing is exciting and imaginative, balancing melodic simplicity and technical complexity. And between each of the four performances on the video, he explains both his unique customizations and distinctive practicing techniques, which make it easier to appreciate the nuances of his artistry.
In a recent interview, Bhatt was asked to compare his instrument to the vichitra veena. “The vichitra veena is a sliding instrument with two fingers, whereas the Mohan veena has the advantage of using the thumb to play the chikare,” he said. “Also the length of Mohan veena is shorter than a veena, hence the Mohan veena achieves higher speed.” This is probably why there are so many more of the long dramatic slides in Bhatt’s playing than in Misras, as well as complicated scale steps which do not come easily to either instrument. Arguably this makes Bhatt sound a bit more like a Western blues player than does Misra. But Bhatt’s other numerous innovations make his playing undeniably Indian—the sa pa sa pa tuning in the melody strings, the addition of resonating strings, and of chikare strings with sitar bridges. Due to Bhatt’s growing popularity among American guitarists, there may be more similarity between his and their playing in the future—but only because they are trying to sound like him.
Teed Rockwell is president of the Multicultural Music Fellowship. He has studied classical Indian music for 15 years at the Ali Akbar College of Music and privately with Habib Khan and the Salamat Ali Khan family.