The Veena is considered as a divine musical instrument according to the Hindu Mythology. It is hailed as the instrument preferred by the Gods themselves. Ancient Hindu relics and sculptures depict the Goddess of Knowledge, Saraswati, the sage Narad and even Lord Shiva as the exponents of the instrument. Veena finds a place in both the Hindustani and Carnatic genres of the Indian classical music. The National Musical Instrument of India is now facing its autumn.
New-age teaching methodologies and the influx of western instruments triggered younger music enthusiasts losing interest in the instrument. While Veena exponents were blaming the technological invasion for the decline, Padma Shri Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt invented the Mohan Veena and the Vishwa Veena, in an effort to revive its place of pride.
“The Mohan Veena and the Vishwa Veena were need of the hour, to re-establish the ancient Veena at the top most level around the world and bring the glory back to Indian classical music and Veena,” asserted Panditji.
Hailing from a musical family, where for almost 300 years the ‘Sadhana’ of music is considered as a religion, his natural tendency towards music was expected. At a time when the Indian youth were pursuing western music, Panditji leaned towards Indian classical music. He invented the Mohan Veena at the age of just seventeen! The Mohan Veena is a highly modified concord arch-top with 19 strings to give different permutations and combinations of sounds.
A disciple of the great Pandit Ravi Shankar, while growing up, Panditji would copy his Guru’s style, mannerism and even his way of playing the Sitar. ‘The God of Sitar’ as he fondly calls his Guru, Panditji feels that it was his fortune that enabled him to have such a great Guru
“Guruji loved me no less than a son and I was perhaps his top favourite. Every moment spent with him is precious for me. I learnt many rare ragas from him,” reminisces Pandit.
He would later go on to emulate his Guru by winning the Grammy award. It was for his album ‘A Meeting by the River’ with Ry Cooder that Panditji won his first Grammy Award for ‘Best World Music Album’.
“The most cherished memory is at the Grammy award in 1994, Beatles Legend George Harrison presented my Grammy to me while my Guruji looked upon with so much love and affection,” said Panditji proudly.
Ry Cooder, an American composer, guitarist and songwriter had heard a recording of Hindustani classical music performed by Panditji and was impressed especially by the Mohan Veena. Cooder and Panditji met for the first time less than one hour before recording began. They improvised much of the set. The album’s liner notes states ‘This recording was unplanned and unrehearsed.’
“No rehearsals, no retakes, no digital mixing, no editing, no effects by computers. This is the purest sound of the Mohan Veena and Ry Cooders guitar. It’s a new path way created by us bringing Indian classical music with Blues,” said Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.
The album is included in Tom Moon’s 2008 book ‘1,000 Recordings to Hear before You Die.’ Apart from this album, Panditji is also credited as the first Indian artiste to collaborate with a Chinese ‘Ehru’ player Jei Bing Chang. The two along with Bela Flek a widely acclaimed Banjo player released ‘Tabula Rasa’, an album which was nominated for the Grammy.
Panditji has been conferred with the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Shri by the Government of India. The Sangeet Natak Akademy award winner considers his son, Salil and grandson Satvik as his prized possessions. Salil has taken from his father and is credited with inventing his own form of Veena known as the ‘Satvik Veena’. Panditji takes Salil as his favourite disciple and even his grandson is learning the Veena.
“We have the Veena trinity in our family,” Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt declared with justified pride.
Coincidently, Satvik is learning to play the Mohan Veena. But didn’t Panditji donate it to Nagaland’s Hum Music Society?
“When I donated my Grammy-winning Mohan Veena, it created mayhem as my best disciple and hot-headed son Salil Bhatt got infuriated and created hell of a storm,” explained Bhatt.
One can understand Salil’s emotional bond with the instrument. Ultimately Panditji had to ask the society to hand back his prized possession. It is this emotional bond within the family that Panditji places higher than anything he has achieved or will achieve still.
The father-son duo has travelled and performed across the globe at some of the biggest music festivals. Panditji has mesmerised his audience at events like the Concert at Madison Square Garden for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, ‘BBC Prom 100 Years’ at the ‘Royal Albert Hall in London, for the 125th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi at the Lincoln Centre in New York and hundreds of others. Ask him which is the most memorable performance, he replies like a doting father would.
“Whenever I see my son, Salil’s performance I see my own image in him so clearly. I am hoping that Satvik comes up soon,” signed off Bhatt.
All we can hope for the ‘Veena Trinity’ to continue playing in the years to come.