Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt is a noted slide guitarist. A pioneer in the field of Indian classical music and the creator of Mohan Veena, he is a Padma Shri and has also won a Grammy Award (1994) for his famous album, A Meeting by the River. Having worked with famous musicians such as Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, Jerry Douglas and Matt Malley, and having toured almost the entire globe, he is no less than a legend today. The Scholars’ Avenue got a chance to interact with him after his breathtaking performance at Kalidas during Spring Fest.
TSA: Sir, first the Grammy, then the Padma Shree. How has the journey been like?
PVMB: It has been very satisfying of course. I am very happy. But then, a musician doesn’t work to win awards. We do our duties with humility and honesty and whatever awards we win are due to God’s grace. Occasional recognition is definitely an encouragement. Awards like Grammys are well known internationally and they do go a long way in popularizing your music.
TSA: You have had the opportunity to work with various western musicians like Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal and Jerry Douglas to name a few. You have successfully managed to bring out albums in collaboration with them. Your award winning album was with Ry Cooder. How was your chemistry with them given their sense of music being a tad different from ours?
PVMB: The chemistry was excellent, and working with them was a new experience. I have some really pleasant memories. (pauses) The association depends largely on the musician’s skill and talent. While working with them, we do change our music but the soul and the purity of the tunes, hallmarks of Indian music, are never lost. And Indian classical music system having every scale mathematically possible definitely helps. This flexibility allows us to easily catch their tunes.
I like experimenting with different genres of music and meeting new people. I recently worked with jazz pianist Glen Charles. We made our album, Groove Caravan, in Edmonton, Canada. Also, last year, my album with Matt Malley (Oscar, Golden Globe and Grammy nominee), Sleepless Nights, released and it’s been getting good reviews. So yes, journey’s been wonderful.
TSA: You have been touring extensively. Any experiences you would like to share?
PVMB: Yes, I do get to tour a lot and have had an opportunity to visit 41 countries till now. (pause) I remember the first time I recorded with Ry Cooder. We only had the night to do the recordings. I had a flight from LA to New York at 6 in the morning. We were recording inside a church to make use of the natural reverb inside the cavernous hall. I managed to have a composition ready in mind in 10 minutes. The entire recording was completely impromptu. I had my Mohan Veena, and I was amazed to see Cooder working with 6 guitars simultaneously. We recorded the entire night and finished at 5:00 am and made 4 compositions in the process. Those went on to release in the form of the album, A Meeting by the River, which stayed on the Billboard charts for over 40 weeks.
There was one more interesting experience, with a Chinese lady, Jiebing Chen. At that time, she didn’t know English and I had no idea about Chinese. So I was, without doubt, hesitant initially. However, the seven musical notes are universal. That is more than enough to come together and make music.
TSA: Tell us more about the Mohan Veena.
PVMB: The Mohan Veena is basically a modified guitar. It has an arched body instead of a flat one. It consists of twenty strings out of which about twelve are sympathetic strings – they work as resonators. When tuned correctly, these start vibrating when a note is played on one of the main strings. I also added athumba at the left end. Since it no longer resembled a guitar in appearance and construction, somebody suggested that I change its name- so I christened it Mohan Veena after my middle name in 1967.
TSA: What, according to you, are the most important qualities required to learn music?
PVMB: The student needs to have some aptitude for music. Discipline and a sense of responsibility are also important. They also have to be prepared for any possibility- just being talented doesn’t mean you’ll be successful. Nevertheless, they must work hard. You should do your Karma and leave the rest to God.
TSA: Thanks a lot for sparing time for us.
PVMB: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure