If you’re a true eastern classical music aficionado, there’s a very strong chance that you might have been following Pundit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt’s journey which stretches over nearly four decades. He is the creator of the Mohan Veena and, according to the international press, he is “The guitar’s Indian avatara” and “The king of slide guitar.”
He has also lent music to various Hollywood and Bollywood films. In this context, his most notable achievement is the Grammy award for his work with Ry Cooder for the film, A Meeting by the River. He forms a joyous combination with son Salil Bhatt, who is the creator of the Satvik Veena and is considered the Prince of Raga. Bhatt Sr can easily be labeled as the ambassador of peace between Pakistan and India, and he aims to bring people closer with the magic of music.
The Pundit was recently in Pakistan to participate in the Tehzeeb Festival when Images on Sunday approached him. Here are excerpts from the interview.
Q. How did you initially start out in classical music?
PVMB: Music has been in the Bhatt family to which I belong for the last 300 years. My whole family has been devoted to Indian classical music and that’s why it is in my blood.
Q. Describe the Mohan Veena for our readers.
PVMB: It is my own creation. It is a modified slide guitar with 20 strings attached which is suitable for playing Indian classical music. I have also added a tumba on the rear side which makes it unique.
Q. How did you come up with the concept?
PVMB: I wanted to create something new and experiment with different types of tones and sounds which could also incorporate the singing style.
Q. What is the future of Mohan Veena?
PVMB: I am quite hopeful as my son, Salil, and other musicians all over the world are following it. The internet and YouTube have truly helped me in the promotion of my music. Musicians now download my music and come up with new recordings constantly.
Q. Do you have a training institute in India?
PVMB: I teach music at my place. However, due to time constraints I can’t set up a large academy. Whoever seeks guidance, I provide it in a gurukul parampara (classical, traditional) manner.
Q. What is your definition of fusion music?
PVMB: It is a great style of music. One utilises talent and virtuosity in a different dimension, and when one performs this fusion with an open mind, one comes up with innovative music no matter what genre of music one belongs to.
Q. You’ve collaborated with various artistes internationally. Do you have such plans in Pakistan?
PVMB: Yes, of course. Sharif Awan of the Tehzeeb Foundation of Pakistan has taken a great step in this direction by arranging a collaborative session with me and Ustad Fateh Ali Khan of the Gwalior Gharana. I think this is the first time that an instrumentalist and a vocalist from India and Pakistan, respectively, are collaborating. I am really looking forward to it. Q. Which other Pakistani artistes would you like to collaborate with?
PVMB: I would love to collaborate with Ustad Rais Khan Sahib and Ghulam Ali Sahib whom we listen to every day. Q. Which of your collaborations has been the most special so far?
PVMB: A Meeting by the River with Ry Cooder for which I won the Grammy award in 1994.
Q. How can music be used to foster peace between Pakistan and India?
PVMB: Music is the best medium through which two hearts can come together because it has no boundaries.
Q. What is the scope of classical music in the subcontinent?
PVMB: We have to admit the bitter truth that we can’t connect to the masses as there are limited followers of classical music in the subcontinent. But the future of the genre is very bright. I think this is the golden era of any kind of music because of the internet, YouTube and the technological revolution.
Q. Any favorite Pakistani artistes?
PVMB: The list is too long. To name a few, Ustad Nazakat Ali, Ustad Fateh Ali, Ustad Amanat Ali, Ustad Amir Khan, Mehdi Hasan Sahib, etc.
Salil Bhatt: India mein toh shaam hi Ghulam Ali ki ghazal se hoti hai! (In India evenings begin with Ghulam Ali’s ghazal).
Q. How has your experience been with film music?
PVMB: My music was a part of four Hollywood films, namely Dead Man Walking, Two Days in the Valley, Meet the Fockers and the most recent, Empty Streets (done online).
In Bollywood, I lent music for Bavandar and the forthcoming Shilpa Shetty film, The Desire.
Q. What are future your plans?
PVMB: I plan to propagate Indian music to every nook and corner of the world. There are also a few collaborations in the pipeline with jazz musicians.
Q. What message would you like to convey to upcoming classical musicians?
PVMB: I would like them to be patient. They have to embark on a long journey to fame because success has no shortcuts. Their honesty and hard work will eventually pay them handsome dividends.
Q. What message would you like to convey to your fans in Pakistan?
PVMB: I have heard that there are many Indian classical music fans in Pakistan. I am very excited to perform in front of them.
Q. (To Salil) How do you feel being in Pakistan?
SB: It’s a great feeling. It’s our first visit to Pakistan and the love we have received hasn’t made us feel like we’re away from home. We are your next-door neighbours. We have been loving and worshipping classical musicians such as Ustad Nazakat Salamat Ali, Ustad Amanat Ali for years. I believe musicians don’t belong to any country; they belong to the people.
Q. What is the Satvik Veena?
SB: This is my own creation. The Veena has no language. It can connect to every singer and musician.