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Unfortunately classical music audience is decreasing: Grammy award winner Pt Vishwa Mohan Bhatt

By Priti Prakash | PUBLISHED: 31, Oct 2014, 17:42 pm IST | UPDATED: 03, Nov 2014, 17:14 pm IST

Unfortunately classical music audience is decreasing: Grammy award winner Pt Vishwa Mohan Bhatt Excerpts from an interview with Pt Vishwa Mohan Bhatt by Priti Prakash

Q. How do you define your kind of music?

I hail from the traditional classical music which is hundreds of years old. Like in others fields in music too, we have to keep innovating and growing everyday. I have been playing for the last 50 yrs now and feel that I still have to learn more. Contribution of each artist is very important. I am carrying out this old tradition of 5000 yrs Sainiya gharana, which descended from Tansen and his descendents and disciples. I belong to that lineage of musicians. My gharana is called Maihar gharana. Pt Ravishankarji was my guru who was from Sainiya gharana, who was the disciple of Baba Allaudin Khan Saab of Maihar. Maihar is a small village in MP from where it got its name.

Mohan Veena is my innovation. I modified the guitar in such a way to make it suitable for playing Indian classical music. It integrates Indian instruments like sitar, sarod, veena. Mohan Veena’s special feature is its ‘Sympathetic Strings’ which are called ‘Tarab’ or ‘Tarab ke taar’ which work as resonators. They resonate even when the vibrations are not the same and even without striking them. I tune it according to the notes I use in the raag and if they are correctly tuned they vibrate automatically which enhances the sound giving it a lingering effect. That is why they are called ‘Sympathetic Strings’. This is on the physics principle of vibration frequency. I have done the same thing with the guitar so it is called Mohan Veena.

There are 20 strings in all in my Mohan Veena. Original guitar has 6 strings but I removed all the 6 strings and also designed the shape –arch top, F cut, big body, thin wood, big fingerboard to adjust all the 20 strings. I started working on its ‘Indianisation’ or improvisation in 1966.

Q. How many years did it take. What was your age then?

I started performing in 1960. It took me 4 yrs to master that. I was 15 that time.

Q. Do you sing along also or just play instrumental?

I play Mohan Veena. But sometime I sing also going with the latest trend. I demonstrate how taan is sung and how I play. Same nuances of vocal are there in my instrument. This instrument has the facility to sustain sound ie in one stroke u can play many notes, otherwise in a stroking instrument the sound breaks and you have to strike the chord again but in this instrument I tried how in 1 stroke we can play 24 strokes notes sustaining the sound, so that all notes come in one stroke and that is its speciality. It is close to singing style, we call it gayaki. Then there is Tantrakari. Tantrakari are the technical ‘bols’ of sitar, sarod  and percussion. ‘Tantrakari ang’ means instrumental style. It is a combination of Gayaki ang and Tantrakari and bol. It is a fine combination of 2 styles. Music creativity is also very important, how rich is musicians imagination, his experience, his knowledge of Raag, the question of maintaining the purity of music. A real artist does not just play for clappings of the audience.

Q. Do you relate music to philosophy?

Our music is supposed to be spiritual in nature, meditative and good for purification of heart, body and soul. The musician should be himself satisfied  first. An artist should avoid repetition. Repetition becomes boring. If we talk about a particular song, say ‘Sheila ke jawani’ was a very big hit, but after a few months people get bored because how many times can one listen to the same song on every channel or radio. So now Sunny Leone has taken Sheila’s place. Her song ‘Baby Doll’ was a hit and now we are waiting for something else.

Its all good music but the moment something becomes repetitive it becomes boring. In classical music too there is nothing fixed. There is always a scope of lot of improvisation. I cannot repeat what I sang because what came to my mind was instantaneous, and so was novel. 10-15 % part is fixed or composed but otherwise 85 % is created when we perform on stage or when we practice, reaaz and this is what makes our music very interesting, even for me and for other musician. Its like a clean slate in front of you, what you will write you don’t know, its a clean canvas, what you are going to paint you don’t know.

Q. When you perform does it come spontaneously or as a premeditated piece?

While performing the artist gradually comes into mood. These are things that make an artist of that stature-his knowledge, his talent and the gift of god. Music is divine. Very few people are blessed with it. Why is it that in 125 crores there are only a few whom you can count on fingers only. Only few reach the top. You find plenty of doctors, scientists..but there are not very many musicians.

Q. What do you think about reality shows?

Reality shows are good in a way because it is a platform for upcoming talent.  But music is something that is there within you. You have to learn from a guru but till you don’t have it in yourself it is difficult.

Q. How and when did the inspiration of making Mohan Veena came in?

I am innovative by nature, keep experimenting, making improvisation. When this instrument came to me for the first time I thought of doing something with it.

Q. What was the reaction when you brought it out first. Did it become known instantly?

First programme was in 1970 when I played in Bombay where it was very well received by everybody including critics, the audience, the musicians. TOI  wrote ‘18 yr old artist steals limelight. It’s a wonderful invention and he will go very far’. Coincidently somebody from HMV company was there who offered that we would like to record me the next day itself and called me to his studio. They said they will release our record. So I was very lucky that I got that opportunity and that too at a very young age. My HMV record came out that used to be a dream of budding musician.  It was a prestigious thing that came my way. It was a good beginning.

Q. Tell us about your childhood, your influences.

My father played harmonium, tanpura, tabla. He used to teach vocal as well. My mother also taught music. My brother Shashi Mohanji played Sitar, another brother Ravi Mohanji played violin. So the atmosphere at home was all of music. The chowk used to be the centre of our house where everybody’s music would be resonating. That is why I would say that music flows into my body. I found everybody inspiring me, my brothers, sister Manjuben, played sitar. My father would try something new at midnight on his harmonium, he would compose and write. I would watch him so involved and engrossed in his work. That is what inspired and motivated me so much and that is how my interest developed in music. Finally Pandit Ravi Shankarji was my inspiration.

Q. What kind of student were you in school? Any prank you played a child?

I did not have any formal education as I never went to a school or college. I studied at home. I did BA Hons. I did not like school, found those 6 hrs in school a waste of time. I realised that what they taught in school in 6 hrs I could do in an hour by myself.  So I decided to appear as a private candidate for my graduation. I devoted most of my time to music. I was not exposed to the environment of school so I would say I did not face the competition that generally children are into. In a way that made me concentrate on my music solely without any outside influence. We earlier lived in Bhatt gali in Chura rasta, a haveli that was given to us by the Maharaja.

I was a very serious sober boy. No mischief.

Q. Indian music has evolved over all these years, given birth to fusion music. It’s the effect of global influence. Your take.

I don’t find it bad, because one has to grow, have new dimensions, without losing your originality and its purity. If you are doing it, its fine. But when you create fusion music you have to fuse with other music, you have to make some compromises to your music, that is true. But why should we consider it bad? We are utilising our skills, using our knowledge in a different dimension. So then we should not look at it as pure music or a mixed one. Because this is not classical music why should we expect a musician who is doing fusion to stick to his classical form. Everyone is experimenting with music today.

Q. Legendry artists like Lataji do not like this kind of music.

Every artist is not same. But Ashaji, with RD Burman in her life sang all kinds of songs. They were revolutionary songs.  Doing fusion with another artist of international stature will be different music. The musicians from outside do not know Indian classical. It is jugalbandi with other music for him.

Q. Do you appreciate the new school of music? What about creative difference with other artist.

You have to mould your music according to the suitability of the other artist. The originality does not get marred. It is utilised in a different manner.  Music remains music. It is like knowing two three languages. I know hindi and I am talking in English also. My person hasn’t changed. I am still Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. My originality will always be there. Fusion is the same. You are using your knowledge and changing your style a little for whatever to make it suitable for playing. It is classical but you have to have a little style to change it into that kind of genre of the music you combine with. Its enjoyable as it does not repeat itself.

Q. Have you faced any competition, any adverse criticism in life?

I am quite lucky that I did not have to face too much because I was like my own ace. I am the only one playing this instrument. My style is different and instrument too.
Everyone is criticised but I have never faced any adverse criticism directly. No one has ever said anything to me nor have I heard it from others. I have been rather told that so much wonderful work has been done on this instrument.

If we talk of Karnataka music Mr Srinivasan expired recently. It was a very big loss. He played Karnataka music on such a small instrument, mandolin. Mandolin is supposed to be a western instrument. He was a child prodigy. He could play with John Maclonel. John must be 70 yrs now , one of the top guitar players of the world. He bowed before Srinivasan and said, ‘Now I know what real music is’. He was tremendously influenced by Indian music. So that is innovative mind, creativity. Srinivasan also had faced criticism in the beginning because in South India there are many kinds of music and a strict culture. They are traditional and orthodox at the same time. To establish oneself in that environment is difficult. There are some artists who leave their indelible mark, we remember them.

Q. How was your journey to the global stage?

I got Grammy in 1994. We recorded in 1992 when I was on a tour of America. This recording company approached me. Ry Cooder was a very famous guitar player and wanted to get this recording done with fusion music. That was my first recording, in Los Angles near Santa Barbara, recording company wanted this recordist Kavi Alexander who wanted to have a unique recording. They wanted original sound of any instrument that is why he choose me. As mine was an original sound.. a cow stick sound, something unplugged so we recorded in a church as the ambiance and a natural echo of the sound and  reverberations. He did not want to use any machine or computer to produce the sound. So that is how we got Grammy.

Q. Did you expect Grammy for it.

No, never thought of it. Later on it picked up so well, it was on Bill Board Chart in top for 40 weeks. It was like no 3, no 4, no 5, no 9, no 10 but it remained there for 1 yr, which was a revolutionary thing in the world. Its distribution started all over the world after the Grammy. People became curious to know about it. Since that day I have performed in 81 countries.

Q. Which all international artists have you worked with?

Ry Cooder was first, Bela Fleck..American Banjo player, Jerry Douglas, resonator guitar player, Simon Shahin an Arabian Oud player…Arabian nights, Chinese music, Blue Grass, jazz, country music of US.

Q. Who are your favourite artists?

John Mclaughlin, guitar player. I love his music. Lady Gaga, Calin Dan’s voice, Britney Spears, Spice girls, Rihanna, Madona, They want to throw music, make it powerful, Madona possesses my ‘Meeting by the River’ at home. For contemporary Indian artists I am fond of old Ustad Amir Khan Saheb, Bade Gulam Ali saab, Rashid Khan, Kaushiki Chakravorty. They are 2 very highly talented young musicians. In Bollywood, Shreya Ghoshal is versatile, Sunidhi Chauhan can modulate beautifully, Sonu Nigam has immense talent.

I played with AR Rehman, performed in Malaysia, Singapore. Renowned singer Hariharan has sung in my composition in albums in a latest album of mine named ‘Ghazal’. Another album named ‘Khamoshiyan’ composed by my son Saurabh has Hariharan, Mahalaxmi from south singing my compositions. It was released 6 months back.  

Hollywood actor Richard Gere came to India and surprisingly specially to Jaipur to meet me.

Q. How do you intend propagating your instrument?

The younger generation is eager to learn good music. They come to me to learn. My students learn through You Tube, through my recorded lectures, through my videos. They also learn how to sit, what posture, how to handle the instrument, job of various fingers and thumb, still rod, how to make swar, do riyaz. I give lessons through my music video on Mohan Veena and how to play Mohan Veena. There are more international students with me.

Q. Has technology been detrimental to your music or has promoted it?

It is both ways. It is beneficial because you are known globally. My album was released by Times music. It can be searched in seconds on the net and played. As I talked to someone in the US he searched Khamoshiyan on the computer, downloaded it and there my music was on the screen. He had downloaded the whole album by paying money. The song Kolaveri D became viral on net. Sorry to say there was nothing in the song. Then youngsters love Yo Yo Honey Singh too.

Actually companies are not interested in such shows. Music companies are now vanishing. Media can play a big role. Online media too is very effective. Music is online these days, CD’s have become defunct, they keep lying in the shelves. Nobody buys them. Music industry has completely changed.  

Q. Do you agree that todays generation does not appreciate real music neither do they understand it.

In today’s world ‘jo hit hai voh fit hai’. The definition of accha music is its popularity, the quality is compromised.

Q. So do you think the worth of people like you is diminishing?  Your audience has shrinked to very limited.

I agree. We who play and sing classical music have stopped expecting because the definition of our music is different. Ours is not popular music, a layman who likes music for momentary pleasure does not understand classical music.  How many of them hear music for peace to their mind and heart.

There are very few people who understand real music. Audience is decreasing. It’s a challenge and difficult to survive as there is no promotion, no marketing, no glamour, no media, no money, no venues like Taj Mahal. Indian artists have never performed there. We don’t have infrastructure. Organisers too call Bollywood artists.

Q. Your sons are into music too. How much of a help are you in promoting them?

They are doing on their own. They are not dependent on me. Saalil plays Mohan Veena and has performed in many countries. He is popular in India. Saalil will make one day.  My younger son Saurabh is a sound engineer too, doing very well for himself.  He is self made. I taught him music. He plays and sings also. He has sung with Shreya Ghoshal, Sonu Nigam. He assisted me in all my albums, composed their music.

Q. Does social networking help music?

It is very important. You Tube is popular. People connect You Tube with TV. In Sydney I choose to eat Indian food with some Indian family. ‘I have most of your collections’, he said. All my performance  are on net, my fusion, solo’s, classical, rajasthani with langas, Rajasthani folk music. I play Kesaria Balam, mand in every performance of mine.

All music is good , but Rajasthani music is one of the richest. Recently Bollywood has taken ‘Dholna’, ‘Engine ke seeti mein maro man dole’…

Facebook is a good medium, you and your activities are known, people have come to know that I have just performed in US and come back and also about my programmes.

Q. Have you changed anything that you learnt from Ravi Shankarji?

My instrument is different, his different. I am more self made…I became his disciple as I had to gain knowledge of music, and music in its purest form from an expert. I realised that he was the one who could teach me the purity of traditional classical music and its raags. I was already performing when I met him. From him I learnt the right music and its nuances. We would meet anywhere. Inspite of similarities between two raags there are minute difference which I learnt from him, like for instance twins.  

Q. What response do you get from international audience?

They respond at the end, after the show they give standing ovation if they like it. Most of them understand Indian classical music. They always purchase tickets.  Only people who understand music will buy a 100 dollars ticket for a show. The house is always full. I have performed in Madison Square Garden, Albert hall, Singapore. The response has been tremendous.

Q. How do you keep yourself fit?

I am 64 yrs. Its music that keeps me fit. I eat everything. It is the strength of music. Music is in my mind.

Q. How does your family contribute to your music?

My wife is a very big motivating factor . She is a homemaker. My 2 sons are into music too. Saalil plays Mohan Veena and Saurabh is a composer of his own make.