The mohan veena is an exotic beast that looks like the offspring of a love affair between a sitar and an electro-acoustic slide guitar. But this handsome veena — “stringed instrument” in Sanskrit — is in fact the brainchild of a remarkable Indian musician who has been seamlessly uniting Western and Eastern traditions for more than three decades: Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.
“There are eight strings on the top: three main ones for the melody, four strings used as drones and a top string called the chikari that’s tuned to the tonic and is struck for rhythmic effect, like on a banjo,” Bhatt explains. “And under the main bridge there are 12 sympathetic strings which provide the resonance of a sitar.” Adding to the hybrid’s curious appearance, there’s a large gourd called a tumba screwed into the back of its neck to bring out the bass notes.
The mohan veena rests in the lap and is played with a slide, Hawaiian-style. Its sound is rich and sensuous; in the hands of a master such as Bhatt, the instrument has the sensitivity and range of the human voice.
A star of world music, Bhatt plays ragas from north India, but he’s best known for his innovative fusion work with artists from other traditions. A Meeting by the River, made with guitarist Ry Cooder earned Bhatt a Grammy in 1994. He has also recorded brilliant albums with dobro ace Jerry Douglas, avant-garde banjo player Bela Fleck and Chinese erhu (two-stringed fiddle) player Jie Bing Chen.
Bhatt is a ninth-generation musician, born and raised in the city of Jaipur, Rajasthan, where he still lives. At an early age, he learned sitar and vocal techniques from his father, a renowned artist and teacher.
When one of his father’s European students left behind a classical guitar, the teenage Bhatt began dreaming of an instrument that would bridge the East-West divide. Then he started experimenting.
“I raised the strings of the guitar and started playing them with a rod in my left hand. Next, I replaced them with those of a sitar. It went on from there, adding the drones, then the sympathetic strings. Eventually, I went to a sitar maker and said ‘This is what I want.’ I was three years developing the instrument and practising before I gave my first concert, in Bombay in 1970, at the age of 18.”
On his current North American tour, Bhatt performs north Indian classical music as well as lighter compositions from his many collaborative projects, accompanied by his eldest son, Salil, and tabla player Ramkumar Mishra.
It seems the apple hasn’t fallen far from the deeply rooted Bhatt tree: Salil is a superb musician who has inherited the urge to create his own instrument.
“He calls it the satvik veena and it’s similar to what I have but is made out of one solid piece of wood, so there are no joints at the neck,” Bhatt explains.
“Also, the tuning pegs are like those of a sitar and not a guitar. He’s been playing it for five years now and it works beautifully with the mohan veena, complementing the sound.
“I am proud to say that the two instruments themselves are like father and son.”