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April 04, 1997


"Pop is temporary, classical music is permanent"

Sharmila Taliculam

Vishwa Mohan BhattFusion - that intermingling of Eastern and Western musical instruments and disciplines into a harmonious whole - has been done, and very successfully, by the likes of Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Zakir Hussain and the like.

And at a more popular level, by the composers of our filmi ditties who attempt to merge the electronic instrumentation of Western popular music with the ragas and rhythms of Hindustani and Carnatic music.

With the result that the world over, there has been a resurgence of interest in Indian classical music - a trend that has been taken one step forward by Leslie Lewis and Hariharan, under the umbrella of Colonial Cousins, with their fusion of Carnatic, Rajasthani and Western musical influences with the religious chants of Hinduism.

And adding to the mystique of the duo's first album is the presence, in the supporting star cast of musicians, of India's sole Grammy winner Vishwa Mohan Bhatt who, on the album, plays the instrument he patented himself.

The Mohan Veena, a modified version of the Hawaiian guitar, was the invention that won him the accolade, as contributing to the growth and development of music world-wide. On the phone from his Jaipur residence, Bhatt spoke to Rediff On The NeT about the instrument, the album, and about his own musical aspirations.

Talking of how he came to be associated with Lez and Hari, Bhatt says the whole thing was a coincidence. On a free day, he was walking the streets of London when he bumped into Hariharan, who was in that city for the recording of the album. Bhatt, a Hariharan fan, got talking with the singer and the latter, in turn, extended an invitation to the ace musician to join him. Bhatt had some time free, so he said yes and ended up playing his Mohan Veena on the tracks.

Bhatt hails from a musical family, both father and mother being accomplished singers while his brothers are musicians in their own right. Bhatt himself was interested in instruments from a young age, and developed a special liking for the Hawaiian guitar which he decided to modify to suit the demands of Indian classical music. 14 strings were added to the six already existing, and the Mohan Veena was born.

"For me, the whole thing is part of a mission to promote Indian classical music," says Bhatt.

In 1993 Bhatt, along with a American musician named Ry Cooderm recorded an album called 'A meeting by the river' that ended up not only topping the Billboard charts for a very long time, but also winning the Grammy for the 'World Music' category in 1994.

Vishwa Mohan BhattInterestingly, Bhatt is not as impressed with fusion music as a lot of today's musicians appear to be. He does, however, have a good impression of American musicians. Initially, he says, they tend to enjoy Indian Classical music because they find it different - but in time, they learn to understand the various ragas, and this adds to their enjoyment.

About Indian music, again, Bhatt is not really optimistic, arguing that the pop culture which is today's craze does not have it to sustain interest. In the end, says Bhatt, people will revert to classical music because that is the only thing that has permanence.

Interestingly, though, A R Rehman, the southside whizkid of filmi pop, earns high praise from Bhatt who feels the composer has a good understanding of both Western and Indian classical music. Bhatt recalls how he was asked to play for Mani Rathnam's film Anandam which Rehman has scored. "These (he says, referring to Rehman and other newcomers like him) are musicians who have high regard for others, and give due respect to other forms of music. I find Rehman very innovative, and wouldn't mind doing more films with him."

Respect is, Bhatt says, very essential to him. "We musicians have an ego," he admits. "We are less tolerant of people who don't understand music and who try to tell us how we should be doing it."

Of late, Bhatt has concentrated on concert work, and has even performed in tandem with Chinese folk violinist Jie Bing Chan. A CD has already resulted from their collaboration, and is doing well on the charts. "In future, too, I plan to do many more such concerts, with the aim of promoting Indian classical music traditions."