Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt (top) and Prasanna
IN September 2012, I had begun a monthly series on Indian musical instruments. The aim was two-fold: one, to make Indian readers aware of certain artistes they might not have heard before, and secondly, to expose relatively new audiences, mainly from the West, to the melodic or rhythmic beauty that various Indian instruments offer.
In this series, I shall not go into too many technicalities and playing styles. I shall focus on how the instrument is used in different genres, and mention the leading performers in each style. However, while I have tried to name all the main musicians, the lists mentioned are by no means exhaustive or complete. In all parts of the series, I shall use a similar format to maintain uniformity, and some portions on the concert structure may be repeated verbatim if needed.
The earlier parts of the series talked about the violin, sitar, bansuri, sarangi, different types of veena, sarod, santoor, shehnai/ nadaswaram and harmonium. This month, we feature Indian adaptations of the guitar.
Just to note, some readers have requested a piece on the tabla, India’s most popular percussion instrument. However, this series aims to complete the melody instruments first, before going on to types of drums. Hence, that wish will be fulfilled sooner than later.
THOUGH Indian classical music is primarily known for the way typically Indian instruments are played, there are quite a few cases when western instruments have been adapted to the Indian style.
Prominent among them is the violin, which we discussed extensively in the first part of this ‘Instruments from India’ series. An adaptation of the western model, it finds very prominent in Carnatic (south Indian classical) music, but is also used in Hindustani (north Indian classical), film music, folk and fusion.
Besides the violin, other western instruments modified or adapted for Indian classical music include the guitar, keyboards, saxophone, cello, mandolin and the African drum djembe. We will focus on the guitar this month, and focus on the other instruments in the next part of this series.
Where it is used: The guitar is used differently in Hindustani music and Carnatic music. In the former, it is played like a slide guitar and in the latter, an electric guitar has been adapted. Minor adaptations in technique have also been found in Indo-fusion music. Besides this, it is played in its natural, unmodified form in film music, popular non-film music and ghazals.
The guitar/ Mohan veena in Hindustani music: Two musicians are known to popularise the guitar in Hindustani classical music ¬— Pandit Brij Bhushan Kabra and Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, with Bhatt improvising on the basic guitar in such a manner that he renamed it the Mohan veena.
Kabra was the first to play classical raags, the melodic modes used in Indian music, on the Hawaiian lap slide guitar. In fact, he had no plans to become a musician, but saw this guitar on a visit to Kolkata. His father let him learn it on the condition that he only played classical and not western music.
Living in Ahmedabad, he studied the instrument by imitating records, and later studying under sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. He modified the guitar by adding sympathetic and drone strings, began to perform in public, and gained huge recognition through the 1967 album Call of the Valley, which also featured santoor maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma and ace flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia. He continued to record solo albums thereafter, even attracting western listeners.
The Mohan veena, created by Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, is actually a highly modified Concord Archtop guitar, consisting of three melody, four drone and 12 sympathetic strings. The melody strings are on the treble side of the neck and the drone strings on the bass side.
Bhatt gained international fame when his fusion album A Meeting By the River with American guitarist Ry Cooder won the Grammy for best world music album in 1994. A disciple of the late sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, he continues to give purely classical concerts both in India and abroad, and has even been featured in the Crossroads Guitar Festival organised by guitar legend Eric Clapton.
Other exponents of the Mohan veena include Debashish Bhattacharya, Satish Khanwalkar, fusion artiste Harry Manx and Bhatt’s sons Salil and Saurabh.
How it is played: In a concert, the instrumentalist sits cross-legged on the floor and places the guitar/ Mohan veena on his lap. The instrument is played like a slide guitar. The rendition usually begins with the presentation of a classical raag. The first piece comprises a three-part movement beginning with the slow alaap, increasing tempo with the jod and reaching an energetic climax with the jhala. Here, there is no tabla accompaniment.
After the alaap-jod-jhala sequence, the instrumentalist plays two or three compositions in the same raag, with tabla accompaniment. These are known as gats or bandishes, and while the artiste demonstrates his skill here, the tabla player also gets certain portions to play brisk passages, much to the audience’s delight.
Once this first raag is over, the guitarist may play another raag, or may play certain light raags, folk tunes or devotional pieces, depending on the time allotted.
Use in Carnatic music: The technique used in Carnatic music is different, as it primarily uses the electric guitar. The instrument was first adapted by Sukumar Prasad, who began giving concerts in the 1970s and is best known for his album Brova Barama, currently out of print. However, in what is generally attributed to resistance from traditional audiences, he suddenly moved out of the scene.
From the 1990s onwards, Prasanna became a well-known name in Carnatic guitar, giving a mix of traditional concerts as well as fusion jams. A student of violinist A Kanyakumari, he is known as the pioneer of a unique style in guitar playing.
In a Carnatic concert, the musician plays traditional pieces written by famous composers. The fare includes compositions like varnams and kritis.
Indo-guitar fusion and popular non-film music: Needless to say, the name that immediately comes to mind when it comes to Indo-guitar fusion is that of John McLaughlin. As a member of the 1970s group Shakti and its later incarnation Remember Shakti, he developed a distinct style rooted in jazz but often using Indian phrases and techniques.
Larry Coryell was another guitarist to prominently play with Indian musicians. He substituted for McLaughlin who wasn’t available on one Shakti tour in the 1980s, and also released the album Moonlight Whispers with flautist Ronu Majumdar.
Among Indian guitarists, Ravi Iyer has innovatively blended Indian and western styles. On his last album ‘Bends’, released as part of his VRavi Guitar Fusion project, he used a Greg Bennett hollow-body single-neck jazz guitar. But more recently, for his fusion concerts, he has got a custom-made double neck guitar designed by Sunil Shinde. Both necks have six strings. The top neck is tuned to play Indian classical scales and raags, and the bottom one is adjusted to play western chords and jazz or blues progressions.
Certain vocal fusion bands also make prominent use of the guitar. In the 1990s, Susmit Sen developed his own style blending jazz and Indian folk for the group Indian Ocean, which he quit recently. Leslie Lewis plays western guitar for the Colonial Cousins, his project with singer Hariharan. Abhishek Mathur of Advaita, Varun Murali of Swarathma and T Praveen Kumar of Agam are some who blend western and Indian influences in their guitar playing.
In Pakistan, Salman Ahmed of Junoon, Mekaal Hasan of the Mekaal Hasan Band, Bilal Maqsood of Strings and Shallum Xavier of Fuzon are among those who matched their western jazz or rock guitar styles with the Sufi or pop sound of their groups.
Use in other forms: As mentioned, the guitar has been played in its natural form in film music and ghazals.
The list of musicians playing in Hindi film music is too long. But some of the prominent names include Ramesh Iyer, Dilip Naik, Bhupinder, Bhanu Gupta and Sunil Kaushik, who all played for music director RD Burman. Today, Ehsaan Noorani of the trio Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and blues guitarist Warren Mendonsa are among those who play in film music.
In ghazals, the guitar has been used from the late 1970s, thanks primarily to the efforts of Jagjit Singh and Pankaj Udhas who had session players performing with them. Pakistani maestro Ghulam Ali also used the guitar in his later albums. Previously, ghazals mainly stuck to traditional instruments like harmonium, sarangi, sitar and tabla.
Chintoo Singh, who is also proficient at the Middle Eastern string instrument rabab, is a well-known guitarist in the ghazal world, having accompanied all the senior maestros. He also plays in film and popular music.
Summing up: For a true taste of Indian styles of guitar, it would be appropriate to check out the way it is played in Hindustani and Carnatic music. Barring the odd exception, the other styles are either loose blends of Indian and western styles, or focus on western technique only.
Recordings of Brij Bhushan Kabra, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Prasanna should suffice to begin with, besides VRavi Guitar Fusion’s albums ‘Bends’. They have a truly Indian feel, and should transport you into another zone.