REVIEW

Music Review: Vishwa Mohan Bhatt Classics For Pleasure

January 07, 2007
Richard Marcus

I think this review can be added to the list of definitions for the Yiddish word "chutzpah". Considering the fact that this review will not just be posted at Blogcritics and my home site, but will also be posted at a site catering to the on line South Asian community, Desicritics, you could say I have nerve. How many other idiot Westerners do you know that would dare review a disc of Classical Indian Music on a site like Desicritics, especially when they know nothing whatsoever about the music in question?

I only came to this realization after my first listen to Vishwa Mohan Bhatt's forthcoming release Classics For Pleasure on the Sagarika label. Like other North Americans I became familiar with Vishwa Mohan Bhatt after his Grammy winning collaboration with Ry Cooder back in the 1990's. I'd also run across him in the context of being the teacher of Canadian musician Harry Manx who had lived and studied for ten years with Pandit Bhatt.

He's not just known in the West for his associations with the famous, but also for the instrument he created - a specially adapted Hawaiian guitar called the Mohan Veena. He broadened the fret board so that it could include twelve sympathetic strings (ones that resound in response to those being strummed instead of being strummed themselves), three melody strings, and four drone stings to recreate the sound of Indian Classical instruments.

Before he could do that he had to master the primary stringed instruments utilized in Hindustani (the name given to Northern Indian classical music) music: the Sitar, Sarod, and Veena. This he accomplished by spending years studying with the arguably the most internationally renowned Indian musician, Ravi Shankar.
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With his years of training he is accomplished enough with those techniques that he can bring them all into play when he utilizes his Mohan Veena to perform his interpretations of Hindustani music. Playing it like a laptop guitar, flat in his lap in other words instead of parallel to his body and held in his arms, his picking and slide work have astounded audiences the world over with their virtuosity.

Of course none of this gets me any further ahead in my attempts to understand Hindustani music. So I figured if it was good enough for Pandit Bhat it's good enough for me, and I went to Ravi Shankar's web site. Specifically I went to the page where he tries to explain the basics of Indian Classical music in terms that the Western mind can understand. Almost from the moment I started reading I realized I was kidding myself if I expected to be able to learn enough to properly appreciate the music that was being played on Vishwa Mohan Bhatt's disc Classics For Pleasure.

I can only hope what I was able to latch on to will let me talk about the music without embarrassing myself. It's rather ridiculous to even think that I can do justice to this music with only the briefest amount of study. After all I've only ever scratched the surface of Western Classical music even after years of listening and having and understanding of the basic precepts behind its construction.
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I don't think any Western born person who hasn't dedicated years of study to the art of Hindustani has a hope of being able to pick up CD and do more than make general comments on whether they like it or not. Otherwise being able to tell whether a performer is doing justice to a particular piece is simply beyond our comprehension.

So for what it's worth to anyone, my opinion of Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt's disc Classics For Pleasure is that it is simply astounding. Technically speaking the sounds that he is able to generate with his Mohan Veena are absolutely incredible. Having heard Harry Manx incorporate the instrument into his music I thought I had experienced examples of the instrument's power and vitality.

But I don't think anything could have prepared me for Mohan Bhatt's abilities to coax not only sound from the instrument, but to evoke changes in my emotions while listening to his performance. While I did say that all I could do was respond on a basic level to the music, something caught my eye in the titles and descriptions of the three Ragas performed on this CD. (I've noticed that spellings of terms vary dramatically from place to place. I've chosen to use the spellings, for the most part, on the CD's packaging).

It would appear that Mohan Bhatt has deviated from the traditional structure of the Aalaap, followed by the Jod, and evolving into the Gat on all but the first Raga of the CD. But I don't know if that was a decision made by the producing company to just present extracts or whether these were deliberate choices on the part of Pandit Bhatt.

Anyway only on the first Raga are all three elements listed as occurring in the song's credits. This Raga is listed as being called Gaoti and I did find that listening to the progression of sound, until finally the tabla's joined in for the Gat, was a more complete experience than only hearing the Gat segments of the second and third Ragas, Kirwani and Des respectively. I found it especially noticeable after hearing the first Raga and being aware of the role the build up to the Gat plays.

Needless to say these are just minor quibbles and they didn't detract from my over all wonder at the skill on display. It did make me wonder if this were a common practice for Classical recordings these days, just as Western labels will only have parts of a concerto on a single album. I never find those quite as fulfilling as I do complete recordings, so I don't think I was just reading things into the performance based on newly acquired knowledge.

According to the Ravi Shankar's site one of the most important aspects of playing Classical Indian music is the emotional and spiritual bond that the musician develops with the piece. If he or she is cutting out elements that are integral to the piece wouldn't that reduce the chances of being able to develop the rapport needed with the music to complete that bonding?

It appears to me that the first two elements, the Aalaap and the Jod, are the ones which help the artist get "the feel" of a piece, before they cut loose in the Gat to fully explore the themes they've developed. You can't really expect a performer to start in the middle of anything and be completely in tune with what's going on in any media.

Like the man who pleads for mercy after he kills his parents because he is now an orphan, the idea of me reviewing a CD of Hindustani music when I barely know the difference between a Gat and a Jod may seem ludicrous to some. Perhaps it is at that, but I've never let a fear of looking foolish stand in my way before, so I don't see why I should start now.

Vishwa Mohan Bhatt is an incredible performer, and Classics For Pleasure does nothing to detract from that reputation. Whether it's a perfect example of Hindustani music is not something I'm capable of judging, but I understand enough now to wonder how it would sound to those whose knowledge is more extensive then mine. I'd be interested in knowing if the questions I raised are valid or not. Please feel free to make use of the comments section to let me know.

Richard Marcus is a long - haired Canadian iconoclast who writes reviews and opines on the world as he sees it at Leap In The Dark and Blogcritics
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#1
Triniman
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January 8, 2007
09:17 AM

He played the Winnipeg Folk Festival last year and while I missed seeing the show up close, it was clear that the audience was into his performance.

I've also recently become familiar with Harry Manx. Interesting fellow and a fine guitar player.

I find it hard to analyze Indian classical music, not being a musician myself, so I just sit back and enjoy it.

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