I was brought up in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, in the west of India. I was lucky to be born into a family of musicians – music runs in the blood. From the beginning, I heard the sound of music coming from all parts of our large home. My mother, father, brothers and sisters used to play or sing. So, since childhood, the nuances of Indian classical music went into my ears.
I began with vocal music – singing – and started playing the sitar, the famous Indian instrument, when I was 10 years old. In India, there’s a different musical education system. You don’t attend a music school, instead it’s all about your relationship with a particular teacher.
My brother was a disciple of the famous sitar maestro Ravi Shankar. He was a family friend and we had a close connection with him. I studied with him as well, later in my career.
When I was 15, a lady from Germany arrived with a guitar in her hand, to learn Indian music from my father. It was the first time a guitar had entered our home. When she left, we bought the guitar from her. I started experimenting and modifying it.
It was my dream to create an instrument with the versatility to produce the sounds of many traditional Indian musical instruments. To do this, I applied the principles of physics. I removed the guitar strings and replaced them with 20 strings that are usually used for the sitar and the veena (another traditional Indian instrument).
It’s designed so that some strings act as resonators – their notes keep ringing after you’ve stopped playing, creating an echo that adds depth to the sound. I also raised the strings and added a tumba – a carved gourd – to the back of the guitar that enhances the bass notes and makes it easier to hold the instrument on my lap while I’m sitting cross-legged.
As well as sounding like different instruments, it can also make sounds that are close to the human singing voice. I called this new guitar the Mohan veena, because Mohan is my middle name.
Most members of my family are orthodox and want everyone to stick to their roots and traditions. When I started experimenting on a Western guitar, my family said, “What are you doing? Are you going away from our traditions?” I said, “I’m not changing the music. It’s still authentic, only the medium is different.”
My mother always encouraged me, though. She said, “I see your confidence when you sit with your instrument. Keep going and after 25 years of practice and hard work you will rule this music world.”
She was my pillar of strength. She gave me so much love. That’s why I promised I would be with her until her last breath. She lived until she was 93 and I kept my promise. Musicians often move to big cities like Delhi or Mumbai or London or New York. But I will never leave Jaipur.
My first public concert was in Bombay in 1970, when I was 20 years old. I got a very good response from the newspapers. The Times of India wrote that I stole the limelight. It took time to establish myself. There isn’t as much scope in classical music as there is in popular and film music but, as time passed, my popularity grew.
After some years, I started touring the United States, giving concerts. In 1992, I was approached by the head of an American record label called Water Lily Acoustics, which specialises in “unplugged” music made with traditional instruments. He proposed making an album with the American guitarist Ry Cooder.
The recording took place in a church in Santa Barbara, California. We started work at midnight, to make sure there were no disturbances. Ry Cooder played blues guitar and I played the Mohan veena.
Usually, Western musicians write the music as a score. Indian musicians don’t rehearse – we improvise spontaneously. When we started playing, the composition A Meeting by the River immediately came to my mind.
We recorded the whole album – which was named after that piece – in just one take, with no editing. The album won a Grammy. It was one of the most memorable moments of my life when I received the award in New York.
One time, Hollywood actor Richard Gere came to Jaipur and I received a call from his hotel. He was asking to meet me. I had no idea who he was. The person at the hotel explained and then put him on the line. I offered to go to the hotel but he said, “I would rather come to your home.”
He came to my house and he brought his guitar. We sat down and we played together.
Indian classical music is not for the masses. It is liked by select people who are mature enough to understand it. Those people who love Indian classical music know that it is connected to spirituality and meditation.
Unfortunately, most people want short, entertainment music – they link music with dancing and visuals.
I’m involved with an organisation in India called Spic Macay – the Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth. They do a great job sending classical musicians into schools, colleges and universities to promote traditional Indian music to the younger generation. Artists like me cooperate with them and don’t charge fees.
I play at least 18 concerts each month and have performed in more than 80 countries. I spend much of my life on a plane. I travel with my guitar – it’s like my wife!
My audiences are mostly Indian, but last time I played in Hong Kong there were only five Indians – the audience was almost all local people. I perform solo or with a tabla player.
My older son is also a professional performing artist and sometimes we perform together, but people tend to compare us, so playing solo is generally better.
Vishwa Mohan Bhatt was in Hong Kong in February to perform at the India by the Bay festival.