Indian Classical Guitar: An Introduction and Review of Two DVDs

By: Mike Oppenheim

google-earth-indiaIn the West, many people are familiar with two features of North Indian music: the broad array of timbres and rhythmic complexity of the tabla, the accompanying percussion instrument, and the otherworldy sound of the sitar, characterized by its massive string bends, incessant drones, and the resonance of sympathetic strings. In terms of performers, most Westerners know of the late Pandit Ravi Shankar, and some are familiar with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, a sarod player renowned for teaching vast numbers of American students at the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music in the San Francisco Bay Area.

With the preponderance of plucked string instruments, the centrality of improvisation, and the value placed on virtuosity, it seems that many guitar players become fascinated by Indian classical music, especially the playing of Ravi Shankar. However, very few musicians are aware of the Indian classical guitar, frequently referred to as the Mohan Veena, as played by artists such as Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya.

Aurally, the Indian classical guitar, played with a metal bar as a slide, doesn’t register as a guitar to the unsuspecting ear. Visually, it is a stunning instrument, played seated cross-legged on the floor, having as many as 22 strings, often with ornate decorations and inlays, but looking for all the world like a regular archtop guitar. Where did this instrument come from, what does it sound like, how is it played, what’s the story behind it? These questions are all answered in two videos available through Vestapol Videos: The Instrumental Artistry of Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Hindustani Slide: Indian Classical Guitar by Debashish Bhattacharya.

About Indian Classical Music

Before reviewing these two outstanding DVDs, I’ll provide a very brief introduction to some of the central concepts of Indian classical music. First, there are two major styles of Indian classical music: North Indian (Hindustani), and South Indian (Carnatic). Both DVDs reviewed here belong to the Hindustani tradition, as does the music of Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. Hindustani music attained something approximating its modern form about 400 years ago as the music of the royal courts.

Both Hindustani and Carnatic music use ragas (also spelled raags) as the melodic basis for composition and improvisation. One raga is played for the duration of an entire piece, which may consist of five or more sections and often lasts for more than one hour. Each raga has a set tonic note that remains constant. The raga consists of between five and seven notes total, much like the familiar concept of scale. However, each raga has particular and essential rules and grammars that define it as a unique musical entity. There are specific patterns of ascent and descent (aroha/avaroha), particular notes of emphasis (vadi and samvadi), characteristic phrases (pakad), appropriate ornaments (gamak), intonations (sruti), and melodic movements and phrases that are to be avoided. Ragas also carry extra-musical meaning, such as associations with certain emotions, seasons, and times of day.

There are generally five sections to an instrumental performance of Hindustani music. A performance begins with a lengthy, meterless alap, in which the performer slowly explores each note individually and as it relates to every other note within the grammar of the raga. This exploration of the raga begins in the lower register of the instrument, gradually expanding into the higher octaves. The alap eventually gives way to the regularly pulsed jod, a faster exploration of the note relationships and characteristic phrases of the raga. Often, this introductory section of the performance will culminate in a virtuosic display known as the jhala. The jhala is set at a very fast tempo, emphasizing virtuosic runs through the raga and showcasing the tremendous embellishments, shakes, and glissandi characteristic of the music. Alap, jod, and jhala are all performed by an unaccompanied melodic instrumentalist.

The gat is the performance of a composed melody with the accompaniment of the tabla. These compositions often date back 100 or more years, and are passed down from teacher to student through generations of a musical lineage. There are three tempos of gat: vilambit, madhya, and drut, meaning slow, medium, and fast, respectively. The tabla provides the rhythmic accompaniment, or tala, which are often complex rhythmic cycles commonly consisting of five, seven, ten, twelve, or sixteen beats. The soloist performs the composed melody, interspersing his own improvised variations, or taan. The taan tend to be either rhythmically complex or very fast, and the performer must always return to the composition at the appropriate part in the tala.

About the DVDs

Though fascinating, Indian music is often so complex as to be inaccessible to Western audiences. However, as a unique musical system, there is much that any performer can learn by listening to Hindustani music. This is especially true for jazz performers, where the value of improvisation is of unrivaled important. The Indian classical guitar is also a unique inspiration for guitarists of all interests. The approach to music, especially the embellishment and ornamentations, are transferable to guitar in any genre, whether played with a slide or fretted. I recommend both of the following DVDs as inspiring examples of both Hindustani classical music and extraordinary guitar playing.

VishwaMohanBhattVishwa Mohan Bhatt – The Instrumental Artistry of Vishwa Mohan Bhatt (Vestapol, 2006)

The Instrumental Artistry of Vishwa Mohan Bhatt is a great introduction to Hindustani music and especially to the Indian classical guitar. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt made many of the modifications to the guitar that eventually became standard features of Indian classical guitar, hence the common reference to the instrument as the “Mohan Veena.” Bhatt is an accomplished classical musician, having studied under Pandit Ravi Shankar, but he is also known for his crossover and fusion albums with Western artists such as Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, and Bela Fleck.

This DVD features Bhatt playing four ragas in various genres of Hindustani classical music. The selections are interspersed with spoken sections providing background information on Hindustani classical music, Bhatt’s familial musical lineage, the development of the Indian classical guitar, and specific information about the ragas performed.

The first performance is a forty-minute rendition of the majestic night raga, Yaman. The first track is a twenty-minute selection featuring Bhatt unaccompanied. The first fifteen minutes is the alap, which he explores slowly, building the phrases from low to high, hinting at the characteristic phrases of the raga and exploring its contours with extraordinary meends (glissandi). At 15:40 there is the beginning of a pulsed section, the jod. Moving into the higher ranges, Bhatt concludes this unaccompanied section with a brief jhala, beginning at 19:00.

Continuing with raga Yaman, Bhatt is joined by the tabla player Sukhvinder Singh Namadhari. Bhatt introduces the melody of the gat, improvising extensively in his glissando-heavy style, interacting with Singh throughout. At 18:00 both performers begin their virtuosic and exciting jhala, concluding the performance of raga Yaman.

The remaining performances explore ragas Tilak Kamod, Sarang, and Kirwani in much briefer genres of light classical music. The performance of Raga Kirwani is a dhun based on a Rajasthani folk melody. Tilak Kamod and Sarang are shown through brief gats, with the requisite improvisation.

Bhatt reveals some very interesting facts about his personal style and the development of the instrument in his commentary. He speaks of the importance of maintaining a lyrical musical style based on vocal music traditions. He describes the sound he was aiming to achieve in his modifications to the guitar, ultimately to combine three Indian classical instruments — the sitar, the sarod, and the veena — into one. He also demonstrates his picking and slide technique, the tuning of his instrument, and the basic exercises he gives to his own students.

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Debashish Bhattacharya – Hindustani Slide: The Indian Classical Guitar (Vestapol, 2006)

DebashishBhattacharyaHindustani Slide: The Indian Classical Guitar is a video recording of Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya and the tabla virtuoso Pandi Kumar Bose performing live in Calcutta in 1994. Much like Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Bhattacharya is an accomplished Indian classical musician, having studied under Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty and Pandit Brij Bushan Kabra. He has also experimented with Western performers, most notably John McLaughlin and Bob Brozman. Bhattacharya independently developed the three and four string slide guitars of his teachers into an instrument with six melody strings, plus sympathetic and drone strings, much like that popularized by Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.

This DVD features performances of three ragas, one in full classical style, one in a light classical style, and one as a dhun based on the folk music of Rajasthan. The footage is high quality, providing revealing shots of Bhattacharya’s playing technique, as well as the interactions between the soloist and his tabla accompanist.

The actual order of the video is not as it appeared in concert. Traditionally, a long, full exposition of a raga is performed first, followed by lighter pieces. This DVD begins with the dhun in raga Kirwani, based on Rajasthani folk music. There is extensive use of guitaristic devices such as natural harmonics, open string trills, and double stops. Bhattacharya’s use of these techniques stands in strong contrast to the lyrical and glissando-based playing of Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.

The second raga performed is the morning raga Gujari Todi, associated with the emotions of tragic love. Bhattacharya performs a short alap before moving onto the gat, which is set to a twelve-beat tala.

The conclusion of the DVD is a 63-minute rendition of the romantic raga Charukeshi. Bhattacharya slowly explores the lower ranges of the raga, progressing one note at a time, examining each interval in turn. At 15:00, the jor begins, still emphasizing the lower ranges, and gradually giving way to the four-minute jhala that concludes the unaccompanied part of the performance. At 24:00, the vilambit gat is introduced and extensively explored through his improvisations. Any musician can appreciate Bhattacharya’s exquisite use of motivic development, rhythmic motifs, deft shifts between ranges, navigation of passages of wide intervals, and perfect timing in returning to the composition from his improvisatory explorations. At 46:00 a drut gat commences, in which the higher range of the instrument is thoroughly exploited. Finally, at 52:00, Bhattacharya begins an epic twelve-minute jhala, a showcase of his virtuosity and innovative techniques, including double stops, glissandi, and open string pedal points.

In addition to being an outstanding musical performance, Hindustani Slide: Indian Classical Guitar is accompanied by a fifteen-page booklet, written by Mark Humphrey. The booklet provides extensive background information on the evolution of the Indian classical guitar, the history of guitar in India, and the biography of Debashish Bhattacharya. There is also a very informative account of the performance, providing details about the ragas, talas, and guitar tunings.

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About Mike Oppenheim – Multi-instrumentalist, Mike Oppenheim, lives in Thailand, and plays guitar, banjo, mandolin and Mohan Veena (Indian Classical Guitar). While earning his degree in music at Kenyon College, he joined the Indonesian Gamelan ensemble. He interned for the Calliope Society of Folk Music in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Mike also apprenticed in guitar building under luthier, Bob Zatzman. He moved to Canada to earn a masters degree in Ethnomusicology at the University of British Columbia, where he performed with the UBC African Drum and Dance Ensemble and the UBC Capoeira Angola group. Mike teaches on-line guitar lessons and can be reached at: or through his website: Mike Oppenheim Music.


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