Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Rare Strains

The fascinating life story of how the Sarod metamorphosed into the Mohan Veena in the hands of its maker, Pandit Radhika Mohan Moitra, and re-visiting the times that he lived in...

Arunabha Deb

Pandit Radhika Mohan Moitra didn’t look like an inventor. He looked every bit the zamindar that he was: crisp white dhoti-kurta, jamawar shawl, vain little curls of the moustache. But he was never interested in being a landlord. His grandfather, Lalita Mohan Moitra, patronized the Sarod maestro Ustad Mohammad Amir Khan as a musician in his estate in Rajshahi (now in Bangladesh). Moitra grew up riding pillion on Khan, who had become a member of the household, and even wetted the maestro’s shoulders on multiple occasions. When he was slightly older, presumably with greater control over his bladder, Khan found him tinkering with one of the many Sarods in the house. The maestro sensed an interest in the boy and decided to start teaching him. A historic relationship was forged. Moitra went on to become the foremost representative of the Senia Shahjanpur Gharana and one of the greatest Sarod players of all time. People initially found it difficult to reconcile his blue-blooded lineage with his mastery – music was a leisurely pursuit for zamindars, not a profession– but they were soon forced to accept him as a formidable artiste.

Pandit Radhika Mohan Moitra

Whenever his recitals were broadcasted on All India Radio, Baba Allauddin Khan would call his children, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Annapurna Devi, into the radio room in their Maihar house. Sarod maestro Pandit Buddhadev Das Gupta, Moitra’s greatest disciple, recounts, “Baba would tell them in his East Bengali twang, ‘Do you hear him? He is a zamindar’s son. He doesn’t need to do this for a living. Still, see how crisply his jaba (plectrum) is cutting the strings!’” Baba Allauddin first heard Moitra in 1937, when the latter stood first in the competition organized by the All India Music Conference in Allahabad. Baba was one of the judges and was also scheduled to perform as part of the same festival. He was so impressed with Moitra’s playing that he asked the young zamindar to play alongside him at the recital. This was quite a deviation from the norm. Usually, an artiste is accompanied by his disciple (and never by someone from a different gharana). The memorable Allahabad recital was testament both to Baba’s generosity and to Moitra’s inherent talent.

After Allahabad, Moitra never looked back as a performer. But somewhere within him, remained that curious child who tinkered with the family Sarods. In the mid-forties, after he played a duet on the Sursringar with Veena exponent Ustad Sadiq Ali Khan, he was obsessed with the idea of creating an instrument that could be played using the same techniques of the Sarod but would have the resonance and gravity of the Veena. The Sursringar belongs to the Sarod family, or rather to the Rabab family. The Afghan Rabab is almost unanimously acknowledged to be the origin of the Sarod. (Only the Maihar gharana Sarod player, the late Sharan Rani, had challenged this notion, claiming that the sarod originated in India.) The Sursringar is much larger than the Sarod and requires a different playing technique, essentially because the two instruments are held at different angles. Moitra’s quest was for an instrument that a sarodiya could play with his inherent skills and yet one that could match the tonal richness of a Veena (which the Sursringar, to an extent, did).

He made two principal changes to the Sarod and the effect was miraculous. The resonator of a Sarod (loosely called ‘the drum’) is carved out of a single piece of wood and the hollow semicircle is covered with hide. Moitra decided to cover the hollow with a sheet of wood instead (like in the Veena and the Sursringar). Further, he changed the structure of the bridge, a contraption on the resonator that holds the strings. Instead of a typical Sarod bridge, he placed a Sitar bridge. A Sitar bridge is flat, as opposed to the slightly raised Sarod bridge, and helps produce a richer, fuller sound. This bridge, placed on a wood-surfaced drum, produced a resonance far richer than that of the Sarod. Moitra’s two aims were achieved: a tonal quality closer to that of the Veena and a playing technique similar to that of the Sarod.

He did some peer reviewing and the responses were positive. Thakur Jaidev Singh, eminent musicologist who was at the helm of All India Radio at the time, gave the instrument its name: Mohan Veena, based on Moitra’s middle name. Moitra started performing regularly on the Mohan Veena, including on the National Programme of All India Radio. Those were not the days when Indian classical musicians thought about patents. That he was performing on the radio (the archives still survive and one of the AIR recordings has been released by HMV) and some of his disciples were also playing the instrument were enough to assure Moitra of its posterity.

But ‘Mohan’ is a pretty common middle name. When Vishwa Mohan Bhatt modified the Hawaiian guitar, he too settled for Mohan Veena. Bhatt prospered as a musician at a time when messages were easier to spread. Most listeners today, unfortunately, associate the Mohan Veena only with Bhatt. I had interviewed Bhatt a couple of years ago for another publication and had asked him if he was aware of Moitra’s instrument. He said he was made aware of it much after he had named his guitar, not before. He said that he lived in Jaipur and Moitra in Kolkata, and communication wasn’t quite what it is today. While that is perfectly acceptable, it would be a nice touch for Bhatt to acknowledge this fact somewhere on his website, which has reams on his invention, the Mohan Veena.

Thankfully, the original Mohan Veena is making a bit of a comeback. Two of Moitra’s disciples, Jaydeep Ghosh and Somjit Dasgupta, and Pandit Buddhadev Das Gupta’s son, Bhabanishankar Das Gupta, perform regularly on the instrument now. Das Gupta (junior) has also developed an electric version, where the sound of the instrument is amplified. He insists that he has done this only to achieve greater volume, not to change the tonal quality. (He performed on it in Kolkata last February and his claim is correct.) The three of them will hopefully record and release a few Mohan Veena renditions. If recording companies are being difficult, they should at least flood YouTube. They owe it to a great maestro.

The writer is a freelance journalist

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