It’s an improbable story: A Hawaiian guitarist ventures to India and ignites a craze for lap steel. Indian
filmmakers and composers embrace Hawaiian guitar and incorporate its keening sound into their
Bollywood productions. A few enterprising young musicians take note of the lap steel’s melodic expressiveness
and begin modifying archtop acoustics with sympathetic and plucked drone strings, making
them suitable for playing ragas— the melodic patterns and modes in traditional Indian compositions. Soon
these hot-rod guitars are accepted as legitimate instruments for performing Indian classical music, and a new
breed of virtuosos emerge to write yet another chapter of the guitar’s unpredictable evolution.
All this and much more actually happened, but if you’ve never heard the music spawned by this cross-cultural
collision, you’re not alone. Most Western guitarists are unaware of their Indian lap-slide counterparts and
the vibrant sounds they create.
In the next few pages, we’ll explore what is now known as Indian classical guitar, or Hindustani slide, and
learn how the tradition continues to unfold today. We’ll hear from several leading exponents of the genre and
discover what albums played pivotal roles in its development. And, of course, we’ll gaze at the mind-boggling
guitars that are at the heart of this music.
The father of the mohan veena lap slide guitar, Vishwa Mohan
Bhatt (above), studied with the great sitarist, Ravi Shankar.
Inset: Photo courtesy of Lars Jacobsen, Rain City Music
From Oahu to Calcutta
Like so many developments in the guitar’s history—
and this includes flamenco, Delta blues,
and even rock ’n’ roll—the genesis of Indian
slide is shrouded in mystery. Key figures in this
movement offer different interpretations of its
birth and who was the first to modify a guitar
for playing ragas.
But this much we know: It began with
Tau Moe (pronounced mo-ay), the Hawaiian
hero of our saga who first performed in India
in the late 1920s and ultimately settled in
Calcutta from 1941 to 1947. During this time,
Moe and his family performed and taught
Hawaiian music, and built and sold steel guitars.
Many Indians—listeners and musicians
alike—became entranced with the sound of
steel guitar. Initially, these fans were attracted to
the novelty of Hawaiian songs, but by the early
’60s, steel guitar had become a familiar sound
within Indian popular music—and this remains
true today, especially in film soundtracks.
Brij Bhushan Kabra was one of the Indian
musicians who heard the steel’s siren call, but his
vision went beyond adapting Hawaiian sounds to
popular music. Instead, he saw the instrument’s
potential for playing ragas. To pursue this dream,
Kabra began studying with Ali Akbar Khan,
whose fretless sarod offered a sonic example for
Kabra to emulate with his lap-slide guitar. Kabra’s
instrument was a Gibson Super 400, modified
with a drone string and a high nut to raise the
strings off the fretboard like a lap steel. Seated on
the floor in the traditional style of Indian musicians,
Kabra played his guitar horizontally, using
a fingerstyle plucking technique and a bar to
contact the strings. His approach set the standard
for virtually all Indian slide guitarists.
In 1967, Kabra recorded a groundbreaking
album, Call of the Valley. Also featuring
Shivkumar Sharma on santoor, an ancient hammered
dulcimer, and Hariprasad Chaurasia
playing a bamboo transverse flute called the
bansuri, the album was a hit not only in India,
but also with the Woodstock generation who was discovering
Hindustani music through sitarist Ravi Shankar. Perhaps the first
studio recording of Hindustani slide guitar, Call of the Valley is essential
listening for anyone exploring this music. Next Kabra released
Two Raga Moods on Guitar, and though now out of print, this LP
confirmed his status as the father of the genre.
Barun Kumar Pal is pictured here with his hansa veena, a lap-slide instrument with a sitar-like
body that he developed with Ravi Shankar.
Following in Kabra’s footsteps, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt (aka VM
Bhatt) modified his archtop to such a great degree that the instrument
became known as the mohan veena. “I conceived the mohan
veena about 45 years ago,” says Bhatt. “I crafted it by modifying a
stunning guitar my sister brought to India from West Germany.”
Bhatt configured his guitar with three melody strings for playing
with a slide bar and added four plucked chikari drone strings and
12 tarab (or taraf) sympathetic strings, which vibrate and buzz like
a sitar. And that’s not surprising: Bhatt studied with Ravi Shankar
and is now a senior figure in this lineage. Through Bhatt’s concerts
and recordings, the mohan veena has become the de facto standard
for playing ragas on guitar.
In 1992, Bhatt joined Ry Cooder in the studio,
and the two created a spellbinding fusion of
Hindustani slide and bottleneck blues. Released in
’93, A Meeting by the River remains one of the most
artistically successful world music collaborations ever
and another landmark in the history of Indian slide
guitar. “Blues attracted me, as it is very close to my
kind of music,” says Bhatt. “The tone of the guitars,
the whole feel is so beautiful. Most importantly, the
deep emotions attached to blues pulled me close to it.”
Bhatt has also recorded with other Western
musicians, including Dobroist Jerry Douglas and
banjo guru Béla Fleck. Bhatt’s 1995 collaboration
with bluesman Taj Mahal, Mumtaz Mahal, offers
fascinating interpretations of the blues canon,
including the spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep”
and Robert Johnson’s “Come On in My Kitchen,”
as well as a haunting version of “Stand by Me.”
Bhatt’s buzzing, microtonal lines bubble below
Mahal’s gravelly vocals and fingerpicked blues to
create a sonic bridge between East and West.
As with Bhatt, the sitar connection runs deep with Barun Kumar
Pal, another Indian slide-guitar master. Pal began playing sitar at
age 5, but Hawaiian guitar caught his ear and within a year he was
playing it on the radio in youth orchestras. Pal studied with both
Ravi Shankar and Nikhil Banerjee, one of India’s most revered sitar
players. Inspired by the sitar, Pal too began adapting his Hawaiian
guitar for Indian classical music. By 1973, he’d added chikari and
tarab strings to his guitar.
Then, in conjunction with Shankar, Pal developed a new type
of slide guitar. With a body that more resembles a sitar or sarod,
this instrument is known as the hansa veena—a name credited to
Shankar—because its curving headstock looks like the neck of a
swan (hansa). It has 21 strings, 13 of which are tarab. You can hear
it on Pal’s 2001 release, Ragas on Hansa Veena. More recently, Pal
has returned to a multi-stringed archtop, and he makes it cry on
the sublime Ragas on Slide Guitar.
A student of Brij Bhushan Kabra, the pioneer of Indian classical guitar, Debashish Bhattacharya
is a Hindustani slide virtuoso who designs his own instruments.
The Next Generation
After Kabra, Bhatt, and Pal had morphed the Hawaiian steel into
a lap-slide guitar with drone and sympathetic strings—and, more
importantly, shown that this hybrid instrument was fully capable
of expressing the subtleties of Indian classical music—a new generation
of guitarists emerged, ready to push Hindustani slide into
unmapped sonic territories.
One such player is Debashish Bhattacharya, a child prodigy
who began performing at age 4 and then spent a decade studying
with the great Kabra. Accompanied by his brother Subashish
on tablas, Debashish tours the world, and often collaborates with
Asian and Western musicians. When John McLaughlin recorded
Remember Shakti, he tapped Bhattacharya to be part of the ensemble.
Bhattacharya has also recorded two albums—Sunrise and Mahima—with resonator wizard and Hawaiian guitarist Bob Brozman.
Bhattacharya has released a slew of Hindustani slide albums, and
his 2008 Calcutta Chronicles: Indian Slide Guitar Odyssey is a stunning
example of slide-guitar virtuosity and deep musicality.
Like those before him, Bhattacharya has no inhibitions about modifying
the guitar to suit his purposes. One of his creations is a 22-string
archtop he calls the chaturangui. It has six primary melody strings for
playing with a bar, four plucked chikari drones, and 12 tarab sympathetic
strings, which Bhattacharya tunes to the tones of a given raga.
One major change Bhattacharya made to the mohan veena was
to move the chikari to the other side of the guitar neck. “On all
traditional plucked raga instruments,” he explains, “such as the
sitar, veena, and sarod, the chikari run along the side of the neck
closest to the performer, who strikes them with his thumb. But on
the chaturangui, I located the chikari on the opposite side, next to
the 1st string. Doing this lets me pluck the
drones with my index finger, rather than my
thumb, and thus play much faster passages.”
The chaturangui, as well as a hollow-neck
12-string with two chikari that Bhattacharya
calls the gandharvi, are built in Calcutta
and distributed by Trideb International.
“These are cross-cultural instruments,” says
Bhattacharya, “for jazz and blues slide guitarists,
as well as those playing ragas—which we
believe is not ethnic music for one part of the
world, but rather global music for everyone
Canadian Harry Manx studied the mohan veena in India with Vishwa
Another next-gen Indian slide guitarist is
Salil Bhatt, son of VM Bhatt. In addition to
sharing the stage with his legendary father,
Salil records and tours as a slide master in his
own right. He plays a 20-string archtop guitar
he designed called the satvik veena. This
instrument has three melody, five drone, and
12 sympathetic strings. It also sports a gourd
below the headstock that adds resonance and
rests on the floor to support the neck in a
horizontal playing position.
Like his father, Salil often collaborates
with non-Indian musicians. On the twoalbum
Slide to Freedom series, for example,
he swaps runs with Dobro and bottleneck
guitarist Doug Cox, recalling the epic pairing
of VM Bhatt and Ry Cooder.
There are other respected and influential
Indian slide players, most of whom wind up
designing personal variations of the mohan
veena pioneered by Bhatt. Several of these,
including Shri Krishan Sharma, Neel Ranjan
Mukherjee, and Kamala Shankar—the leading
female Hindustani slide guitarist—are
well documented in YouTube videos.
The Circle Expands
While most Hindustani guitarists are Indian, there are exceptions.
Many consider Harry Manx to be the best North American mohan
veena player. Manx, a Canadian who also plays bottleneck blues
and rootsy folk music, went to the source to learn the instrument.
“I was studying the sitar,” Manx details, “and I was also a slide
player, so the mood was set for me to discover the mohan veena.
Oddly enough, I was in Japan when I first heard it. I was playing
on the street one day, and this magical sound was coming out of
a record shop. I just stopped dead in my tracks because I realized
it was slide, but it was sitar—it was everything I really loved. The
musician turned out to be VM Bhatt.”
Manx tracked down Bhatt in India and began studying with the
master. “VM Bhatt gave me my first mohan veena,” says Manx,
“because he saw I was a dedicated student. I just came and I
wouldn’t leave, so I passed the test.”
Eventually, Manx toured with his guru, backing him on tambura,
an instrument that supplies the drone in classical Indian music.
In the process, he gained valuable insights into how
Indian musicians approach their instruments.
Call of the Valley, 1967.
An enduring classic. This is where Brij
Bhushan Kabra first introduced the world
to the haunting sound of traditional
Indian music played on a lap-slide guitar.
A Meeting by the River, 1993.
The Mississippi River meets the Ganges
in this telepathically improvised session
featuring Vishwa Mohan Bhatt on
mohan veena and Ry Cooder on bottleneck
Ragas on Slide Guitar, 2003.
Backed by adventurous multitracked
tablas and hand drums, Barun Kumar Pal
performs an exquisite collection of ragas
on his multi-string archtop lap slide.
Indian Slide Guitar Odyssey, 2008.
Debashish Bhattacharya explores Gypsy,
Arabic, and, of course, Indian melodies
and rhythms on three different lap-slide
instruments of his own design. Creatively
adventurous and technically arresting.
“They practice their asses off,” says Manx. “Practice beyond
practice. There’s a wonderful tradition of dedication in India, which
we could take great lessons from here in the West. Very few of us
have ever applied ourselves to this degree to our music. I did my five
hours a day for five years, and that experience took me from being a
really mediocre player to somebody who could sort of play decently.
“When I decided to leave India after being there about 12 years,
I went to Calcutta and had five mohan veenas made. I’ve given
away three—one to Jerry Douglas—so now I’m down to two.
They’re both good instruments, so that’s probably enough for me.”
Hindustani slide has a rich past, but its future looks even more
promising. “When I started playing Indian classical music,” says
Bhattacharya, “only my guru Pandit Brij Bhushan Kabra and a few
other senior Hindustani slide guitarists were performing and recording.
Today, the slide-guitar fraternity around the world is aware of
the technique and sound of this instrument. So much so that one
can say Hindustani slide guitar is now a global instrument.”
Through his new band, Calcutta Chronicles, Bhattacharya continues
to expand the genre with his brother Subashish on tabla and
percussion, and his daughter Sukanya as guest vocalist. “We’ve been
collaborating in the studio with such international musicians as John
McLaughlin, Jerry Douglas, Jeff Sipe, and Adam del Monte,” he says.
Exploring Indian Music as a Player
If, after listening to Hindustani slide, you’re inspired to try the
mohan veena, Manx offers this advice. “To learn Indian music,
there are two aspects to consider. You can’t be a rock guitarist and
just say, ‘Now I’m going to play an Indian thing.’ Unless you simply
copy the notes from a recorded raga, you’ll need to learn something
about how Indian music works. Each raga has a set of notes
you can play, but if you want to play them properly, you need to
play them in a particular order. For instance, you might have to go
from 1 to 3 to get to 2. If you follow that order, you start to get an
Indian sound and what you play begins to make sense.
“The second consideration is how you approach notes. In Indian
music, it’s really important to know whether you slide up to a note,
slide down to it, or hit it right on. Or do you slide up to another note
and then come back
to the note you want. How you approach
the note is called the meend, and to get a sense of this, you need to get
records of Indian slide players and really listen to how they approach
notes, because that’s the key. It’s the same in blues—B.B. King has a
wonderful meend. He plays two notes and you know it’s him.
“So there’s what to play—the raga side—then there’s how to play
it, which has a lot to do with the meend. These are the two aspects
of Hindustani slide you really want to look at.”
Going Beyond the Guitar
Whether you want to actually play a mohan veena or simply expose
your ears to new melodies and rhythms, the world of Hindustani
slide can provide a lifetime of creative inspiration. Perhaps
Bhattacharya sums it up best: “I have always told myself that music
has no boundaries. As you may know, Indian music has a link to
universal awareness, and this helps me understand the innermost
meaning of music from other cultures. My entire existence is dedicated
to working with musicians all over the globe, and—at any
place, at any given time—expressing the rasas [essence] of the nine
unique human moods.”
If you’re drawn to Hindustani slide guitar, it’s worth remembering
that at its core, this music is about transcending daily consciousness
to experience an altered state. This is the goal for Indian
musicians, as well as their audience. “Onstage,” Bhattacharya
reveals, “when I get deep into the raga, I forget everything. First, I
forget where I’m sitting. Then I forget what I’m doing. And, finally,
I forget my name and who I am.”