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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Review: Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt offers mesmerising performance at Dubai’s Ductac

Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. Courtesy Repertoire Productions
Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. Courtesy Repertoire Productions

“Mesmerising”, “spiritual” and “transcendent” are among the words typically used to describe Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt’s music. Over the past four decades the Indian master has visited more than 80 countries with his trademark 20-string Mohan Veena (“world charmer”), a self-made hybrid instrument which adds sitar-like drone and sympathetic strings to a Taiwanese slide guitar. It’s a sound which certainly charmed the wider world on 1994’s Grammy winning A Meeting by the River, a collaboration with Ry Cooder.

On Friday October 2 Bhatt visited Dubai to perform a mix of Indian classical music, alongside Rajasthani folk and fusion influences. Hosted at Ductac as part of the Emirates NBD Classics season IV the evening, Bhatt told us, would be one of “many emotions”. He was not wrong.

Leading a revolving group of six musicians, Bhatt proceeded over the stage with the generous control of a schoolteacher, leading a heated but friendly exchange of ideas between his assured ensemble.

Every musician was offered a chance to shine. Throughout versatile tabla player Himanshu Mahant excelled in invention and intuition. Violinist Deepak Pandit performed a striking original improvisation. Amita Dalal played along to two tracks from her recent Sitar Lounge album, a release she admits shrouded in modernity as a “way to get young people into classical music”.

Playing to a cross-cultural crowd, Bhatt spoke an length between pieces, elucidating the forms of Indian classical music, and even demonstrating the complicated rhythmic counting systems live from the stage.

Bhatt’s own music soared highest mid-set with a series of spirited ragas, which saw the guitarist conjure a seamless, snowballing wave of ideas and emotions every bit deserving of the superlatives – “mesmerising”, “transcendent” – his music attracts.

Watching Bhatt perform a phrase appeared in my mind; “horizontal improvisation”.

The term works in a few ways. It is the conscious antithesis of the predominant, Western tradition of the opposite, “vertical improvisation”, which sees players running up and down scales like a set of stairs.

Instead, Indian classical music can be seen as “horizontal”, in both technique and approach. Rather than the ordered ascent of 12 notes, musicians have a sliding scale of 24 to drift between – the sensation created is that of dancing around a field, not the spotlight-grabbing tower block chase.

This “horizontal” music is like starring at an open landscape, rather than straining your eyes to the sky.

The season continues with Lebanese oud player Charbel Rouhana on November 6 and traditional Persian group Dastan Ensemble on December 4. For more information see ductac.org.