In 1992, Bhatt joined Ry Cooder in the stu-
dio, 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
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.
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.
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 bottle-neck acoustic.
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.
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.