What is Indian Slide Guitar?

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Two Indian slide guitars. Bottom: modified arch top Jazz guitar, custom designed by Dr. Ranjan Kumar and built by Ashok Musicials. Top: Mohan Veena style Indian slide guitar, built by Conchord and designed by Bhaba Sindhu Biswas.

The Indian Slide Guitar is a relatively new instrument created by modifying the Hawaiian steel guitar and arch top Jazz guitar. It first came about when a Hawaiian musician by the name of Tau Moe took up a residency at the Taj hotel in Calcutta during the 1940s. Moe was a great player of the Hawaiian steel guitar: an acoustic guitar played flat on on one’s lap with a steel bar as a slide and fingerpicks. The strings are raised up off of the fret board so as to allow the player to slide freely. Moe taught lessons, built and sold Hawaiian guitars inspired many musicians and can be credited with introducing Hawaiian guitar to India.

Quickly, Hawaiian guitar caught on around India and found its way into the scores of many Bollywood movies. By the 1960s, it was a relatively popular instrument throughout India and it was around this time that the instrument was first modified so as to be able to play classical Indian music. Pandit Brij Bhushan Kabra, a young man from a musical family, was the first artist to be considered a great classical musician of the guitar in India. With the guidance of sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Kabra added ‘chikari’ – drone strings plucked with the thumb on the side of the guitar closest to the player – to the instrument. (Interview with Kabra).

The timeline of who made what changes when is a bit of a controversy in the world of Indian slide guitar. Let me say here that approximately around 1970 two other artists started to make similar modifications of the instrument.

Pt. Barun Kumar Pal with his Hansa Veena

Pt. Barun Kumar Pal, a student of sitar maestro Pt. Ravi Shankar, added twelve sympathetic resonating strings, called ‘tarup,’ to the Hawaiian guitar in addition to the chikari. Using a similar style bone bridge as the sitar and sarod, these strings would be tuned to the raga or scale being performed and then ring out from the resonant quality of the guitar body when the corresponding note is plucked on the main strings. Pal went on to design a new body with a slightly different string configuration for the instrument and called it Hansa Veena. ‘Hansa’ is the word for swan in Sanskrit, called as such because of the swan carved into the head of the instrument. The word ‘veena’ simply means ‘stringed instrument.’ He holds the distinction of being the first artist to receive an ‘A’ grade from All India Radio for classical and light music on guitar in 1972 and 73. (More info about Pt. Barun Kumar Pal)

 

Pt. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt with his Mohan Veena

Pt. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, also a student of Pt. Ravi Shankar, created a version of the Indian slide guitar called Mohan Veena by modifying a German arch top Jazz guitar gifted to him. He added sympathetic strings and chikari to the already very resonant body of the instrument. Bhatt is probably the most popular Indian slide guitar artist, having won the 1992 World Music Grammy with Ry Cooder for their collaborative album, Meeting by the River(More info about Pt. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt)

(Note: ‘Mohan Veena’ actually refers to two instruments nowadays: the first being VM Bhatt’s modified guitar, the second being a modified wood top sarod invented by Pt. Radhika Mohan Maitra)

Pt. Debashish Bhattacharya pictured with his trinity of Indian guitars

The current generation of Indian slide guitarists is led by Pt. Debashish Bhattacharya of Kolkata, a student of Pt. Brij Bhushan Kabra, Bhattacharya has designed three new Indian slide guitars. Each has a different musical purpose, from playing classical Indian music to more fusion. The technique for playing is more or less the same as the previous artists mentioned, however a major difference being that the chikari strings of Bhattacharya’s guitars are located on the far side of guitar from where the performer is sitting. Thus the player has the ability to use their pinky or ring finger to strike the chikari rather than the thumb. (More information on Pt. Debashish Bhattacharya)

Dr. Ranjan Kumar, my teacher

While this is still not a very widespread or well-known instrument even in India, there are more and more young artists becoming inspired to play Indian slide guitar. My teacher, Dr. Ranjan Kumar, is one of the first to discuss the history of the guitar in India in his book ‘Indian Music on Guitar.’ I am currently working to have this book translated into English so that more readers around the world can understand the journey that the guitar has taken around the world to take on its newest form in India. (Listen to my guru, Dr. Ranjan Kumar)

I look forward to your questions and comments on this exciting and emerging topic. Listen to my latest album of Indian slide guitar music here.

 

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