He who came first
Man of many trades: Pandit Radhika Mohan Maitra,
one of the greatest sarod players of all time,
was also an inventor of instruments
If you google ‘mohan veena’, the first three pages will lead you, in one way or the other, to Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, one of the best known slide guitar players in the world. Bhatt made substantial modifications to the variant of the slide guitar that was prevalent in Hindustani music (its most famous exponent being Pandit Brij Bhushan Kabra) and called it the ‘mohan veena’, derived from his middle name. He won the Grammy in 1994; since then, the mohan veena has come under global focus and has become synonymous with its inventor, Bhatt.
However, if you reach the end of the fourth page of Google results, you will find a mention of Pandit Radhika Mohan Maitra, who is regarded as one of the greatest sarod players of all time. But he had another, lesser known, identity. He was an inventor, who conceptualised three new instruments: dil bahar, naba deepa and, his most extensively recorded, mohan veena. This mohan veena preceded its slide guitar namesake by at least three decades. There were regular All India Radio broadcasts of Maitra’s recitals on this instrument and a rendition of Darbari was also released by HMV.
And yet, one must wade through nearly four pages of Bhatt to find a link between the mohan veena and its original inventor.
Maitra (1917 to 1981) lived at a time when Hindustani musicians didn’t concern themselves with patents and PR outfits. And certainly not Maitra, who was a zamindar from Rajshahi (now in Bangladesh) and cared little about publicity. His grandfather, Lalita Mohan Maitra, patronised the sarod maestro Ustad Mohammad Amir Khan as a musician in his estate. One day Khan found the child Maitra tinkering with one of the many sarods in the house. The maestro sensed an interest in the boy and started teaching him. Maitra made a mark as a sarodiya at the All India Music Conference at Allahabad in 1937, where, after listening to his solo, Ustad Allauddin Khan, in spite of being from a different gharana, invited him to perform alongside him. Initially people could not 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 Maitra as a formidable artiste.
The idea of the mohan veena was born in the mid-’40s. Apart from the sarod, Maitra was a regular performer on the sursringar. Once, after he played a duet on the sursringar with veena exponent Ustad Sadiq Ali Khan, Maitra became 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 (which the sursringar, to an extent, has). The sursringar belongs to the sarod family, but is much larger than the sarod and requires a different playing technique, essentially because the two instruments are held at different angles. Maitra had greater facility on the sarod than on the sursringar; he wanted an instrument that could be held and played exactly like the sarod and yet one that could match the tonal richness of a veena. His quest for these two features in a single instrument culminated in the mohan veena.
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. Maitra covered the hollow with a sheet of wood instead (like in the veena and the sursringar). Further, he changed the structure of the bridge, replacing the typical sarod bridge with 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. Maitra’s two aims were achieved: a tonal quality closer to that of the veena and a playing technique similar to that of the sarod. His peers reviewed it positively. 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 Maitra’s middle name.
I once interviewed Bhatt and had asked him if he was aware of Maitra’s mohan veena. He said that he heard of it much after he had named his own instrument. Maitra lived in Calcutta, Bhatt in Jaipur and information didn’t travel then the way it does now, he said. He added that if he had known, he would have named his instrument vishwa veena (which, incidentally, is the name he gave to another modification of the slide guitar).
Today, Maitra’s mohan veena has been eclipsed by Bhatt’s variant. But listeners of Hindustani music should not forget Maitra’s instrument. Two of Maitra’s disciples, Jaydeep Ghosh and Somjit Dasgupta, and Pandit Buddhadev Dasgupta’s son Bhabanishankar Dasgupta, perform regularly on the instrument now. Their popularity as musicians is nowhere near Bhatt’s, but hopefully their recitals will serve as occasional reminders of Maitra’s creation.