Chennai: Amid the chaos of big and small black guitar cases, a neatly wrapped dotara (Baul instrument) hanging from a pink wall, traditional dry grass mats and a cot, the distinct and melodic tunes of the rare Mohan veena reverberate. Swiftly running his fingers on this 20-string instrument is Poly Varghese, a Kerala-born musician known to be among the niche group of artists who play the modified Archtop guitar which was handcrafted by his guru Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. Varghese’s long journey as a Carnatic mridangist slowly ended after his chance encounter with the unique instrument.
“I was in my ashaan’s (teacher’s) house, watching a 14-inch TV while eating idli and sambhar. Suddenly I saw Pt. Bhatt playing the Mohan Veena on Doordarshan and I was drawn to the sound of that instrument. I was so eager to find out who he was and what his instrument was that I left my half-eaten idli and ran to my hostel room to find out more,” says the 46-year-old, who eventually wrote many letters to Bhatt but didn’t receive any reply.
Determined to meet Bhatt, Varghese packed his bags and travelled to Shantiniketan after completing his specialization in mridangam at the Kerala Kalamandalam. His passion for Bengali literature, films and Rabindra Sangeet drew him to the city though he was a bit strapped.
“While I was learning Hindustani music at Shantiniketan, I heard that Pt. Bhatt was going to perform at the Birla Academy. I borrowed my friend’s guitar and used my student card to reach the academy where I met guru,” says Varghese, adding that Bhatt agreed to train him after hearing him play on the guitar.
One month of training at Bhatt’s house at Bapu nagar, Jaipur, was enough for Varghese to discontinue his learning at Shantiniketan and enter a phase of introspection and contemplation on life’s questions. During this time, he traveled and interacted with singers of the famous Baul community of Bengal.
“This community is strongly connected with nature. I like the uncertainty that defines their life. Unlike city dwellers, their every minute isn’t planned. Their music can be characterized as Northeast Sufism, urging you to reflect on life,” he says, explaining how he imbibed the style from his teacher Basudev Baul and even performed at many venues.
Bengal was also Varghese’s theatre experiment at this time. Being part of renowned dramatist Badal Sircar’s theatre group, he acted in many plays, later adding Tamil, Oriya, English and Hindi plays to his credit. In fact, he has even acted in artistic films like Eeram.
“I like films which are not commercial and routine in content. When I compose or act in films, the songs and roles involve a lot of creativity,” says Varghese, who has also written poems in Malayalam.
A year later, he returned to Bhatt for intense training and gradually mastered the art of playing the Mohan Veena. “The instrument doesn’t have many takers because it isn’t easy to play. The position of musical notes isn’t evident on it as it is in other instruments like keyboard. You need a skilled ear to play.”
Unfortunately, the moisture and water during the floods damaged Varghese’s Mohan Veena. The rare piece is made and repaired only in Calcutta, by a handful of experienced craftsmen. While the repair costs more than Rs. 40,000, a new piece costs over a lakh and handcrafting it takes nearly three years.
Varghese has traveled across the world for his concerts and shared the stage with many international artists. This year, however, he has cancelled all his concerts due to the floods except for one on January 9.
“I cannot play when people are dying in rehabilitation camps. I think musicians in Chennai need to be more socially connected and cancel their shows too,” says Varghese, who has also performed in venues like jails and cancer institute, using music to heal patients and reform hardened criminals.
(An edited version of the story was published in the Times of India, Chennai in South Pole column)