One day, in 1984, Poly Varghese went to his mridangam teacher Sivadasan Nair’s house, inside the Kerala Kalamandalam (a classical arts institution), at Thrissur, to watch a TV programme. It was a recital by Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt on the mohan veena. As he listened to the music, Poly became spellbound. “The melodious sound of the instrument attracted me intensely,” says Poly. “It was also meditative and highly emotional.”
Sivadasan offered Poly a plate of idlis and chutney. But Poly was so engrossed that he forgot to eat it. “My mind was in a daze,” he says. “It was at this moment that I wanted to become a mohan veena player.”
It took a lot of effort to get Bhatt’s Jaipur address. Poly wrote a fervent plea, in a mix of English and Hindi sentences, to the maestro, to become his student. But he got no response.
Soon, he heard that Mohan Kumar, a teacher of literature, at the Kalamandalam, was going to work at Vishva Bharati University in Santiniketan, West Bengal. Through him, Poly secured admission, and, in 1990, he began to learn the tabla, as well as Hindustani vocals.
In 1994, Poly heard that Pandit Bhatt was going to have a performance in Kolkata. So, he went for it. After the event, he met Bhatt and introduced himself. Bhatt immediately remembered the letter. When Poly asked whether he could become a student, Bhatt replied that the mohan veena was a difficult instrument. “To learn it is my life’s desire,” said Poly. Bhatt stared hard at Poly. Then he nodded. So Poly went to Jaipur. He spent the next five years learning from the master.
Thereafter, he left. And for another 15 years, he continued practising on his own. To earn his living, Poly acted in theatre and films, and provided music for movies. And for a while, he was a tabla player during night soirees for customers at Sonagachi, Kolkata’s famous red-light district.
The magic of Poly’s music was recently experienced by all present at the state government-sponsored function, ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara’, a fusion music programme held at Thiruvananthapuram on October 2, which comprised 40 musicians.
Poly played a riveting interlude, the ‘Raaga Keeravani’, with sitarist Ravi Chary. The show’s director Manoj K Varghese said, “Poly’s music is powerful in its gentleness. He is a gifted musician who is unforgettable.”
Asked why he took so long to play the mohan veena in public, Poly says, “I wanted to be perfect. This instrument has no frets or notations. So, it is very difficult to play.”
But once he came out, through a performance in Abu Dhabi, in 2010, he has been performing non-stop. Today, he is regarded as the first Malayali to play the instrument. So far, he has performed in 40 countries, including Bahrain, Austria, Germany, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and the US.
He admits that there is a difference between Indian and Western audiences. “Indian audiences have a judgmental attitude,” says Poly. “One reason for it is because they may have heard the music before, because it is part of their culture. They might have even attended one of Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt’s concerts.”
On the other hand, Westerners come to enjoy the music. “Hence, they are very receptive,” he says. “They believe Indian musicians are highly talented and spiritual.”
But Poly has also played for audiences who cannot afford to come to air-conditioned auditoriums. Sometime ago, he performed for the prisoners at the Poojapura Central Jail in Kerala. “After the show, a murderer asked me for my address,” says Poly. “He wrote me a letter in which he said, ‘I did not know music was so powerful till I heard your performance. I have made many mistakes in my life. And I hope to correct my life from now on.’ ”
Poly has also played in the labour camps of Dubai, at cancer institutes, slums, orphanages and hospitals. “Most of these people have very little hope,” he says. “So I want to bring joy to them. That is the power of the mohan veena. It always creates a highly emotional reaction.”