He is known by many names but Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya is perhaps the undisputed guitar king of the Indian subcontinent. Born in 1963 in the pulsing city of Kolkata, Bhattacharya was only three when he picked up the Hawaiian lap guitar and by the age of four had made his first radio presentation at the All India Radio. Today as a proponent of raga and fusion, he travels the world sharing his brand of music, something he has done since the age of 14. He has neatly pocketed many prestigious awards along the way and even earned a Grammy award nomination in 2009 for his album Calcutta Chronicles. Next week Bhattacharya will be in Melbourne to perform.
Speaking with The Indian Weekly from his Kolkata residence, Bhattacharya says he is excited about his first upcoming trip to Australia. At Melbourne, he will be performing with his brother Subhasis Bhattacharjee on tabla and Sukanya Bhattacharya on vocals. Together, the virtuosic trio will render North Indian (Hindustani) classical songs with a twist at Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne before travelling to the Adelaide Guitar Festival. He also said his daughter Anandi, who is also an excellent vocalist, will be accompanying him and performing too.
Throwing light on his background, Bhattacharya says his family’s musical legacy goes back to the 15th century and he is part of the 72 generations of musicians that had its roots in Etawah in Uttar Pradesh and living in West Bengal since the 18th century. “My parents are singers, so were my grandparents. They were into ragas, dhrupad and devotional songs. While my mother is from the Gwalior gharana, my father is from Patiala gharana.” Naturally he calls himself very fortunate to have grown up with music since the time he was “in my mother’s womb”.
But instead of trying his luck at singing, he had taken a fascination for the lap string guitar. It began as a three year old when he saw the Hawaiian lap steel guitar left lying around the house. “It was love at first touch,” he once told the BBC in a radio interview. What he learnt as a child was to blend the tradition of Indian music such as rhythmic strings and all other nuances of Indian raga music from dhrupad to khayal, thumpri into the sound of the guitar sound.
As a boy, Bhattacharya learned western guitar as well as sitar. When he was in his 20s he received his most rigorous training of ten years under Pandit Brij Bhushan Kabra, the great pioneer of Indian raga slide guitar. It was during this time that he realised his vocation would be ‘to serve as a bridge between raga’s past and future’.
During the early 1980s, he was among the pioneers who started fusion. “I started collaborating with different cultural music of different countries including John McLaughlin, Jerry Doughlas, Bob Brozman, Martin Simpson, and Ustad Zakir Hussain.” He also played in John Mclaughlin’s Album, Floating Point, which was a Grammy nominated album too. But he is very clear about one thing: “I do fusion in my own terms and I don’t do industrial production to keep my name up on the billboard all the time; that is out of my principle of music. Especially coming from a tradition of uncompromising musician family I have to maintain that tradition of my ancestors. It is a huge compromise and liability I understand, but I am proud of it.”
Therefore, in 50 years of musical career, Bhattacharya has done only 15 albums. “It is not enough but I have not copied anybody’s idea. It’s all about uniqueness of my music. It is a standalone category and you cannot compare any of the albums amongst themselves,” he says.
Of his Grammy award nomination for the Calcutta Chronicles in 2009, he says it was a product of his life in Kolkata and taken from every facet of life in his hometown. “For instance I have seen all the musical greats performing, I have seen Pele play in Eden Garden, I see the people in boats catching Hilsa fish in the Ganges river, I have seen riots and buildings burnt, I hear the sound of the tram and the rickshaws – all these inspired me to produce the album.” But however thrilled he was with the nomination, he reflects life is bigger than any such event.
Today he is widely acknowledged as as one of the world’s greatest slide guitarists, and has invented his own ‘Trinity of Guitars’. His Chaturangi has 22 strings, which enable it to suggest the timbres of violin, sitar, sarod and veena. The Ghandarvi is a 14-stinged guitar that can sound like a veena, sarangi, saz or flamenco guitar, and the tiny 4-stringed Anandi is basically a slide ukulele. He also has his own three-fingered style of playing which gives him an edge over others when it comes to speed and dexterity. In 2003, he established a music school in Kolkata, his hometown.
Bhattacharya has a unique style of playing the slide guitar. He uses three fingers and is learning to use others too, he quips. “Alternate picking in Spanish, Mandolin, Saaz, Oud, Rabab is different than Sarod and Sitar, mine is a combination of Veena, Taar, Sarod and Banjo as of now. It changes. But don’t get me wrong, people found this finger picking similarity during 1978 and started comparing it; I had no Youtube to help me. The style came from within when I was only seven years old.”
He also created his own gharana called Kolkata gharana “because the guitar has no gharana”. And having toured with the likes of Zakir Hussain, John McLaughlin, Jerry Doughlas, Bob Brozman and Martin Simpson, Bhattacharya has, over the years, ‘astonishingly’ refined his instrument.
Bhattacharya believes his audience are different from those who attend typical fusion concerts. “I believe my music is a mix of fusion and traditional raga and I present them in such a way that people understand raga is not ethnically classical music understood only by Indians. My music has personality, character and expression of universal humanity. That is how raga flows away from the border of India without any passport or visa around the world. That is how I have travelled around the world since age 14.”
Bhattacharya’s vision of fusion raga is a very delicate balance between the two – raga and fusion. He does not want to disappoint his audience. “I don’t want them to get hurt and say ‘I have come to Debashish for raga but he has given a fusion’. To me, raga is fusion and vice versa. There is a deep and hypnotic relationship between raga and fusion. And my definite idea is to present this fusion so that today’s generation will listen to raga music for at least another 10-15 years. I want them to give them a taste of raga which they can understand. It is not compromised; it is the form of presentation like Dhrupad like from Tansen’s age or Baiju Bawra or Bhimsen Joshi or Bade Gulam Ali Khan’s age. It something to share.”
The creator of the Hindustani slide guitar draws his inspiration from a number of people including Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, Guru Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Baba Allauddin Khan. “Swami Vivekananda is my spiritual guru with whom I share date of birth.” But he does not discount beauty and love of nature among his influences.
At his Kolkata residence he is thronged by students. “Everyday 24 x7 we live and breath music. Even when I am sleeping I am composing music.” Next week on July 16, Bhattacharya will be in Melbourne for just one night to give what he says “Indian raga and raga unbound”. Plenty to look forward to from one of the most lauded guitarists on the planet.