Debashish Bhattacharya - Slide guitar from the heart
Debashish Bhattacharya is talking about the role of guru in Indian music. Guru, being a term that has been assimilated into western language and culture, has had, he feels, its meaning diluted and so is now misunderstood.
“You have to realise the commitment that a guru makes to a disciple,” he says down the line from his home in Kolkata. “The guru gives more than knowledge, more than instruction. I lived with my guru for ten years and he fed me, gave me somewhere to sleep and treated me as one of his family. It’s a big undertaking because he also gave me so much of his time, overseeing at least twelve hours a day, every day, of study and practice.”
Bhattacharya, who is one of the troupe of Indian and Pakistani musicians, poets and dancers appearing in Glasgow Concert Halls’ Alchemy series of concerts and events next week, is a model of dedication to music. We’ve become used to learning about the rigorous training players undergo in mastering an instrument in Indian classical music. Battarcharya’s chosen instrument, the slide guitar, isn’t part of the Indian tradition, having been brought to the country from Hawaii in the 1930s and before he went to study with his guru, Pandit Brij Bhushan Kabra, the pioneer of slide guitar in Indian music, he’d already studied sitar, tablas, and the root of Indian music, singing, at considerable length.
“I was twenty-four when I went to live with Pandit Brij Bhushan Kabra, almost thirty years ago,” he says. “Nowadays, at that age musicians are posting their latest pieces on YouTube. But it was important for me to know about the sitar and to know how to play the accompanying percussion instruments because I needed to know what I should be trying to express and how the relationship between slide guitarist and percussionist works. And of course, in Indian music everything comes from the voice. I was lucky because my parents were both singers and they taught my sister, brother and me the rudiments from a very early age.”
While his sister, Sutapa, would go on to international acclaim as a singer and his brother, Subhasis, achieved similar status as a percussionist, Debashish’s fate was sealed when his father brought home an Hawaiian guitar given to him by an admirer when Debashish was about three years old. The youngster became fascinated with this new arrival and with the help of his mother, he was soon playing tunes he heard on the radio. Within a year, he was appearing on the radio himself.
There would be much adaptation of instruments, as well as decades of commitment to replicating the sound of the human voice, between that first radio appearance and Bhattarcharya receiving the enthusiastic endorsement of jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, who helped to expand Battarchary’s audience by featuring him on albums such as Floating Point and by inviting him to join Remember Shakti, the revised version of McLaughlin’s Indian music-based 1970s group, Shakti.
“I’d played the sitar and the sarod but I often felt restricted as a composer by these instruments and the western guitars that were available,” he says. “So at a certain point I thought I should brings the properties of the sitar, the sarod and the veena together on one guitar. It gave me, I felt at the time, unlimited nuances and resonances to create new music with.”
He later adapted a twelve-string guitar and a ukulele to further expand his repertoire of tones, creating what he proudly calls the Trinity of Guitars. He’ll have them all with him when he comes to Glasgow. He’ll also be accompanied by his daughter, Anandi, after whom the third of his trinity of guitars was named, who follows in the family’s singing tradition.
“It’s very appropriate that I have my daughter onstage singing with me because she represents a continuation of something that was and still is a real inspiration to me,” he says. “If I hadn’t heard my mother and father singing all the time when I was a young boy, I wouldn’t have had the urge, the desire to play and compose ragas. And if my mother hadn’t shown me how to find the notes on that first guitar, I might not have got anywhere with it, I don’t know. There’s no centuries long tradition of slide guitar in Indian music, the way there is with other instruments, so it’s still like a voyage of discovery and I thank God for giving me this gift because I feel blessed to be able to travel the world and play my music to people.”
From The Herald, May 15, 2015.