Debashish Bhattacharya interview – ‘Stay close to the music itself, however you can’

 

Interview for Darbar Festival 2018

 


 

Debashish Bhattacharya is both a radical and a traditionalist. His self-designed slide guitars breathe new colours into ancient Hindustani ragas, and he has taken them around the globe, collaborating with musicians from Hawaii to Okinawa. He catches up with George Howlett to discuss instrument creation, the hidden harmony in ragas, and how listeners should appreciate the interconnectedness of the natural world.

 

Debashish plays the Southbank Centre on Sat 22nd Sep at 6:30pm, in a double-bill with violinist Praveen Sheolikar (tickets available here). He will slide around traditional ragas in the company of tabla virtuoso Sukhwinder Singh as part of Darbar Festival 2018.

 


 

Like many Hindustani stars, Pandit Bhattacharya was born into a long cultural lineage. He traces his family back through seventy-six generations of artists, writers, and Sanskrit teachers, and represents the seventh in a straight line of musicians. He established himself early, debuting on All India Radio at the age of four, winning competitions at seven, and inventing his first slide guitar at fifteen.

 

But his path has never been a straightforward one. He was denied a prestigious classical scholarship on the grounds that he didn’t play a traditional instrument, and just as his career was taking off he left his home in Kolkata to study with the late guitar pioneer Brij Bhushan Kabra.

 

“In my generation, I’m among only a few musicians who left to study instead of starting to market themselves. I left my family and many local opportunities, travelling 2418 kilometers and entering my guru’s house with a ten rupee note and no extra garments. I didn’t play concerts for those ten years, and learned under tremendous hardship. My life as his disciple is inexplicable. I would say it was more traditional than anything I’ve experienced in life.”

 

He also learned North Indian sitar, sarod, and vocal music, but has always been inclined towards outside influences too: “I learned the Hawaiian guitar as a child, and played 1920’s European and Hawaiian compositions aged five to nine. I’ve studied 6-string slide and staff notation.”

 

Growing up he had to face critics who did not see a place for the guitar in ‘true’ Hindustani music. He had to develop a healthy confidence in his achievements, but acknowledges that the journey of a disciplined perfectionist is not easy: “Imperfection is your walk in the path of perfection. This is a lifelong journey, which will eventually end with you and start with someone else. Restless nights can be made restful with a glass of something, or can be a source of inspiration to work harder.”

 

I get the sense that he’s always aimed to expand his own understanding rather than rebel against anything in particular. After all, anyone who designs their own instruments has to rebuild from first principles: “I created the first Indian classical guitar in 1978 at the age of fifteen. I designed it from scratch – it wasn’t a modified Western guitar. Since then I’ve introduced new elements to global slide guitar, including new tunings, fingerpicking techniques, and over 500 compositions”.

 

Today he wields his self-designed ‘Trinity of Guitars’ – the Chaturangui, a 23-string amalgamation of sitar, sarod, violin, and rudra veena, the Gandharvi, which blends the 12-string guitar with veena, santoor, and sarangi, and the Anandi, a 4-string slide ukulele. He isn’t done yet, telling me three more creations are on the way.

 

Instrument design is an artistic endeavour, but requires mathematical precision too. Bhattacharya has always sought to connect different modes of thinking, and it’s no surprise that he found inspiration in school biology classes as well as the goddess Durga: “Religion and science are useless if they don’t help each other. I find myself happy with or without them, lost in the addiction of pure sound, portraying love in the groove of time.”

 

This interconnected approach helps him to see shapes others often miss in traditional Indian music: “We don’t think about harmony the same way, as our music is modal. A raga may be made of notes, but the melody and extended phrases give harmonic shape to it. Chords are already there in the past 60 years: Ustad Amir Khan used tanpuras with three notes (Pa-Ni-Sa), and Ustad Vilayat Khan tuned his sitar’s chikari to a major triad (Sa-Ga-Pa).”

 

Elsewhere he speaks of Bach’s solo string works in the same regard. They are also streams of single notes, but nobody would see them as absent of harmonic movement. I wonder what his own take on the violin partitas would sound like? Perhaps we’ll find out – he’s been writing orchestral scores.

 

Nowadays he performs and collaborates to acclaim around the world, and says he’s found “most of the innermost answers” to questions around his music. So what drives the multipegged maestro to keep on exploring? “I’m a student, and my drive is to learn new things and refine my actions. That’s the best way to live the rest of my life – I’m just the adventurous raga-guitar wala.”

 

Pandit Bhattacharya doesn’t sit on the boundaries between his traditions – he fully embodies them. However he also recognises the importance of keeping disparate styles distinct: “I can play three different styles – it’s about creating new wings, not polluting. But I don’t mix them when I play traditional dhrupad style.”

 

Unfamiliar music elicits different reactions from a listener, so does he consciously change his style when playing to Westerners? “I walk to the studio or stage in the same way, whether in India or abroad. When I perform the dialogues are between my own guitars and my beloved ragas.”

 

Overall he describes himself as “an optimist and a pessimist” about the future of Indian classical, recognising that young musicians are growing up in a much faster-paced world than their forebearers. He has seen this firsthand – his daughter Anandi is an accomplished singer who releases her own albums as well as featuring on his, debuting this year with Joys Abound.

 

“I love younger generation musicians, but they miss some of what we had – gurus and teachers who were not so busy earning everything needed to sustain life. They have it harder, suffering from the viruses of judgements, negativity, self-marketing, and short term pleasures. But if a student has the right mixes of passion and focus then it will bring them benefits and serve the Hindustani tradition. Illiteracy is not a problem, but half-education is.”

 

He takes his own teaching commitments seriously, working with thousands of students around the globe. He encourages modern learners to stay discerning and integrate their musical approach: “Taste is the filter. I think art claims surrendered lovers to itself. And leading a scholar’s life is not enough – there are no boundaries like this in nature. We segregate and draw lines for particular purposes, but everything connects, including the sixth element – sound.”

 

“Expansion inward is more important than outward. Stay close to the music, however you can. My gurus taught me that – I’m still trying to be close enough.”

 


 

Debashish plays the Southbank Centre on Sat 22nd Sep at 6:30pm, accompanied by Sukhwinder Singh’s sparkling tabla. Tickets available here (£18-50). The concert is a double-bill with violinist Praveen Sheolikar, as part of Darbar Festival 2018. See Debashish’s own website for more dates.

 

George Howlett | www.ragajunglism.com

 


 

 

 

 

Rāga Jungle: Turntables, Tablas, & Tālas

 

selva

 

 

Jungle music and Hindustani classical tabla playing have some really striking similarities.

 

 

 

Listen to We‘s jungle masterpiece Magnesium Flares, and Zakir Hussain & Alla Rakha’s Lineage tabla duet. Both are both based around intense 16-beat percussion loops, with rapid and unpredictable drum syncopation taking up the central listening position usually occupied by melody. This is surprisingly rare in music, but is fundamental to both tintal-rhythm tabla recitals and jungle/DnB. The styles regularly hit 160-180bpm, and overall instrumental textures are similar: busy percussion in the mids, ambient harmonic colour floating in the background, and a clearly distinct level of superdeep quasi-melodic bass. The tracks above are composed of little else.

 

Both styles feature heavy drops, and multi-layered rhythm voicings are common in jugalbandi percussion duets as well as the more complex corners of jungle (hear Amon’s hint of Indian melodic flavour in there?). The percussion textures of both genres summon up sounds of water – although tabla is often said to evoke monsoon rain and streams, while the heavier splash of jungle cymbals is probably closer to a cascade of rocks falling into a lake:

 

 

Tabla’s bol percussion language and Ragga jungle’s MCing serve pretty similar functions – they are primarily about defining accents and rhythmic flow, rather than communicating via the usual linguistic meanings of words. I’ll let you decide whether MC Demolition Man or Pandit Yogesh Samsi has the better flow:

 

 

That being said, there are other ways to conjure up precise images from bols – Zakir Hussain can sketch a cannon, a galloping horse, a deer searching for food, and a steam train. In fact the rela (‘rushing’) category of tabla’s core repertoire acts as an aural history of North India, aiming among other things to evoke the sounds of Colonial railways, with many compositions explicitly aiming to mimic the sound of the new technology as it spread across North India. The first tracks were laid in the 1850s, but recorded sound did not reach India for another generation – tabla’s versatile sound palette allowed the vivid new rhythms to be captured and shared.

 

It’s also intriguing that UK Apache (jungle’s Original Nuttah MC, describes: performing…[while] doing the call to prayer at my mosque in Tooting’. Although the link to tabla is not direct, it is pleasing to know that the Islamic devotional music which profoundly influenced Hindustani performance also left its mark on a bonafide jungle classic.

 

And Pandit Lacchu Maharaj’s pre-performance ritual definitely has one similarity with the UK’s Jamaican-infused Ragga subculture. Lacchu is among the absolute funkiest of individuals, and it was an honour for me to briefly study tabla in Varanasi under a branch of his Benares gharana lineage:

 

 

Tabla and jungle share yet more direct similarities when it comes to physical performance. Whether the musician is positioned behind a pair of turntables or drums, they may well be playing for dancers in front of them (although raving and kathak are otherwise on opposite ends of the spectrum)At their best then both genres evoke a sense of immersive and spiritual fun, and given the similarity of their core elements then it is no coincidence that they both mix particularly well with jazz.

 

I’ve never heard a true fusion that would complete the Jazz/Hindustani/Jungle collaboration triangle, although Talvin Singh and some of Bill Laswell’s wilder fusions have come pretty close.

 

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So I’ve had a go at laying down some Rāga Jungle, by fusing up some classic oldskool drum breaks with the kayada compositions I learnt while studying tabla under the Mishra lineage in Benares, as well as my sloppy personal variant of the South Indian konnakol language (more on this soon). Tendonitis issues and having a day job limit my own ability to become a real tabla master, but someone who can play them properly should explore this further – you will have some incredible fun.

 

 

RJSpell

 


 

[Rāga Jungle audio/video forthcoming, i.e. let me get my shit together]

 


 

Tablas & Rāgas – YT playlist (73 mins):

 

Beautifully Crafted Jungle – YT playlist (77 mins):

 

Shuffling the combined playlist also works great.