Debashish Bhattacharya has an international following not only for his playing but also his extraordinary instrumental arsenal. But more than that, Debashish is a voice of pure inspiration, helping to bring Indian classical music to the masses and tirelessly sharing his love of the form and his passion for life itself. Seriously, a 20-minute interview on the phone with Bhattacharya is like a session with a therapist, a music teacher, a learned scholar of sociology and a kind, trusted relative all rolled into one. His distinctive, idiosyncratic instruments include his lap-slide chaturangui, the 14-stringed gandharvi and the anandi, a four-string slide ukulele, but although it’s fun to dwell on the technicalities, all it really comes down to is that Debashish Bhattacharya has tapped into a whole other musical realm, and wants us all to join him there. He’ll be performing at the Dunstan Playhouse in Adelaide on July 18 as part of the Adelaide International Guitar Festival.
You play guitar like a beautiful voice, and that’s something that everyone can relate to whether they’re familiar with Indian classical music or not.
That’s something I’ve been doing for the last 30 years: performing for both sides. The people who know the kind of music I do, but I am also very much accepted by people from places where Indian music has never been heard.
Do you find you’re playing differently if you’re playing to an audience who is unfamiliar with it?
No. No, I play for myself. I play for everybody. I play for everyone the same way. I am a storyteller. I don’t know if you ever hear that type of story or not but my story always has certain values which are about uniqueness, and that story goes to everybody. I had an email last night about my show, a guy who said that they didn’t realise it was a two-hour concert. They felt like ten minutes had gone by. And that is not a new one. I am getting this appreciation for the last 35 years or so. My music is like a football match. From one goalpost to the other goal post is poetry, rhythm and melody. And everyone loves that.
In my experience, one of my greatest moments as a musician was the realisation that people were no longer saying “Wow, you play really fast”: instead they were saying “Wow, we had fun when you started playing.”
Yes! My music is very much inspired by many great things in this world, and I have found a common thread which is that music without meaning and expression is worthless. It’s a story to the feelings. I love to talk and I love to relate the current affairs through my music, and people like that, but my music has another flow of constant storytelling, and that is about the seven generations of my family’s music. Our ancestors used to be in the old tradition of maharajas or sultans. We have the seven generations of musicians, and my daughter who is coming with me to Australia is eighth generation. We have a kind of genetic disposition, you might say, to salve people with music. I don’t like to just keep on doing whatever I have done 30 years ago. That’s why I have very few albums released. Over 30 years I’ve only had 16 albums, because my albums, like my concerts, are not the same. In the UK I saw a guy following us from concert to concert and he said ‘Your first concert, I almost cried, and tonight when you played the same numbers I was happy and dancing.’ This is what I’ve learned and I have practiced from the great people of the world. The creative people never stay in one line forever.
So tell us about your guitars. They’re very individual instruments.
It’s very unusual, and I have named them chaturangui, gandharvi and the anandi. If you see me, you see me as a man, but if you hear those guitars played, those three guitars, you are hearing myself. They are part of my energy. The are part of my upbringing, my development, my knowledge, my compassion, my every feeling. They are part of it. They have grown line branches from my tree.
I imagine it starts with a musical feeling and then figuring out what you need to do to get that out.
It was a very big urge within myself, like when a mother wants to have a baby. That kind of urge I had, when I first changed a six-string guitar into chaturangui. Now I have seen people love it, and people love the music. They love the sound and they love to see how all the strings are played like an orchestra. Just last night an old lady said ‘That guitar is an orchestra!’ But I definitely love to tell you that if I didn’t have a traditional Indian raga music background, if I had not heard my mum and dad singing every night, every day, I would not have come to design these guitars and I would not have come to make a blend of traditional Indian instruments and guitar. So I’m really fortunate in that I was born in the Bhattacharyas, and my mum and dad have never told me to do anything else that to do what I was doing, with one mind, two hands and one soul.