23 July 2014

The amazing Debashish Bhattacharya

Every week I write a short column that appears in the M lift-out in The Sunday Age newspaper. It's called Six Burning Questions and I love it. I love it because I get to interview all kinds of people who do interesting stuff from all over the world. Although the interviews are pretty short (I get about 20 minutes tops) and over the phone, we often get into some pretty interesting territory. The trickiest part is editing the interview down to a short, snappy piece within the word count – I often have to cut out some of the best stuff and it kills me.

So, with my editor’s blessing, I’m going to start publishing some longer versions of my Six Burning Questions here – sometimes to seven and beyond. The first is a quite recent one I did with Indian guitar maestro Debashish Bhattacharya, who I called in Kolkata before he made his first trip to Australia. Debashish is an extraordinarily accomplished musician, who, amongst other things, pioneered a new approach to Indian traditional music using a Hawaiian slide guitar, started his own school, and invented three guitars. He is also extremely fun to talk to and very inspiring. We went along to his concert last week and it was incredible. He performed with an amazing tabla player and his daughter, who is a fantastic singer. She is also a hilarious teenager and would respond sarcastically every time Debashish told a story, with something like, ‘here we go again,’ or, ‘no you didn’t’.

The music was great to hear live and he had even brought the three guitars he invented along. At one point he said he’d like to thank Singapore Airlines, and we all groaned, expecting to hear a story about lost luggage, but Debashish explained that not all news is bad news and that he had had a wonderful experience with Singapore Airlines and they had delivered all his instruments safely. He then asked for a round of applause for Singapore Airlines and his daughter rolled her eyes.

When did you first play a guitar?
At age three my mum and dad gave me a Hawaiian steel string slide guitar. It was an immense pleasure from the beginning to have the guitar on my lap. I played little mini concerts as a child and at the age of four I played for the first time on our national broadcaster, the All India Radio. 

Did you know straight away that this would be your life?
I did not know about the rest of my life but I still clearly remember how bright the energy of that first sound of the string of the guitar as I plucked it. I became so deeply involved with that little instrument. 

What do you love about the Hawaiian slide guitar? What is your connection to Hawaiian culture?
There is so much similarity between the music I heard in my childhood and Hawaiian traditional music. It gives me a very strong belief of remaining in the tradition. Music is not a sound only. When you hear Hawaiian and old Indian raga music, you understand that music is not only sound. 

Your music is both innovative and traditional. How do you walk that line?
I always felt that in music it is a huge responsibility for a performing artist to carry the tradition in one hand and keep it running so that the tradition has some wheels and a motor to run into the future. When I started playing the guitar, I heard Ravi Shankar and so many stars of our country. But my guitar didn’t sound like the soundscape of those traditional Indian instruments. To follow the tradition of an old Indian heritage of raga music I had no other option than making something new and different, so my slide guitar could accommodate more soundscapes of Indian origin.

You started the Universal School of Music in Kolkata. Is your hope that musicians continue to innovate traditional music?
My school is very interesting. Drummers, vocalists, saxophone players, jazz pianists, a bagpiper from Ireland and many other instruments come to our school. Every student learns differently, and stays for up to two months with us. We started in 2004 so this is the tenth year. We have worked with 80 musicians and apart from that we have also given our school facilities to another 150 students. In January 2015 we are staging an international guitar festival in Kolkata. 

What would you like to achieve next in your career?
First of all I want to play a little better every day. I want all my questions related to music to be answered. I want to create a group of the younger generation of guitar players who can play Indian classical slide guitar. I also want to do loads of recording which I could not do before because I was always busy with something else. Also to collaborate with different artists, including some African, some European. And to write some music for Philharmonic Orchestra. Those are the things I want to achieve in the next 10 years before I retire.

What do you like to do besides play music?
If I have time I watch and play football. I play cricket as well but I stopped playing badminton because it hurts my tennis elbow. I also watch action movies and cooking is also my passion. Also sometimes on a Saturday night if I don’t have any concerts, I bring some musicians to my home and we play together and eat together.

It sounds like a great life.
(Laughs) that is what you wanted to know! You did not want to know the sadder parts of my life, so I am not telling you.

Debashish Bhattacharya performed at Arts Centre Melbourne on July 16, 2014. The Six Burning Questions version of this interview was published in The Sunday Age on July 13, 2014. An online version can be found here.

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