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Sliding between cultures, instruments

Debashish Bhattacharya merges the Hindustani and blues traditions

In addition to the slide guitar, Debashish Bhattacharya plays the 14-string gandharvi and the anandi, a four-string slide ukulele. In addition to the slide guitar, Debashish Bhattacharya plays the 14-string gandharvi and the anandi, a four-string slide ukulele.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Andrew Gilbert
Globe Correspondent / April 6, 2008

Debashish Bhattacharya hasn't slept for more than 50 hours, and it's not just because he spent an unscheduled evening at the Newark airport.

Somewhere on the journey from Delhi to Savannah, Ga., the airline lost track of the slide guitarist's 24-string, hollow-neck chaturangui, a unique instrument of his own design, and anxiety over the fate of his treasured guitar kept him from slumber. But rather than despairing, Bhattacharya is effusive during an interview, radiating the same sense of rippling joy and beatific pleasure that permeates his ragas.

"Our instruments are like our parents; we're so attached to them with our souls," Bhattacharya says from Savannah, the first stop on a 13-city US tour that brings him to the Museum of Fine Arts on Wednesday for a performance with his brother, Subhasis Bhattacharya, on tabla, and his sister, Sutapa Bhattacharya, on vocals. "But you cannot carry all those instruments when you travel these days. I hope that it will arrive tonight. I'm optimistic, but I haven't been able to shut my eyes since I checked it in."

Steeped in classical Hindustani music, Bhattacharya has won an international following with his supremely graceful slide guitar work, though calling him a guitarist doesn't really capture his singular instrumental arsenal. In addition to the chaturangui, he plays the 14-string gandharvi and the anandi, a four-string slide ukulele, all designed to facilitate his lyrical flights.

His performance in Georgia gave a good sense of the company he's been keeping. The Savannah Music Festival's "World of Slide Guitar" concert featured him in musical conversation with the 28-year-old Allman Brothers phenomenon Derek Trucks, dobro master Jerry Douglas, and globe-trotting string expert Bob Brozman, who has performed widely with Bhattacharya over the past decade.

"His manual dexterity and his depth of rhythmic knowledge are generally off the charts of normal Western musicianship," Brozman wrote in an e-mail. "At the same time, there is a certain naivete about his harmonic sensibilities, which adds a kind of charm to the super-human playing."

Bhattacharya performs seated cross-legged on stage, with his instrument flat across his lap. In American music, slide guitar is indelibly linked to the blues, and the technique's vocal inflections are commonly used for searing, extroverted effect.

In Bhattacharya's hands, slide guitar is an infinitely subtle vehicle employing microtonal scales and intricate patterns alternating brief, lightly touched notes and long, sustained slides.

Last year Bhattacharya won the BBC Planet Award for World Music, and his growing reputation is sure to be spurred forward with Tuesday's release of "Calcutta Chronicles: Indian Slide Guitar Odyssey" (Riverboat Records), a deeply satisfying new album featuring his original, mostly devotional compositions.

His combination of soul and stellar technique has attracted the attention of elite guitarists like John McLaughlin, who wrote in an e-mail that he was so "impressed by his musicianship and heart-felt playing" that in 2000 he invited Bhattacharya to perform with Remember Shakti, a new incarnation of the pioneering Indo-jazz ensemble he founded with tabla master Zakir Hussain. (That Mumbai concert was documented on the DVD "The Way of Beauty.") They've performed together several times since then, "and for my latest recording, 'Floating Point,' it was impossible not to invite him as a guest soloist," McLaughlin wrote.

Bhattacharya grew up accompanying his parents, who are both vocalists, but he distinguished himself as a prodigy at 3 after discovering a Hawaiian guitar at home, a remnant from a Bengali Hawaiian music craze sparked by a visit from the great Hawaiian steel guitarist Tao Moe in the late 1920s.

"I couldn't leave it in the corner. The tone, the design, the rich sound, the tradition should be like my voice," he says of his immediate connection with the instrument. "You can say I'm the pioneer, because no one has done it before, playing raga music on slide guitar."

Bhattacharya was already a widely revered virtuoso when he came under the sway of Brij Bhushan Kabra, the man most responsible for bringing the guitar into Indian classical music. Rather than try to channel Bhattacharya's style in a specific direction, Kabra has encouraged him to continue collaborating with an international array of artists, while always expanding his knowledge of Hindustani ragas.

"Many gurus have a passion to hear or see their style in their disciples, which is natural," Bhattacharya says. "My guru has done the reverse. Maybe he has seen a future in me, in the way I grew up with the instrument I played. But I loved to copy his music, and many nights I was crying in my room. I thought my guru doesn't love me because he doesn't want me to copy his music."

Now Bhattacharya knows that Kabra was paying him the ultimate compliment by encouraging him to continue on his own path. It's a triumphant passage that is taking him around the world, even if his beloved guitars don't always arrive at the same time.

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