There are few bigger names in Indian classical music than Calcutta’s Debashish Bhattacharya. Which is quite curious when you consider his instrument of choice is lap steel guitar. Over the last 30 odd years he has continued to innovate, furthering the form and inventing new slide guitars, such as his world renowned trinity of slide guitars, and collaborated with the likes of Bob Brotzman, John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain, and Jerry Douglas. His style is unique, utilizing elements of various other instruments such as the Veena, Sitar, Sarod and Kannur, though with his thirst for cross cultural collaboration his approach is continually evolving. He has been referred as “possibly the greatest slide guitarist who has ever lived,” by Bob Brotzman, and with good reason, as his live performances are simply mesmirising. Cyclic caught up with this modern master of the lap steel at a boarding gate on a flight to Thailand.
Bob: What continues to inspire you about music these days?
Debashish: It is the chaos outside that inspires me a lot to be quiet and play my music. The world is full of chaos. Many differences of opinions, many crazy crazy things around. The first thing is that if you take out my professional aspect of music, one of the most important things is the chaos everywhere and delivering sounds to humans, that is number one. Number two is that I want to be a better human through my practice and my guitars. Number three, I want to share whatever gift I have in me, that many other people don’t have. These three things give me the biggest inspiration to be a musician.
Bob: Can I ask you about number two? How does music make you a better human?
Debashish: The quality of awareness and consciousness in humans is incomparable amongst any other animal. The consciousness about the time, about the creativity, which you can see visually, which you can communicate through with others. It is a creative art, which is a huge potential in humans. So I definitely think the practice of music makes a person a better person with full consciousness and awareness. That is most important to practice as a human as I believe.
Bob: When you perform you do tend to look quite blissful, you do tend to look like you enter almost a higher realm. Is that something you are conscious of when you are playing?
Debashish: (laughs) When I play I cannot describe what is my level of thrill because I most of the time I do not know what I do, and where I stay and how I do it. It is a constant selfless activity when I sit with my instrument on my lap. If I play in my practice room, or for God or for my audience, or in the recordings, that’s the same actually. But I cannot describe what it is like (laughs).
Bob: You’ve been playing the guitar for so long, it must almost feel like an extension of your hands. Is that what it’s like, does it always feel natural or does sometimes it feel like you’ve never picked up the instrument before? What’s your relationship like with your guitars?
Debashish: My guitar is my guru. My guitar teaches me so many things. My guitar exposes me so many times to what I cannot. My guitar is my best friend. It gives me a place to hide when I am sad or I am not sure. It gives me a place to sleep when I need rest or am restless. It gives me the support as a friend when I need. It is my first valentine. It is my everything. It is my extension of my life. I say the fretboard of the guitar is an extension of my spine (laughs).
Bob: Oh wow. It’s beautiful to hear these descriptions. It’s funny. The slide guitar is not traditionally known to come from India. It seems like a bizarre instrument to pick up in the first place. I was reading you started playing when you were three.
Debashish: First of all if you know lap steel guitar. Then you understand that lap steel guitar is not a bizarre instrument for any culture. It is one of the most soothing and supporting instruments for any genre of music in any place of the world. Lap steel guitar, Hawaiian guitar which has been the basic resource for me in making my instruments, do have a drone effect. They have a beautiful sweet open sound of the body. Which of course goes to support the voice very well. When it comes to the left hand when you glide a bar, then your potential is limitless, It doesn’t have any frets to stop and touch. It is unstoppable, like the voice, like the violin, like the flute. Like any other bowing or gliding instrument. So that is why it is one of the best instruments in the world, guitar, and especially lap steel guitar. I’m not saying this because I play it. I can prove why it’s one of the best. If you go to the history, you can Google, most of the western genres, America, Europe, Australia have a huge potential, slide guitar people, there is a slide guitar community everywhere. Why? Because it is such a desired instrument. But when I took it I got it from my families’ household. No one else played that instrument before. But when I strummed the first note, which is D and the second note which is A, and the third note, which was open, f-sharp, and it was a beautiful instrument and joyful sound. And that is how I began the love affair with my guitar.
Bob: Because of all your work, it’s become much better known. I imagine you would have Indian disciples now all playing the instrument.
Debashish: I have Australian disciples too.
Bob: Fantastic. Because I imagine you would continue to be interested in guitar playing regardless of where the person comes from, because there’s always different styles and approaches.
Debashish: The message I always want to share with my students is don’t shield yourself in one self, or one corner of the elevator. Go through all the races, see if you can make friends with all of the genres, but to do that you need to learn and be grounded in Indian classical raga music. It is most important. Basically what happens is you need to be very open minded. You need to be lovable. You need to love yourself and accept love from others. If you can do that you can create a better and bigger area of your music and your fans and followers. Which has actually happened in my case because I’ve never made any difference between my Indian students or my overseas students. That is why I have trained them the same way. I have been teaching more than forty years. I have met so many wonderful talents of guitars from all over the world. I have been so fortunate.
Bob: I think you can hear your open mindedness on albums like Beyond the Ragasphere, where you had people like Jerry Douglas and John McLaughlin playing with you and the styles seemed to transform; it was a real melting pot of styles and approaches. Is that something that attracts you, performing in styles that people wouldn’t expect?
Debashish: You know John and Jerry; we have a mutual respect and love for what we do. We’ve played together many times; sometimes we’d play Jerry or John’s songs, in many places around the world. It was a hard time playing my compositions so I feel very deeply honoured from my heart that they did that. That is one thing that I wanted to do, to be open. And when you are there, you can set challenges in music.
Musicians are a different breed of humans. They are some of the most courageous people on the planet. They get rejected in their day more than any other professional gets rejected in one year. Their rejection comes from their disability of playing whatever they want. Their instruments reject them. Their organisations reject them, recording companies reject them, and they reject themselves as well. But these are the musicians, Jerry and John and many others whom I met, they gave me the courage to fight all the odds, with openness of music. And Beyond the Ragasphere album is one of those products, of one of those talents, and exchanges in life, exchanges of protection in my album.
My last album From Dusk till Dawn. The ragas I played I had never played before. It is a constant effort to make it happen, so audiences get something new. Something to believe in music. Something to get courage, to live with music.
Debashish Bhattacharya is performing at Womadelaide.11-14th of March 2016 in Adelaide Botanical Gardens and let’s just say we’re more than a little bit excited about this. More info here.
Debashish will also perform at Riverside Theatres in Parramatta on Sunday 20 March. More info here