Debashish Bhattacharya – The Sound of The Soul

Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya is arguably the greatest slide guitarist in the world. An undisputed master of the demanding technique and discipline of both Hindustani classical music and modern world fusion, he has designed and patented four types of guitar for performing raga music. Having played extensively around the globe, Debashish’s large body of work has garnered extensive recognition. His latest recording The Sound of the Soul marks his 28th album, featuring Debashish in an intimate setting with the great percussion masters, Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri on tabla and Pandit Akhilesh Gundechha on pakhawaj.

In this exclusive interview, he talks to us among other things about The Sound of the Soul, his Hindustani slide guitar, and his family’s deep roots in traditional Indian music.

IC: Tell us about your latest recording, The Sound of the Soul.

DB: Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and his father and Guru, Acharya Baba Allauddin Khan are my earliest and strongest inspirations. The soul of their music stirred my mind and imbued my understanding of Indian music. This album is truly a different one, (from the other 27 albums I’ve recorded in the past four decades). It comes from my realization of life and music as a whole from these masters’ teachings. It has vibrant energy of Matri Shakti and Bhakti Rasa of temple music Dhrupad. With amazing support from Vidwan of Tabla Pandit Swapan Chaudhury and Pakhawaj maestro Akhilesh Gundecha, this album is truest to my heart – named and endorsed by the legend John McLaughlin.

IC: Tell our readers about the Hindustani slide guitar that you unveiled in the late 1970s.

Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya with Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri (image courtesy: Debashish Bhattacharya)

DB: I contributed to the Hindustani Slide Guitar or the Indian Classical Guitar as a genre much before the awareness of the Indian slide guitar in the music world. Apart from my Guru Late Pandit Brij Bhushan Kabra, there was not much happening in terms of technical innovation on the guitar in the context of Indian music. My experiments over five decades has given birth to these unique instruments. So far, four of the instruments that I have created, the Chaturangui Gandharvi Anandi and the Pushpa Veena are simply four different voices of Indian music. They are not simply a guitar with a pickup delay and reverb with other gadgets. They carry a blend of traditional soundscapes of acoustic instruments from India and the world.

IC: Tell us about your family’s deep roots in traditional Indian music.

DB: My ancestors were Brahmin Sanskrit Pandits of Uttar Pradesh and Kashmir. They arrived in Bengal during the 16th century and were Dhrupad Bhajan singers, epic writers, and priests at the court of Bengali zamindars. My grandfather was a singer and Esraj player, my mother was a singer of the Gwalior schooling, and my father learned singing from the Patiala gharana. I learnt singing from them and tried to emulate the nuances of their singing on my six-string slide guitar at the age of three. At the age of 60, I still consider myself a young learner of the creations I’ve made.

Debashish Bhattacharya with three guitars. (image courtesy: Debashish Bhattacharya)

IC: In the past, you have collaborated with Jerry Douglas, Derek Trucks, Bob Brozman, Henry Kaiser, Martin Simpson, and Ballake Sissoko. Tell us a little about these collaborations.

DB: In American festivals, many presenters designed collaborative stages for us. We played, did workshops, and Jerry Douglas played with me on a song of mine in my album Beyond the Ragasphere. Derek Trucks also shared stage with me at the Savannah Music Festival and a few other festivals. Such incredible musicians, guitarists, and human beings they are!

Bob Brozman was more like my American student of the Hindustani slide guitar, and collaborated with me the most. He even played my two creations Chaturangui and Gandharvi on stage. We toured in North America along with Martin Simpson (whose father was a British general during the Second World War posted in then Calcutta) in 1996, and made a fantastic record MAHIMA. Ballake and I played together for a few shows in Morocco and France – the soul of Mali and Indian raga music matches like nothing else! It’s so surreal, and so sublime!

The Sound of the Soul album (image courtesy/ Debashish Bhattacharya)

IC: You were also a part of McLaughlin’s Remember Shakti band. Tell us more about that.

DB: People should know that Zakir Hussain accompanied me in a concert at Harvard in 1993, and in Cincinnati Ohio with a duet with violin legend V G Jog in my first tour in North America, But it was eye opening for me when I was invited by them. The maestros blessed me with their musical divinity. I was moved beyond word by late mandolinist U Shrinivas. It was a life changing experience. Later, I played a track of John’s Floating Point album, and he played in my album Beyond the Ragasphere.

IC: You are also an active teacher, instrument designer, and manufacturer. Tell us more.

DB: A genre started with my musical growth and I developed a style by compiling the knowledge shared by the great Gurus of my country. I had endless opportunities to develop the Indian slide guitar genre and style from zero. I have been guided by my beloved parents on how to share the new to the next generation. I wrote the first slide guitar syllabus on my finger technique, skill development chapters, and composed many songs for the slide guitar. I also created/composed three ragas, which will be shared with the younger generation in time. My grand Guru Ustad Ali Akbar Khan’s relentless life of teaching is the ideal for me.

IC: What are you working on next?

DB: A few albums relating recent worldly issues and a few collaborations. I am teaching my children, Anandi and Suryadipta, along with other students. I am also making more Pushpa Veena albums. My hands are always pretty full.

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She has worked for over a decade in print, television, and online media. Her diverse interests in the culture beat include books, music, travel, films,...