Debashish Bhattacharya
live in York

Debashish Bhattacharya, slide guitar guru and preserver of the ancient Indian classical system, touches down in York with his arsenal of customised axes.

By Martin Longley

Debashish Bhattacharya visualised his customised guitar right back when he was sixteen years old. It took him the best part of two decades to solidify this fantasy into a range of axes with augmented strings, a collection that still look like guitars, but possessing trimmings that call to mind a sitar. He's added sympathetic resonating strings, raised high from the guitar body, and decorated his tuning knobs with bulbed carving. He plays with the axe laid flat, its strings caressed by a metal sliding bar. Could this be another version of the blues, to sit beside those manifestations from the Sahara and the Mississippi Delta?

Since signing to Riverboat Records, Debashish Bhattacharya's UK profile has been higher, particularly in the light of his duo disc Mahima, with serial collaborator Bob Brozman. The latter guitarist is obsessed with any string that slides, so his teaming with Debashish was almost inevitable. Now, Bhattacharya has just released his own album, Calcutta Chronicles, subtitled an Indian Slide Guitar Odyssey. It's refreshing to hear an artist verge on advising his audience not to buy the disc that's on sale at his gig. Well, not quite, but Debashish does issue a warning that it features capsule, or even compromised, versions of his crucial raga material, mentally edited for the purpose of audio home comfort.

In the onstage setting, Bhattacharya is more concerned with the expected lengthy unfolding of a traditional raga, though he's not going to take as much time to unwind as many of his peers. The average length of Debashish's journey is about thirty minutes per piece, instead of the oft-attained hour-long exploration. He  drapes himself with the mantle of preservationist, viewing the old ways as being beleaguered in the face of modern technology (Bhattacharya has a curious obsession with citing GPS as the bane of the itinerant musician!). It's not that Debashish is particularly advanced in years, but he's set on preserving the ancient Indian classical system, and not just as a performer. His principle concern is that the audience needs to consciously battle, in order to find a quiet space for extended contemplation. He doesn't want you to play your disc whilst driving/eating/cleaning/procreating. He's right, of course. To solely listen requires a deliberate resolution...

Debashish is partnered by his tabla-playing brother, Subhasis, who observes silently as the opening alap is delicately formed by the sliding strings. He enters more prematurely than most, speaking with the deeply-rubbed tones of his bass skin. Debashish escalates quite quickly, plucking and picking, as he scatters single-note phrases against a backdrop of his own simultaneous jangle-cascade. It's highly intricate, and at its climax, incredibly speeding, with the pair displaying a uniquely bonded sense of improvising precision. Bhattacharya uses each of his three guitars in turn, the last being of ukulele size, and demonstrated on an even shorter piece. Close the eyes, and his sound is not so far removed from that of a sitar or veena, but Bhattacharya is nevertheless in possession of his own particular style, and has rapidly become one of the most impressive players on the Indian classical circuit.
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