Debashish Bhattacharya ~ When Music Is Magic

omkara Interviews

If you have true spirit, if you create a new world for others, you become the embodiment of divinity. Debashish Bhattacharya
Debashish Bhattacharya is one of a kind. As an ambassador of the Hindustani classical tradition he is amongst the most highly regarded musicians alive today. At the same time he is an adventurous collaborator who cherishes diversity and has worked with revered artists from many backgrounds. Born into a musical family, he showed great talent from a very young age and received his first guitar aged 3. By the time he was 15, already an accomplished player, he made his mark as a true innovator when he designed the Chaturangui, a 24-string evolution of the Indian slide guitar. He also developed the 14-string Gandharvi and the 4-string Anandi, a slide ukulele named after his daughter, Sukhanya Bhattacharya, herself a wonderful vocalist whose star is on the rise.

Not only a prolific creator, Debashish is an equally beloved educator. He welcomes students at Bhattacharya’s School of Universal Music in Kolkata, as well as continuing to teach alongside a busy concert schedule. His annual India International Guitar Festival brings together masters of the instrument from all over the world in a borderless celebration. This year Debashish’s latest album, Slide Guitar Ragas from Dusk Till Dawn, won the prestigious Songlines World Music Award, and he is currently touring around the planet making new music and friends faster than we can keep up!

My own introduction to Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya came during Womadelaide Festival earlier this year. Without knowing what a treat I was in for I accompanied Australian tour manager, Jordan Verzar, to Debashish’s hotel room. We surprised a spontaneous crowd gathering in the corridor, attracted by the incredible music emanating from behind the anonymous door. Upon entering, the two of us were graciously greeted with a radiant smile by Debashish, who invited us to sit as he and longtime collaborator, tabla maestro Tanmoy Bose, continued their rehearsal. During the next 20 minutes we listened in wonder as these two dear friends prepared their evening concert with breathtaking virtuosity and unmistakable joy.

Debashish’s music engages listeners within a rarified atmosphere that completely transcends the surroundings. His playing and his presence resound with deep compassion, generosity and a reverence towards life that is clearly apparent and positively infectious. Today we are honored to have the chance to ask Debashish about his own story and what is behind all this intangible magic.

YOU BRING ELEVATION, DEPTH AND HAPPINESS TO THE AUDIENCES WITH YOUR MUSIC. WOULD YOU PLEASE SPEAK ABOUT THE SPIRITUAL PURPOSE OF MUSIC AS YOU SEE IT?
When one connects with the world with other reasons than being absorbed within the ‘me’… This is called Spiritual connection. I think when we breathe in same air, soak in same sun, use same h2o to drink, we are connected within the five elements. But when the most dear, most pleasant sound of us (what we call Naad – and music is a creation out of it) finds its harmony in the five elements of Nature, a bridge of realisation and action grows between us. I think I’ve always somehow searched for these connections beyond the music I do as a professional, and I realised that’s the way I’ve been connected or been in a process of being a connector through my music. It’s a kind of elevation of the mind, soul and spirit as you keep on attaining higher levels of excellence in the depth of act and realisation, thus becoming submerged gradually in bliss and happiness..

MUSIC IS A CHANGING FORM, AS YOU SO ELEGANTLY EMBODY. COULD YOU GUVE US SOME INSIGHT INTO THE ARTISTIC CULTURE YOU GREW UP IN AND THE ROLE OF DEVOTION TO A TRADITION AND A TEACHER, PARTICULARLY AS ITS RELATES TO THE WORLD OF EXTREME CROSS-POLLINATION WE FIND OURSELVES IN TODAY? 
Refinement through practice was our family education, and to stay focused. As an artist I primarily accepted that process. Culturally I was very open in my appreciation of all sorts of high forms of art: outdoor games, theatre, food, ritual activities, writing, painting, literature, poetry, songs, even dance… This was my growth path.
One needs to surrender to a true Guru who finds in one the true Jewels of talent. Being with the Guru, living with his or her breath, loving his or her tradition, gives a shape to life; a shape of the carrier of the same tradition. With devotion and purity of heart imbibing is the only possibility.

I left my career, my profession, my students, my family, for ten years. Left Kolkata and travelled 2300 kilometers from the east border of India to the west border, to Ahmedabad, (at 21 years old). During this time I was immersed in a completely different culture, language, lifestyle, food and daily activities. I adjusted myself to live on two meals a day and having just two pairs of pajama and two shirts for ten years while I looked into only music and its forms to learn from my Guru. None of my generation had to do it like I did, because my Guru I’ve chosen from another world!

Indian classical music is still cherished mostly by habituated listeners, who by generation or by learning in their early days got the taste for it. Instead of only playing for them, which I’ve been doing for the last 50 years, I’m collaborating with the global natural musicians who also feel connected in the same way as I feel. It is a real journey, recording and performing with the musicians of the world. Again and again I realize that Raga is not anyone’s father’s property, it’s the original universal language of humanity.

It takes loads of courage and sacrifice to pursue this path. I’m doing that, living on the edge – no matter what – since the beginning of the 70s. Only contemporary 3-4 minute slow popular songs were being played on Hawaiian guitar in India at that time. A new age of slide guitar began with my art of life. I opened up new horizons to the slide guitarists of the world. Since the mid 70’s I have taught about four generations and shared the dream of Indian slide guitar through thousands of master classes, workshops and residency programs. Today’s children playing and trying to imbibe the music makes me happy.

Music is about the changing form within the classicism; within the forms and norms of the tradition. I looked for inspiration beyond the horizon and found it.. There. On one hand you accept the beauty of the tradition you are passionate about. On the other hand you are so passionate that you create a new universe of style of playing that can soak in the entire legacy of Raga and metamorphose into a genuine evolution of the tradition.

If I would not be courageous to find the other world you would not today interview me. 🙂 It’s part of the cross pollination.Debashish Bhattacharya

DID YOU EVER EXPERIENCE DOUBT OR HAVE TROUBLE APPLYING YOURSELF TO PRACTICING ? IF YOU DID, WHAT HELPED YOU TO OVERCOME THAT?
I always had doubt and trouble – rather say challenges – as I was trying to find a black cat in a dark room, applying new things on western lap-steel guitar. Courage, believing in self, listening to my inside and logic, these are my GURUS (!) who helped me to get what I longed for.

WHAT DO YOU VALUE AND APPRECIATE THE MOST IN LIFE? 
What I see, what I listen, what I taste – followed by how I get inspired to act. By large what I learn and how I grow… Younger 🙂

WHAT LIFE LESSON OR ADVICE HAD HELD TH EMOST ENDURING MEANING FOR YOU? 
Forget those who didn’t walk with you in your hardest struggle. Remember: You are alone responsible for what you do. If you love God – God loves you… If you have true spirit, if you create a new world for others, you become the embodiment of divinity. Playing football and playing Raga music on my Chaturangui is the same, as said by my father. You never keep on playing the same stuff over and over.

I READ IN AN INTERVIEW THAT YOU PRACTICE MENTALLY AS WELL AS PHYSICALLY. COULD YOU PLEASE DESCRIBE HOW THAT HAPPENS?
Mental practice is much stronger when you sing or speak or chant or count, shutting your mouth or hands in your pockets. It reconnects and allows you to realise if you are doing right or wrong during your physical practice. It helps give you the best print in your memory of what you do during physical practice.

WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER THE MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF WHAT YOU ARE BRINGING TO THE WOLRD AT THIS TIME?
Peace, joy, light and true human communication through music.

CAN YOU ADVISE ASPIRING ARTISTS ON HOW TO RAISE THEIR PRACTICE TO THE HIGHEST LEVEL THEY CAN?
All I can say is: believing in Guru, perseverance, being true to self, working hard and analyzing every step are a few things to take care of. Use your head: Meditate, gain long term memory power. Believe in love. Everyday rewind yourself and find at least one thing you did good that you want to repeat and one you think you could do differently next time.

AS A PERSON WITH A WEALTH OF EXPERIENCE IN INTERCULTURAL EXCHANGE, WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE KEY TO US OVERCOMING OUR DIFFERENCES IN ORDER TO THRIVE TOGETHER OUR CURRENT GLOBAL SITUATION; ENVIRONMENTALLY, CULTURALLY AND INTERPERSONALLY? 
Stay together with faith that we are children of one parent. You need to have love for all, you can’t share love for a piece of the whole. Let’s help each other and have a global empathy. We live happy and let live others of our close family and bigger family. Work for the people of the future world. Let’s stop digging Mother Earth, use ocean-filtered water to drink and use alternative energy sources as much as possible. SLOW DOWN IN POPULATION! We are too many!! Self-practicing of art, literature, music, games, brings peace on this lovely planet Earth. Let’s all work together against climate change – it’s not too late.

Interview by Naomi Jean: www.naomijean.com

For more information on Debashish please visit: http://www.debashishbhattacharya.com

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