When Debashish Bhattacharya was young, his family didn’t allow him to yield to the confining box of everyday work. Instead they kept him on the musical path which he seems to have trodden with prolific grace ever since.
Keeping well outside the box, he has designed his own family of instruments, including the Hindustani slide guitar, the Chaturangui lap-slide, and the Anandi, a four-string slide ukulele. He also has his own not-for-profit music school in West Bengal where his own six-grade music syllabus is taught. Although steeped in tradition, he is not a traditionalist, he is an innovator.
Before playing at the Dunstan Playhouse on Friday night, he described the nature of the Indian ragas; how they flow with the seasons and follow times of day and night, then introduced his brother Subhasis Bhattacharjee, playing table, and vocalist Anandi Bhattacharya, his daughter.
A resonating background drone began, laying an undulating platform for rambling tabla chimes and Anandi’s arresting vocals. Little twangs of DB’s slide guitar accented the glow and the group vibe instantly recalled my 16-year-old fascination with India. Non-aggressive, non-saccharin, unrepressed and whole, its enveloping rays of gold fluxed through the Dunstan Playhouse, replacing dysphoria with euphoria. The music seemed to transcend clumsy critique and crystallised all pain and joy at once. As when he spoke of the release of water from clouds during monsoon rains as a joyous release, so an existential release seemed to occur amid the endless plain of major key improvisation in their monsoon raga.
There truly is only one necessary chord. The punks were over complicating things with their three. As DB weaved in and out of the harmonic drone, duelling with Bhattacharjee’s tabla in true virtuoso style, the all-pervasive vibe consumed any faint leering of lewd technical noodling for its own sake. Every note and strike had such nascent, intrinsic power one could almost feel the tendrils and meat falling off one’s bones as the spirit took precedence. DB’s music could happily appeal to the technical junkie and the abstract music fan alike.
This set of ragas from beyond were alive and thrashing, totally overwhelming the present moment. Past and future thoughts did not belong but somehow everything was connected, like sound waves bleeding across the fourth dimension and showing flashes in the past and the yet to come. By the end of the performance I felt like astronaut Dave at the finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey; I was simultaneously the embryo, the old man and the mid-life explorer.
DB’s live show possessed a pure automatic beauty that swept away all existential neuroses. Every torrential downpour of tabla, every spark of slide guitar and every climbing journey of Anandi Bhattacharya’s vocals gathered into a swollen golden monsoon tide of Ganges river flow.
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