Live Reviews: Debashish Bhattacharya

(chaturangi – 22-string guitar) / Farmleigh Salon Series (programmed by Improvised Music Company), Farmleigh, Castleknock, Dublin, 17 July 2006

A large black dog nearly put paid to this review – and, for a very long minute or two, it seemed likely to put paid to the reviewer. On a pleasant summer’s evening, as I was strolling across the Phoenix Park towards Farmleigh in order to see the Indian slide-guitar virtuoso Debashish Bhattacharya, I skirted a wooded area. There I came upon a very large black dog that, viewing and then reviewing me, found me more interesting than whatever it had been snuffling over in the grass. I noted with some personal interest that it was not on a leash, that it was fifty or sixty yards from its owner, and that it seemed indifferent to his increasingly urgent calls. Hot and bothered but relieved to get away, angry but unable to let loose at the dog-owner, late after being forced to make a wide detour, I was lucky to meet an IMC car and to be zipped up the avenue just in time for the slightly delayed concert.

The first piece could not have been better designed to take the mind off canine matters and to soothe the blood. This was a long, sustained raga in which, as Bhattacharya had explained earlier, the broad structure might be pre-composed but most of the detail was improvised within the lines laid down by tradition. As I was unable to see the players during that piece, it was interesting to note how remarkably sitar-like the guitar sounded. This was unhurried music that rewarded patience, as a motif was introduced, exposed and put through multiple variations before giving way to the next. Little changes of pressure, and beautifully timed pauses, made the melodic line hang almost visible before the mind’s eye, underlain by the resonance of the sympathetic strings and the jangle of the drones. There was drama too in the surging runs and in the interplay between the guitar of Debashish and the tablas of his brother Shubashish. Perhaps feeling that some of the audience was finding this 40/45-minute raga a little long, Debashish interjected a few words of explanation before two of the later phases. This was a little disconcerting but not enough to break the spell.

During the interval, Bhattacharya generously satisfied the curiosity of some audience members about the instruments and techniques he uses. As well as being an exquisite player, Debashish Bhattacharya has been an innovator in adding features that allow the slide-guitar to express the full range of Hindustani music. He can reach out to other cultures but, though himself a young prodigy, he also spent ten years as disciple to Pandit Brij Bhushan Kabra, the founder of Indian raga slide-guitar. The balmy weather allowed us to admire the grounds or to discover the astonishingly tall sunflowers in the walled garden. The second half of the concert was lighter than the first. It featured a smaller guitar in a piece that highlighted the happy interplay between the brothers and then a slide ukelele in a colour-piece that followed the ukele’s evolution, travels and eventual arrival in India. The sun had set by the time the concert ended. Much calmer than on arrival, I walked to the end of the avenue, where two fallow-deer shied away into the darkness.


Published on 1 September 2006

Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music.

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