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Debashish Bhattacharya Recasts Slide Guitar

January 30, 2014
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I have worked with many Indian and Western masters of music since 1993, so I could not resist asking some of them to play on my 50th birthday album,” says celebrated Indian slide-guitar virtuoso Debashish Bhattacharya. “It is a feast of music drawing on varied genres reaching beyond the traditional ragas that I have been playing my entire life, and is my first fusion album.”

Included among the many esteemed musicians contributing to Beyond the Ragasphere [Worldisc] are Bhattacharya’s longtime friends guitarist John McLaughlin and Dobro maestro Jerry Douglas, as well as renowned classical and flamenco guitarist Adam del Monte. The album presents a highly evocative trans-global fusion of melodic and rhythmic approaches, brimming with breathtaking musical interactions and stellar guitar playing.

Bhattacharya began playing Hawaiian lap-steel when he was three, and gave his first performance on All India Radio a year later. One of his many early teachers was Brij Bhushan Kabra, with whom he studied for a decade. Kabra was the first musician to successfully establish slide guitar within Indian classical music, and Bhattacharya moved the art form forward while also being cognizant of the past.

“There were many experiments with slide guitar in Indian music from 1950 onward, but we also have the ancient chitra veena, gottyuvadyam, and vichitra veena, so slide Indian raga instruments were already there before the slide guitar,” says Bhattacharya. “I designed three original instruments that I call the Trinity of Guitars—all of which are tuned to open tunings. The 22-string Chaturangui has eight main strings, with two rhythm strings in front, and 12 sympathetic strings or chickaree on the side closest to the player—which is the opposite of where they are located on other Indian stringed instruments. It is tuned to D, Dm, G, or Gm. The Gandharvi has 14 strings—12 main strings and two chickaree—and sounds like a combination of a flamenco guitar and an Indian lute called the sarangi. It is tuned to E, Em, A, or Am. The Anandi is a 4-string slide ukulele named for my daughter [who sings on Beyond the Ragasphere]. It is tuned E, G#, B, E [low to high].”

Bhattacharya, who plays with fingerpicks and a thumbpick, describes his right-hand technique as “three-finger picking that blends sarod and sitar styles with banjo and flamenco styles.” He has experimented with many types of slides, but mostly plays with his cylindrical John Pearse Signature and Diamond Bottleneck Signature models, as well as a “rose quartz egg.”

Bhattacharya has taught more than 3,000 students from around the world—a third of them from outside of India.

“Anyone wishing to learn to play Indian slide guitar should join me for winter sessions at my School of Universal Music, where we also offer classes in tabla and voice,” says Bhattacharya. “We accept anyone irrespective of age or previous experience.”

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