Debashish Bhattacharya's Spellbinding Slide

“Onstage, when I get deep into the raga, I forget everything,” says Indian slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya. “First, I forget where I’m sitting. Then I forget what I’m doing. And, finally, I forget my name and who I am.”

Hailed as today’s premier raga-guitar virtuoso, Bhattacharya began playing Hawaiian lap steel when he was three. At 21—already thoroughly schooled in Indian rhythmic singing, sitar, and Western classical guitar—Bhattacharya left home to study for a decade with Pandit Brij Bhushan Kabra, the founder of the Indian slide-guitar genre. Inspired by Kabra’s expressive melodies—which he played on converted archtops—Bhattacharya began designing his own lap-slide instruments, complete with sympathetic strings, chickaree drones, and hollow necks. On 3: Calcutta Slide-Guitar [Riverboat Records/World Music Network], Bhattacharya performs hypnotic ragas on his three favorite creations.

“I call them my Trinity of Guitars,” he elaborates, “representing the past, present, and future of Indian slide.”

The first member of the trinity is the Chaturangui—a 22-string behemoth that includes six primary melody strings and 12 sympathetic strings tuned to the notes of a given raga. “On all traditional plucked raga instruments,” says Bhattacharya, “such as the sitar, veena, and sarod, the chickaree run along the side of the neck closest to the performer. But on the Chaturangui, I located the chickaree on the opposite side, next to the first string. Doing this lets me pluck the drones with my index finger, rather than my thumb, and thus play much faster passages.”

The Chaturangui combines the exotic buzzing tones of a sitar with the plaintive treble and growling bass of an open-tuned Delta slide guitar. “The sixth string is D,” explains Bhattacharya, “which is two octaves below the first string. On ‘Usha,’ the fourth track on the album, you can hear me play low tones using a solid crystal egg as my bar. It has a very large diameter, and it produces a very deep sound. I also use a 1928 Bakelite bar, John Pearse and Dunlop bullet bars, a solid glass bar made by Ian McWee [of Diamond Bottlenecks in England], and a tiny bar the size of my finger made here in India.”

The trinity’s second member is the 14-string Gandharvi. “This is a hollowneck 12-string with two chickaree,” details Bhattacharya. “The top three pairs of melody strings are each tuned in unison, and the bottom three pairs are tuned in octaves. When you pluck a pair of unison strings under a slide bar, their vibrations disturb each other, and the notes sustain for a long time. Because of this, I don’t need sympathetic strings, so the Gandharvi has a very clean sound.

“My third guitar is the 4-string Anandi, which is like a baby Weissenborn tuned to E, G#, B, E [low to high]. The Gandharvi and Chaturangui are built in Calcutta, but the hollowneck Anandi is made by Michael Dunn in British Columbia. Tridev International is making these instruments available for a new generation of slide guitarists in India and abroad. These are cross-cultural instruments for jazz and blues slide guitarists, as well as those playing ragas, which we believe is not ethnic music for one part of the world, but rather global music for everyone to share.”