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October 29, 2012
By Forrest Hartman
Debashish Bhattacharya says it wasn't preordained that he would become a professional guitar player, but music has always been part of his life. Bhattacharya's parents were both musicians, and he says he began learning music before the alphabet.
"Not only my parents, but seven generations before my parents were all musicians," Bhattacharya said during a Skype interview from his home in India. "I always wanted to play guitar and sing and compose, and I always wanted to stay in the humanities."
Bhattacharya not only stayed in the humanities, he became a recognized master of traditional Indian slide guitar. In fact, his innovative and virtuosic playing prompted one critic to call him the "Indian embodiment of Jimi Hendrix." Bhattacharya's skills will be on display during a 7:30 p.m. Oct. 31 performance at Nightingale Concert Hall. The concert is being presented as part of the University of Nevada, Reno's Performing Arts Series, and Bhattacharya said each of his shows is a unique experience. That's largely because much of the music he performs is improvisational.
"(For the experienced musician) raga is maximum 30 percent composed and 70 percent improvised," Bhattacharya said.
How much a musician improvises in raga depends largely on experience. Now 49, Bhattacharya has been playing since he was a child, and he said it's not unusual for him to improvise freely.
"I have a natural ability to create story out of the melody and rhythm at any moment," he said. "I even have composed a song where I started playing a concert (while) tuning my 22 strings. While I was tuning, I composed some song in my head, and I played one and a half hours with that composition."
For his University of Nevada, Reno show, Bhattacharya will perform with his younger brother, Subhasis Bhattacharya, and daughter, Anandi Bhattacharya. Subhasis is a respected percussionist and studio musician in India, and Anandi is an up-and-coming singer. Bhattacharya has played with many musicians during his career, but he said there is something special about touring with family.
"It is kind of bringing something together for the audience out of the treasure of our own family culture," he said. "That is different than playing with somebody else. Then, we share something and create something different by blending two different objects. Here, the object is our traditional raga music, but the capacity is knowing each other's lives, knowing each other's music. So, it has a different flavor, a different color, a different sound."
Although Bhattacharya plays traditional Indian music, he has personalized it many ways. Among other things, Western audiences will likely notice that he's customized his instruments, some of which differ significantly from the six-string guitars most commonly seen in America. He saw such customization as a necessity, not a luxury.
"The sound of the soul only can be created by the master of that sound," Bhattacharya said.
Bhattacharya said one of his most important goals in life has been bringing the beauty of traditional Indian music both to the people of his own country and the world. When he looks to the future, he said, he expects to continue doing this, but also to continuously better himself.
"I believe in life one can only do justice to one's self by becoming a great student," he said. "That is the most important thing in my life at this age, to become a better student everyday and create new boundaries, new horizons."
Tickets: $24 general, $20 seniors and University faculty, $12 general students, $5 University students. Details: (775) 784-4278