The disparate elements of cultures as different as those of India and America don’t always mix well. Enchanting guitar talent most often breeds No. 1 blues and country hits in America, while the Indian sitar produces peaceful ballads.

Sarah Royce
Debashish Bhattacharya will play the slide guitar tonight at the School of Music. (Courtesy of Battacharya)

Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya has merged the unique sounds of both traditions through his Hindustani classical slide guitar music, which he will unleash tonight at the School of Music’s Britton Recital Hall.

“Because (Bhattacharya) will be playing guitar, an instrument Westerners are already familiar with and can relate to, it removes one of the first potential barriers and makes (the music) easier to understand,” School of Music senior Robert Lester said. “He approaches music differently, crossing borders and hybridizing while maintaining authenticity.”

Lester, the event’s primary organizer, knew he wanted to bring the guitar genius to campus from the first time he came in contact with the classical Indian melodies of Bhattacharya’s latest album “Calcutta Slide Guitar 3” in early 2006. “I personally found his music compelling and beautiful,” Lester said. “It’s really, really great stuff.”

After petitioning the University, fundraising efforts stirred. “I knew if I really commit myself to a purpose,” Lester said. “I just had to craft the right sort of argument to the right people.” Convincing the University of the Bhattacharya’s excellence would bring to its grounds was not a difficult task.

The term “Pandit” is an Indian title given only to scholars for significant mastery of an area, particularly religion and the arts. Bestowing this title on Bhattacharya, Lester thinks, is more than fitting. Besides the ingenuity of his individually-designed 22 string acoustic guitar, Bhattacharya has spent a great deal of his life sharing his knowledge, particularly at his School of Universal Music, in Calcutta, India.

“What distinguishes him from other traveling performers is that he is an educator as well as a performer,” Lester said. “He adopted a Western instrument to an Eastern aesthetic and plays with a technique that’s all his own.”

Raising the funds to bring a foreign musician of such a high caliber wasn’t simple. While the University was getting a bargain price for such a performance, Bhattacharya and his two siblings, Sutapa (Vocals and Tambura) and Sri Subhasis Bhattacharya (Tabla), did not have a place to stay because the money raised could not cover both payment and hotel rooms. Telluride House, a scholarship organization on campus, stepped forward.

“They were profoundly helpful,” Lester said, “and have the chance to bring a unique visitor to the house.” Telluride House offered rooms and food for all three musicians.

Though somewhat unknown in the United States, Bhattacharya is held in high esteem in India and other parts of the world. Lester hopes the Ann Arbor community will spread his good name. “I’ve been able to play his CD for others and they respond with lots of enthusiasm,” Lester said. “I’ve never heard anything like (his music), and the most exciting part is the anticipation of the show.”

Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya
Tonight and tomorrow at 8 p.m.
At the School of Music E.V.Moore Building, Britton Recital Hall

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