Debashish Bhattacharya plays a trinity of so-called ‘slide guitars’ made to his own specifications. At his London concert in Milapfest’s Colours of India season, he played two – the biggest or Chaturangui and the smallest. To call the Anandi a guitar requires a pinch of poetic licence and he only played his ‘son of ukulele’ during the closing Bhairavi pieces. His brother Subashish accompanied on tabla, Charu Hariharan on Karnatic percussion and Chitragana Reshwal on pakhawaj, Hindustani music’s defining double-headed barrel drum, the northern counterpart to Hariharan’s mridangam.
The concert billed as O Shakuntala! threw up several questions and frustrations. To begin at the beginning, O Shakuntala! is the title of the Bengali musician’s 2009 recording. It takes as its inspiration The Recognition of Shakuntala – Kalidasa’s adaptation of a morality tale from the Mahabharata. In it the Sanskrit poet-playwright compares and contrasts youthful, immature love with its older, mature form won from life’s hard knocks. In the spirit of Kalidasa’s tapestry, which wove in what would now be called folkloristic (as well as non-Mahabharata) elements, Bhattacharya’s instrumental adaptation draws on non-classical elements. As a metaphor for cross-cultural alignments and divisions, it is perfect. After all, Kalidasa’s work profoundly affected Goethe and Herder during the Enlightenment as well as Rabindranath Tagore and his cousin, the swadeshi painter and writer Abanindranath Tagore later.
Despite its Milapfest stage banner, the O Shakuntala! metaphor not so much fizzled out as sadly never got a look-in. As the performance unfurled, what was revealed wasn’t O Shakuntala! What was revealed was the world music concert and Hindustani recital divide. (And one big cleft stick.) In jazz the end of every bar does automatically get a round of applause; that should apply in Indian classical recitals too. If the musicians get to the ‘one’, the sam, well, that is their job. Grammatically speaking, until the full stop, the sam is but one in a sequence of colons. Colons don’t need automatic applause.
Bhattacharya encouraging the audience to applaud after a ‘colon’ in the opening ‘number’ did not auger well. (It wasn’t genuinely inspiring either.) When it came to the next ‘number’, he announced that he didn’t know what to play. He parried a request to play Pilu like a sit-down comic handling a heckle. He asked if Pilu was a raga before doing a crazy little thing in something called Khammaj instead. The second half began with an unfocused piece of faffing about before he stopped to talk. The Bhairavi pieces were where the evening improved, with flurries of tabla patterns and juicy mridangam. Overall though, the evening came across as if he had been playing to (subtitles: dumbing down to) too many undiscriminating world music audiences. It is not enough to bend strings: it is bending heart-strings that matters. I didn’t hear one brilliant story all evening that I wanted to tell my friends about the next morning. Maybe he had an off-night. Mind you, maybe other concert-goers thought differently.