Debashish Bhattacharya

The Indian guitar virtuoso dazzles in Belfast

Not often do Belfast audiences get to see an artist who could be safely described as a musical genius. Rarer still to have an internationally renowned guitar legend perform who seems to do very little all night save for sit calmly and cross-legged in the middle of the stage, occasionally picking at an instrument he appears to be cradling rather than playing.

Yet that’s exactly what musical genius, guitar legend and former child prodigy Debashish Bhattacharya does for over two hours in the midst of the aesthetic splendour of St George’s Church. It’s an relentlessly wonderful experience.

One of world music’s brightest stars, Bhattacharya has been playing the Indian slide guitar since the age of four. Having left the family home at the tender age of nine to study his instrument, Bhattacharya went on to design his own, making him the only living designer of these astonishing, genre-confounding instruments.

As one might expect, his Grammy-nominated ‘guitar’ music effortlessly combines traditional Hindustani music with more ‘contemporary’ western styles. Playing tonight, he is accompanied by a pair of exceptional female percussionists and the mesmerisingly insane playing of his brother, the tabla maestro Subhasis Bhattacharjee.

Bhattacharya is self-effacing throughout. Each new piece of music starts almost nonchalantly, but soon you start to perceive a sense of the musical shape and rhythms that are lightly, languidly sketched. 

Bhattacharya's playing, in that misleadingly laid back manner, ranges from the wondrous poly-phonic intricacies of the eastern scale to broad bluesy strokes. All the while he watches his percussionists intently, gently goading them to greater rhythmic heights while they up the tempo, forcing him into further frenzied feats of virtuosity. It’s a gripping spectacle and as the light gradually dims outside St George’s, so the intensity within brightens.

The theme of love is writ large across the show, which is called O Shakuntula! and is inspired by an old Sanskrit love story, the details of which are rendered secondary, if not superfluous by the intoxicating, ever- shifting atmospherics of the music. The courteous and softly-spoken artist addresses the audience between songs with his own treatises on the transformative 'power of love'. Even the most unmoving cynic would be hard-pressed not to cock a sympathetic ear.

This most gentle of guitar heroes even gets polemical at one stage, talking of Cameron’s recent jaunt to Afghanistan. If the acoustics in St George’s are such that his voice doesn’t carry the impassioned words to the back of the hall, the Afghan-inspired song that follows certainly makes up for that; his emotive duet with Charu Hariharan is a hair-raising highlight of the evening, Bhattacharya's insistent, insidious riff is both reassuringly familiar and thrillingly alien.

With the daylight all but gone, all four performers take to the softly-illuminated stage for a final display of heart-breaking, head-wrecking virtuosity. With all players together, one realises that rather than simple instruments of rhythm, just how deeply tonal and subtly melodic the Indian percussive instruments are. The disconcertingly baby-faced Subhasis Bhattacharjee coaxes sounds from his tabla that leave you looking around in vain for a synthesiser or effects pedal.

When Bhattacharya finally gets up and hobbles away to a standing ovation, you realise he’s been sitting serenely in the same spot for over 120 minutes. Escorted by his fellow musicians he can barely walk after what must be the biggest case of pins and needles since he last foolishly agreed to do an encore. It’s testimony to the man and his music that while the audience would clearly sit for another two hours, they’re grateful for the short time they’ve had in his company.