Deben Bhattacharya: Traveller of the Tune

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Deben Bhattacharya musicologist
Deben Bhattacharya in Bangladesh in 2001. Photo Kirsten Claire.

“There is something incredibly beautiful about the first glimpse of an unknown city in twilight”, wrote a man one evening in September 1955 when the city of Ljubljana in erstwhile Yugoslavia unfolded before his eyes. But he wasn’t there as a wide-eyed tourist. He was in a Bedford milk van that had been converted into a caravan, with his tape recorder, a French and an Englishman for company and the dream of an epic journey on his mind. To Deben Bhattacharya, it was a journey that would define his life, as the eternal gypsy who dreamt of doing what no one had done before.

Born in an orthodox Bengali Brahmin family in Varanasi in 1921, his traditional upbringing brought out the rebel in Bhattacharya and by the time he was sixteen, he had already attempted to run away more than once. The restless young man had heard a call he couldn’t define but couldn’t ignore either.

It was the call of music, an obsession that would change his life forever. Varanasi being a hub of Hindustani classical music, a number of accomplished musicians were part of his family circle. Through them, Bhattacharya experienced the magic of various ragas. It awakened in him a lifelong curiosity to explore the journey of music.

And he jumped headlong into it. Combing the libraries of Varanasi for early musical texts, in the process acquiring an exceptional understanding of classical Indian culture. As his creative faculties blossomed, Bhattacharya learned Sanskrit, Hindi and English, writing poems in his native Bengali and translating traditional and contemporary Indian poetry. 

deben bhattacharya recording santhals
Bhattacharya recording Santhals near Asansol in 1954

But it was the wider world that fascinated this intrepid young man. During the Second World War, through two of his European acquaintances, he met a young officer in the Royal Engineers, Alan Colquhoun, who assured him of a job in England. So, in the winter of 1949, Bhattacharya found himself in Tilbury near London, working in the post office. It was a job that neither suited his temperament, nor his acumen. But he had one constant companion to while away the hours – BBC radio.

“We have a relationship of 200 years, but it is unimaginable that the BBC has no programmes on Indian music.” Bhattacharya had shot off a letter to the programme directors of BBC, with little or no expectation of a reply. But only a few days later, BBC replied, stating that they were very interested in meeting Bhattacharya. It was an interview that would, once again, change his life.

Now, he was an associate producer of Indian music for BBC radio programmes, with a mandate to create short episodes introducing Indian music to the British audience. With a lot of trepidation, he produced his first episode, a short introduction to Indian classical music. It was an unqualified triumph. The traveller of the tune had begun his unforgettable journey.

In 1954, Bhattacharya returned to India to record folk music, and went back with a treasure trove that included songs of the Bauls, the travelling and singing bard-ascetics of Bengal. In his words, they were ‘God’s vagabonds’, and the mesmerising voices of Nabanidas Baul and his young son Purnadas Baul travelled, for the very first time, beyond the shores of India.

It was in 1955 that Bhattacharya went back once again. This time, it was through an epic journey across continents, like a traveller browsing through ancient lands, gathering priceless nuggets of music for the world to revel in. With him were Henri Anneville, a French journalist and Colin Glennie, an English architect. Together, they travelled in a converted milk van through Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and finally through India. A 12,000 km long odyssey of living an improbable dream. Henri left soon after and Bhattacharya continued with Colin. It was an age before ultra-light portable recording devices, so with him was his Gaumont-Kalee spool tape recorder that weighed around 35 kilos, a device that needed to be powered by car batteries. 

gypsy music recorded by Deben Bhattacharya
Gypsy music recorded by Deben Bhattacharya

It was a journey fraught with problems and dangers. But like two young explorers going into uncharted waters, the two men ventured on, befriending people, cultures, customs and emerging with a worldview that very few are privileged to experience.

From the haunting azaan, the muezzin’s call for prayer in Iran, to Turkish love songs, Syrian psalms, Bedouin ballads from Jordan and wedding songs from Punjab, Bhattacharya brought back an extraordinary bounty of world music. In the inhospitable desert, according to Bhattacharya, “…there were no flowers, but there was the perfume of melody all around.”

Some parts of the journey were difficult. Early on, Bhattacharya and Glennie passed through Istanbul, where violent mobs had recently attacked the city’s Greek and Jewish minority. The atmosphere was tense and reminded Bhattacharya of riots he had experienced in India before independence. He remarked: “I disliked Istanbul as I disliked myself for being so badly affected by it. I forgot that no nation in the world is free from fanaticism.”

During the journey Bhattacharya recorded over 40 hours of music, some of which would be released on the 1956 LP Music on the Desert Road: A Sound Travelogue. With this journey, he changed the way people listened to music from around the world. Frank Zappa, in an interview in 1993 said, “Actually, I think my playing is more derived from Eastern music, Indian music…for years I had something called ‘Music On The Desert Road’…I used to listen to that all the time.”

Being a gypsy at heart, his tryst with these free spirits in Jordan and Rajasthan resulted in some extraordinary moments that have always remained close to his heart. He thought of the gypsies as a unique culture that was often misunderstood. In his own words, “Gypsy music is a myth…Whatever melody he may choose to play on a given occasion, the gypsy will stamp it with his own personality, and an individuality derived from his own community.” 


A 12,000 km long odyssey of living an improbable dream. Henri left soon after and Bhattacharya continued with Colin. It was an age before ultra-light portable recording devices, so with him was his Gaumont-Kalee spool tape recorder that weighed around 35 kilos, a device that needed to be powered by car batteries.

The journey was life-changing for Bhattacharya. Apart from recording music, he became an avid photographer and kept a travel diary where he wrote about the people he met and his experiences, thoughts that would later find expression in the book ‘Paris to Calcutta – Men and Music on The Desert Road’, published after his death.

Deben Bhattacharya with family
At home with wife Jharna, daughter Ishwari and cat Tuki. Autumn, 2000.

In the 1960s, Bhattacharya turned his hand to documentary filmmaking, and soon had a bouquet of excellent films that gave us a peek into the traditional music of India, China and South-east Asia. His penchant for recording in the proper milieu was set in stone. His wife, Jharna Bose Bhattacharya, observes, “Another impression one had about his work was his search for authenticity…he would record a wedding song at a marriage ceremony, harvest songs in the fields or the chanting of mevlud at a funeral.”

During the liberation movement of Bangladesh in 1971, Bhattacharya was in Calcutta, recording songs that today occupy pride of place in a museum in Dhaka as part of Bangladesh’s national heritage.

In 2001, this poet, writer and pioneering ethnomusicologist passed away in Paris, leaving behind about 400 hours of audio recordings of music, more than 15,000 photographs, twenty-two documentary films and several books.

But to many of his admirers, he leaves behind the ballad of a restless heart, a curious gypsy that gave us a different and humane view of misrepresented countries, introducing us to their rich cultural history. He gave us a glimpse into the mysterious heart of music that transcends the ordinary, through a life that still resonates among many.

The journey of Deben Bhattacharya, the gypsy from Varanasi, continues.

Images courtes: Jharna Bose & Ishwari Bose Bhattacharya

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4 Responses

  1. Such an interesting read. The information has been woven into a beautiful narrative, something only a sensitive and skilled writer can do

  2. Sugato can spin magic with his words whether in writing or in oral narration.His discerning sensitive eye captures the finest tones minutest details and his expression is most evocative yet so smooth and easy flowing.

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