Deben Bhattacharya (1921-2001) was essentially a traveller into worlds of music. He was born in Varanasi, into a family of Sanskrit scholars and practitioners of traditional medicine, which had earlier migrated to this north Indian centre of learning from Faridpur in Bangladesh. A man who could not conform to formal education, Deben Bhattacharya went in his twenties to London, prompted by a deep urge to travel. From then began an enchanting life as music recordist, records producer, filmmaker, writer and translator, who worked in more than 30 countries around the world, but had made Paris and Kolkata his two homes. It was not at all common for someone from the subcontinent to embark on such a career in the 1950s; even later.

Deben Bhattacharya’s international career was outstanding, especially for the field recordings he made of the music of the Bedouins in the deserts of Jordan and for tracing the reverse journey of the Gypsies, from Europe to India. His LPs were released by labels such as Argo, Decca, Caprice, BAM and Le Club Fracais de Disque and later re-released as CDs by ARC and Freemaux. However, for anyone following the history of non-commercial and commercial recordings of the folk music of Bengal, Deben Bhattacharya’s work is extremely important as he made the only available recording (as far as our knowledge goes) of the legendary baul singer, Nabani Das Khepa and the earliest recording of his son, Purno Das Baul, in the 1950s. Purno and his brother, Luxman, would within a decade travel to the US, embarking on an international career, resulting in baul music entering into a new phase of two-way journey—baul performers travelling to the outside world and the outside world coming to their world of performance. These journeys have changed the very economics and dynamics of baul music; the way they are perceived as well as the way they see themselves. Deben Bhattacharya also recorded music in the refugee camps at the time of the birth of Bangladesh in 1971.

Left: Probably early 1960s, recording for Arnaud Desjardins. Centre: Recording Santhals near Asansol, 1954. Photo: Richard Lannoy. Right: Recording family members on Beneras home terrace, 1954. Photo: Richard Lannoy.

Sadly, it is not in Bengal—neither in Bangladesh nor in West Bengal—nor in the whole of the subcontinent, that Deben Bhattacharya’s original recordings are archived. They are in his other home, Paris; at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. For a traveller like Deben Bhattacharya who was always looking for musical routes and trails, and who had grown to truly believe he could live wherever music was, this gives a kind of poetic justice to his work. However, it is also time that the subcontinent takes some interest in the world of Deben Bhattacharya’s music.

This interview was taken by the noted theatre director and actor of Dhaka, Aly Zaker, in February 2001, for Ekushey TV (ETV Bangladesh) in 2001. Towards the end of a long life spent in extensive travels, Deben Bhattacharya would sometimes get his dates a little bit mixed up. Here he says that he left India in 1954, which in fact was 1949. He sailed back for the first time in 1954; the famous photographer Richard Lannoy was also visiting India at the time and there are many beautiful photographs Lannoy took of Deben’s recording sessions and his family too. The trip in 1955 was the overland journey with Colin Glennie which he describes in detail here. The story of the donkey comes from 1960, when he went with a group Cambridge students through Turkey, up to Iran. The Baluchistan overland trip happened two years later, in 1962, according to Jharna Bose Bhattacharya, (‘65 according to the Kevin Daly interview). Like he says, they were four of them travelling together, but since their vehicle broke down, they had to go back to Europe by sea.

Deben Bhattacharya passed away in July 2001, within five months of this interview. We are uploading excerpts from it, edited and subtitled by The Travelling Archive, with kind permission from Jharna Bose-Bhattacharya, Aly Zaker and ETV. No part of this interview may be reproduced in any form without the permission of the above.

যাত্রা শুরু (BEGINNINGS)

প্রথম যাত্রা-স্থলপথে ইউরোপ থেকে ভারত, ১৯৫৫ (FIRST TRIP OVERLAND-FROM EUROPE TO INDIA, 1955)

লোকসঙ্গীত ও রাগসঙ্গীত বিষয়ে (ABOUT FOLK AND CLASSICAL)

বেদুইনদের সম্পর্কে ভয় (FEAR OF THE BEDOUINS)

দ্বিতীয় যাত্রা-স্থলপথে ইউরোপ থেকে ভারত, ১৯৬০ (SECOND TRIP-EUROPE TO INDIA OVERLAND, 1960)

ক্রুসেডারস রুটের বিপদ (DANGER ON THE CRUSADER’S ROUTE)

ঘরে ফেরা (HOMECOMING)

২২ টা ফিল্ম (22 FILMS)

মুক্তিযুদ্ধের গান (SONGS OF 1971)

নদীর গান (RIVER SONGS)


Related links

Music producer Kevin Daly’s interview of Deben Bhattacharya

An introduction to Deben Bhattacharya

Deben Bhattacharya vinyl discography

Music According to Deben Bhattacharya

Richard Lannoy

Wax cylinder recordings of Max von Oppenheim n 1911 in Tell Halaf, north Syria

J. W. Myers sings Bedouin love song in 1901