The back cover has the writer, barefoot, sitting beside a heavy Gaumont-Kalee spool tape recorder adjusting the knobs. A recording is in progress in India circa 1954 and the picture is credited to Indologist Richard Lannoy, writer, painter and photographer. The story goes that Deben Bhattacharya roamed the Bengal countryside with Lannoy recording the Bauls (itinerant singers), their first commercial renderings.
The next year Bhattacharya, who had been doing some work on Indian music for BBC Radio, was back on the road again, travelling overland from Paris to Calcutta picking up songs en route from Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. With large swathes of West Asia in conflict mode, it seems remarkable that Bhattacharya and his architect friend, Colin Glennie, could drive through the region in a converted milk van, catching the ‘day-to-day lives and concerns’ of many tribes including the very private Bedouin.
In her introduction, Bhattacharya’s wife, Jharna Bose, explains why the book has been long in the making. She talks about his escape from a ‘humdrum life in Varanasi’ to the U.K., and how he ‘soon immersed himself in music that was to become his source of livelihood.’ Of this journey across West Asia, many of the recordings were released earlier, but this is the first time the music and the personal narrative of the journey, thanks to a manuscript he had written soon after his return, have been put together in a volume.
Bhattacharya died in 2001 but had told his wife and children many stories of the desert, bereft of flowers, ‘but there was the perfume of melody all around.’ In Turkey, he records a man playing a cumbus (a stringed-guitar like instrument), singing love songs from central Anatolia. Bhattacharya keeps his eyes and ears open, hearing strains of the zurna (a rather crude form of the shehnai) somewhere or the dhavul (resembling the dhol of Bengal) elsewhere. They drive through Syria and Kilis, Azaz, Aleppo, tracing the funeral chant mevludu nevebi, the long drawn out cry making him see its roots in the songs of the Bedouin and their desire to make themselves heard in the vast empty spaces of the desert.
The story of Bhattacharya’s meeting with the Bedouins and their chief Sheikh Lawrence Shaalan — yes he was named after the brave Englishman T.E. Lawrence of Arabia — and hearing their traditional songs of the desert and camels is delightful.
He describes himself as a ‘modest wanderer in search of music and personal relationships,’ and this gem of a book gives us a slice of history now mostly lost.
Paris to Calcutta: Men and Music on the Desert Road; Deben Bhattacharya, Sublime Frequencies, ₹3,430.