Pioneers of Musicology
– Part 1: Childhood
To me, Benares is one of the cities which still is closest to my heart; as a city, where people live one on top of the other. I like being in a city when I can be near people without being involved with them. Like in a village: when you are living in a village you are involved with them, but you are not near, because the distances and the spaces are far away from one another. And one of the strongest points in favour of Benares, as far as I am concerned, that when you were little kids, you could jump from one roof to the other for probably half a kilometre, from roof to roof, jumping. And flying kites is one of the regular features of the boy’s life and it happened always on the rooftops. The roofs are flat, it’s very different from European roofs, and this memory of the city life has remained constant in my life, because when I came to Europe, the reason why I love Paris and Montmartre is because the houses are so close to one another, and flat roofs also. Although I don’t fly kites here, or jump from roof to roof!
You were not trained – like a school that happens in Europe – for the religious part of life, but you’re brought up in it; you are never conscious of the air you breathe in, or breathe out, nor are you conscious of the space you live in. The religion I was brought up with is like that; you are never – I can’t say you are never because there is a great theoretical tradition involved with it – but without that theory you are brought up as a child in the atmosphere of religion in such a way that you don’t even have to think about it, because you are born a Hindu, you die a Hindu. You can’t become a Hindu by conversion. Similarly, if you can’t be converted, you can’t also get out of it. So that is how the religious education of a Hindu child begins, with really, you can say, almost like in a folk tradition, although there is a very strong scholastic tradition in Sanskrit, it sort of goes side by side sometimes; sometimes it doesn’t go side by side, because even if you take a villager in India, in a country where seventy to seventy-five percent of the population are illiterate, you can’t call them uneducated or uninformed about their religion. I think in many ways they’re much better informed than in the West, where people are literate but uninformed about their own religion, about their own tradition.
My memories of my parents and the family are full of affection, and they’re very affectionate people. Most of my father’s family were scholars, his eldest brother was a professor of Sanskrit literature and cosmology at Benares University, and my father was a doctor of Hindu medicine, and the family had very little to do with the English colonial education system. There was no interest in national politics; the family simply didn’t want to know that the British existed, so they ignored it. I was given a Sanskrit education – there was no question of anything else.
But I had in me a kind of strange desire to rebel against the family traditions. I suppose partly because I felt a little bit isolated from the other boys of my age, because they were having the usual, conventional education at that moment, like, you go into an English school, playing football. I distinctly remember how I wanted to wear short trousers, but in our family European clothes were not allowed – you had to wear a dhoti. Possibly it was this sort of rigidity that made me want to rebel, so – I started to run away from the family at the age of sixteen, seventeen – coming back, and so on, and travelled all over India, completely like, almost like a vagabond. It was a kind of peculiar restlessness, plus a curiosity about other people that developed as I travelled. Already I was dreaming of getting out of India.
– Part 2: War years
In India, in general, the old colonial system was still very strong. The values of independence and freedom of speech and thought that were taken for granted in Britain didn’t exist. What used to happen is that Ghandi and Nehru would come to Britain, speak freely, and the moment they arrived back in Bombay, would get arrested for what they’d said in London! That was normal. I was seventeen when the war broke out. Most of the population were indifferent, it didn’t affect their lives at all.
There was no conscription in India, but you got involved – the war created jobs. I could then just about speak English, and I got a job as a clerk in the Indian army. I didn’t get on with army people, I had trouble with both the Indian and British officers. Actually, I was almost court-martialled, because I slapped a British officer. One day on parade, he called me a ‘black son of a bitch.’ The moment he said it, my hand just sprang; I had no control over the hand! He fell, and the nearby Indian soldiers doing fatigue duty laughed and giggled as they’d never seen anything like that. I was taken under escort to the Field Artillery Training Centre. After a few days, I got a note saying the charge had been withdrawn. I found out later that some civilian lawyer had made a noise about it, that I was a civilian and not subject to military law.
After this, I was sent to up to the North West Frontier, to Campbellphur, now in Pakistan. It was very desert-like, very desolate. I was feeling very lonely there, but on the second or third day I met another young Bengali, called Nipend Roy. We became friendly, and one evening went to the cinema. An English film was being shown, I remember. As we went in, there was a shower of shouting at me, all sorts of insults and abuse. Before I knew it I was kicked by half a dozen people, kicked, pushed out and beaten up outside. I think it was this that made me sure I had had enough of British Army Life and I decided to leave. Even though I was not a combatant, it took months before I could get out.
It was now 1942, and India was raging. There was this ‘quit India’ movement, and a lot of trouble and violence. My father was by now working at Muzasserpur, in Bihar. When I left the army, I went there to join him. Bihar was on fire at that time – massacres, looting of police stations, murders – although the fury of the peasant population was aimed mainly at Indians who were working for the British, and were regarded as collaborators. This meant the ICS – the Indian Civil Service, and the civil police. I did not get involved in the riots. There were also groups of young intellectuals whose only dream was to get the British out. It was decided that Ghandi’s peaceful methods were not going to get Churchill out. Churchill would hang onto India until it dropped dead! And Ghandi was no match for him in that field. So what was the answer? Guns! Guns! Guns!
They were made in secret by village blacksmiths. They were not well made, and were always bursting in people’s hands. But they were beginning to learn, you see. My people were buying these guns, and I looked so young and innocent (I was twenty) that my duty was to find these guns from the blacksmiths and bring them over. There were two of us working together; I was just one link in the whole chain. One day, one of my father’s patients came to see him (he adored my father because he’d cured one of his sons from a serious illness) and told him what I was up to. And I had four or five guns hidden! My father, a very quiet, simple person was very upset. I was sent back to the family home in Benares.
– Part 3: Abroad at last
When I got back to Benares, I started to work in this insurance company, and a newspaper, a radical one called ‘The Nationalist’. The newspaper job was only part-time. And I was at that time dreaming of going out of India. Just at that time, I met two Europeans who were living like Indians in Benares, a man called Raymond Burnier, and his partner, a man called Alain Danielou. He was a French man. I was excited by their involvement with Indian culture: one was working on Indian music, and the other on art and sculpture. I asked them if I could interview them for the paper, but they were not interested at all. I was too timid to pursue it – I was a most unsuitable journalist! We got a little friendly, we began to meet from time to time. Burnier asked me if I would like to help him with his work, and offered me a hundred rupees a month. It was practically twice the money that I was earning from both of my other jobs; this was just about precisely the moment when I was thinking of going abroad. I thought maybe something might come out it, through them to help me leave India. I worked with them for five years.
In, I think about 1943 or ’44, they told me that a young Englishman who had been ill – caught malaria or something – was in a hospital recuperating in Manital, and they’d invited him to Benares for a few days of holiday, and would I show him around? He was my age. He was a young officer in the Royal Engineers, and his name was Alan Colquhoun. As you know, it happens sometimes to react to some people at once, and with Alan, our friendship sprang up immediately; we were both in our very early twenties, and it worked instantly, and when Alan came next time, when he came to Benares, he came and stayed in our home, which was very modest compared to Burnier and Danielou’s – I think they were a bit annoyed about it! After Alan returned to England, we corresponded, and in a way he was a kind of instrument for my coming to Europe. We kept correspondence for years, and in 1949 I wrote to Alan saying I was thinking of coming to Europe; he wrote me, “Deben, you are most welcome, I will do all I can. But let me warn you – don’t get disappointed. Life here is totally different, problems are very different, which you are unaware of.” It was a very matter-of-fact, but friendly, warm welcome at the same time.
I had no money at all. A friend bought my ticket, the fare was £48, and another friend gave me £5 – which I promptly drank up in the bar of the P&O boat Stratheden on the voyage! Fifth of November, 1949. I landed in Tilbury. Then took a train to St. Pancras, where Alan was due to meet me. It was chaos – hundreds of Indian students being unloaded, arriving in Britain for their technical education. I had precisely eighteen shillings in my pocket, and here I was in a totally unknown land, except for a friend called Alan Colquhoun. I can’t describe the anxiety, how I was looking out for Alan, and in that crowd, every white face looked like the other. I couldn’t recognise any face at all. Then suddenly I heard from the distance, “Deben! Deben!” That was Alan. I could have cried, you know, suddenly that weight was lifted from my neck. There was a friend. I had an enormous steel trunk, carrying my very precious poetry books. I had very few clothes and was hardly prepared for the English weather. I still remember the sound of Alan dragging that steel trunk across the platform.
My first job in London was in a post office, not very far, just behind Selfridges, filling out forms for pensioners. The BBC was advertising at that time for a sort of associate producer for their Bengali programmes; I applied, and got the job. After six months, the BBC had a series of cut-backs, and I was out of work. I went back to the dear old post office, and then got a job at John Lewis’s store, as a porter.
With my recent experience, I decided to try and get back into the BBC. In those days, the Third Programme was the most distinguished programme, so I one day wrote to them, saying that I would like to do some programmes on Indian music, which as far as I know has never been done before. I got a reply, signed Alec Robertson – I couldn’t believe my eyes, because he was a man who I’d admired as a great scholar of music, and I’d read his books. I was so anxious ahead of our meeting that I turned up one hour early, went to the local pub and drank gin until it was time! He was charming and informal. I’d asked for three programmes: one on classical ragas, one on folk music, one on modern film music. He said, “You do one, because we have a listener research department, and if you get a good reaction – or no reaction – we’ll continue; a very bad reaction then we may have to stop it.” Luckily people liked it, they had a lot of letters, all saying, “Why haven’t we had programmes like this before?” Alec rang me and said, “alright, get on with the others.” I had no problems with the film music programme as of course I had to use comercial records, but I felt really upset with the other two programmes, because there was so much material that I really wanted to use that just didn’t exist on commercial recordings. All I had to use as illustrations were some HMV 78s made in Dum Dum. The pay for the three programmes was not so generous that I could leave John Lewis. The other porters were nearly all cockneys, and they were always very sweet to me. They were very encouraging when the broadcasts went out, one said, “Hey Deb, I wanted to hear your voice on the wireless last night, but my wife switched it off because she couldn’t stand the music!”
Part 4: First recordings
A chap in the sales department of John Lewis one day told me that they’d got a new gadget that had just come he was sure would interest me – a machine called a tape recorder! It was a Baird machine, so I bought one on the never-never – it took me eighteen months to pay for, exactly as long as I was a porter there. By then, I knew a lot of Indians in London, and I started to record Indian musicians on the Baird. At much the same time, I met a chap called Richard Lannoy, who was about to go to India on a photographic assignment. We met several times, I tried to help as much as I could, and eventually he went off, and I took over his flat in Lanark Road. Through Monica Pidgeon, who I already knew, I managed to get an introduction to Argo Records, where I met its founder, Harley Usill. I went to their offices in George Street, and was totally confused. It was the first time I had been in a recording company. There they all were, working, making and producing records. I saw the piles of printed records in their sleeves. In a way I was impressed, although it wasn’t what I had expected. Harley was extremely kind to me; he knew my financial situation, and was willing to help. He had heard that I was planning to join Richard Lannoy in India, and planning to take my tape recorder with me. Harley said, “Don’t take the Baird, it’s not good enough. Maybe we could help you a little, although we don’t have much money.” He showed me the Gaumont-British Kalee machine they were using, and said I ought to have one of them. It was a strange looking machine with a curved top – in fact it almost looked like a model of an old cinema! And it weighed a ton! Harley said, “You will need a transformer if you are going to run it from car batteries.” I thought, “Oh dear, more expense!”
I needed £80 for the tape recorder, about £20 for the transformer, and another £25 or so for 20 blank tapes to take with me, plus about £60 for a one way boat ticket to Bombay. Where was I going to get all this money? The Third Programme wouldn’t give me an advance, although I had a guarantee that they would take programmes when I came back. Then I met a lady called Sunday Wilson – extraordinary name – who was a producer for the overseas service. She commissioned me for six five-minute programmes. I got five pounds – no! – five guineas each, so that was £30.6.0 towards it! Some weeks after that, the poet Stephen Spender had started his new magazine ‘Encounter’, and had approached me to write an article on Indian poetry. We met, and when I told him I was going to India, he was very kind, and gave me an advance on two further articles. So that’s how I collected the money for my first recording trip: from Encounter, from Sunday Wilson, and from Harley Usill. Argo didn’t have much money, but they gave me £25, they paid for the Gaumont-British machine, and the tapes against future royalties.
After that trip to India, I arrived back in London, and had enough material to make several very good LPs. I’d recorded twenty tapes – the ones I got from Harley Usill. I had about enough material to make at least four or five excellent records, and one of them was published, called Songs from Bombay. I wrote the articles for Stephen Spender, did the BBC programmes, and then after that – absolutely nothing! I just didn’t feel like going back to John Lewis; a year and a half of carrying cupboards and packing things was quite enough, really. So I went to see some friends in Germany, in Bremen. They arranged some radio work, I earned a bit of money, and I managed to get to Paris, where I did some lectures on Indian music. I earned a little doing this, maybe £20 a lecture – just about enough to keep going. It was while I was first in Paris in 1955, that I had the idea of a second trip to India, but this time overland, through the Middle East, recording folk music in every country I went through. John McCloud of EMI International was very enthusiastic, and EMI Paris financed it. We went through Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan to India. I got a wealth of material which was issued on several records and that enabled me to get a good start in Paris, where I stayed for several years before returning to London for a couple of years in 1958, when I lived at Swiss Cottage.
Between ’61 and ’62 I went to live in Stockholm. Sweden was very fruitful for me; Stockholm Radio began to take fairly regular programmes from me. Soon after that, a new organisation called Rikskonsert started in Stockholm. It was run by a man called Nils Wallend, and its job was to impart musical education in Swedish schools, from playgroup to adult – all paid for by the state. They invited me to produce the extra-European music and also I got involved with music of the socialist countries because I had done a lot of work in those countries, and I had a fairly large collection of music from most of the socialist countries except Russia. I brought musical groups from various countries to Sweden, to appear at concerts and in schools to show them what music of other countries was like.
– Part 5: Films
I started making films in 1962. I had thought for several years that when you are presenting ethnic music from another land, with another social background, the visual element is a very important factor in presenting it. It is most important that the social life of people should be brought out, otherwise the work is meaningless. I had already been taking hundreds of colour slides everywhere I went, and it seemed a logical step forward that the pictures should move, so that’s why I though of becoming involved with film. My Third Programme producer, Robert Leighton, very kindly introduced me to David Attenborough, who was then an executive at BBC Television. I told David that I had never made any films, but I would be going to India with an experienced cameraman, and of course I would record the sound myself. The sound would have to be un-synchronised as we could only afford a Bolex, but it did run at 24 frames per second, so the pictures wouldn’t be jerky. So David said, “I can offer you £1,000. If you are successful and we can use the film, you may get some more in royalties, but don’t break your neck for the money!” He really was very nice. Anyway, the film was used. I brought it back, and the BBC edited the material into two films: ‘Kathakali’, the classical dance drama of South India, and ‘Storytellers from Rajastan’. I don’t know if the BBC still have copies after all this time. I haven’t seen them myself since then. They were shot in black and white of course. I know the BBC sold the films to several countries, because I used to get dribbles of royalties for several years afterwards. They even sold them to Indian Television!
Following this, Swedish Television gave me money to make a film in Hungary. They hadn’t seen the BBC films, so it showed a good deal of faith in my work. As I said, Stockholm Radio had been taking regular programmes from me, so I guess they thought I could be trusted not to mess it up! I also made films for them in Romania. These were much more serious filming expeditions than the BBC ones, with more professional equipment and shot in colour. These I do have copies of!
Films are not cheap to make, so you have to plan and budget very carefully. I’ve been sponsored for some films, and for others I have found the money myself, borrowing in bits and pieces from here and there and paying the money back as the films are sold and shown. On other occasions, I’ve signed contracts which looked sensible, but foolishly without taking them to a lawyer, and have found myself working for months without anything at the end of it. Mind you, this experience had a positive side; the films I made in these circumstances were shown on television all over the world, and gave me a certain reputation. It was my name they remembered, and it led to other projects. The series I am working on now, ‘Asian Insights’ has had a very good response, artistically and professionally. Many countries have shown them on TV; quite by accident I saw one last year in Switzerland, and recently Thames Television in London have shown six of them.
In my films, I try to choose countries where the visual and sound images can be interpreted strongly and equally. My total interest in my work is selfish, becase I love my subjects. I make the films and do all this work primarily for myself, and then secondly to share with those who can enjoy with me. Thirdly, I make them to survive, doing work I like to do. It’s as simple as that. I can’t make films to order, I never have and I just can’t do it! I’m not capable of it, you need a certain particular type of training, and, as I taught myself, I can only do what I can do. In terms of a people, their music, their culture, their life and nature, all are related together. I don’t see music as a separate entity from people’s lives, because I’m not digging in museums, I’m just collecting what people are singing today, but coming from the past – their past tradition.
– Part 6: A place called home
I consider myself as much a European as an Indian. Why should I consider myself only an Indian and lose the richness of life I’ve gained from the best part of my life? I am sixty. For thirty-three years I have lived in Europe, so I’m a European, and then I’m Indian. I have lived in three cities, London, Stockholm and Paris. In London, I have my closest friends, lifelong friends, possibly partly because of the language, because my French n’exist pas! In Paris I have friends. In Sweden I lived for ten years, but the Swedes have an extraordinary habit of non-communication which I could never reconcile. I began to feel isolated and lonely in spite of extremely kind friends. There is ample reason why I should live in London. As well as my closest friends being there, I earn most of my living from London, my company is registered in London, and I pay British Income Tax! The major part of the work has been through London: The BBC – since that day I started with Alec Robertson, it has continued: three, four, five, six, eight programmes, every year, for the last thirty years. And the work with Argo. There was work with Roger Fiske, and now the work with Robert Layton; Robert and I have worked together for twenty years. So, I should live in London. Yet London doesn’t give me that closeness of feeling, that feeling that I am living in a city, that I am involved with the city, and yet free from it. I have that feeling in Paris, because I first came to Montmartre in 1955 and fell in love with the quarter, partly because of the people. 52 Rue Durantin – that was my first home in Paris when I came to live here. Later I was able to buy this little flat high up above Rue Lepic – five storeys and no lift – what a climb with the shopping! In spite of my lack of French, I get along with the shop-keepers, market traders and all the other people that make Montmartre so special.
I tell you what Kevin, in this city of Europe, I don’t feel distinct. I know the French have a very bad reputation for being selfish, egotistic, this that and the other, but somehow, as far as I am concerned, I feel absolutely free. I’m not aware of my colour, I’m not aware that I’m different from the French, and so on, in Montmartre. My grocer scolds me, scolds my wife that I don’t let my girl go alone to the school! I never hear that, anyone giving that lecture in London or Stockholm. They wouldn’t dare. But this kind of scolding to me is communication, this is contact, affection, and that makes me feel at home in Montmartre. I wouldn’t say this is all Paris, but Montmartre has this village quality which I love, within the heart of a great city, and honestly I’ve never felt I was a stranger in Paris. You can have friends everywhere, and because of that you can choose a place to live. Here in Paris, I can live with everyone – not just the French, or the Algerians or the Turks – but with everybody.
I have been lucky enough for my work to have been appreciated all over the world. Most recently I have made two Tibetan films and another on the Painted Ballads of India. I’m hoping to make three films in China, one in Bangladesh, and another in Nepal. These are my plans, and – c’est la vie – let’s see what happens. I’ve lived all my life in that way and I shall go on doing so! I have never been rich. I don’t suppose that I will ever be rich, but I have been lucky with friends, and so fortunate in doing work that I love. What more does anyone need?
(Text excerpts (c) and taken from Kevin Daly’s taped interviews with Deben Bhattacharya
Interviews recorded 23rd and 24th February 1982, Rue Lepic, Montmartre, Paris
Transcribed and edited by Michael Daly)