In many ways, musicologist Deben Bhattacharya stands as a direct predecessor to Sublime Frequencies, as one of the label’s producers, Robert Millis, notes in his introduction to Paris to Calcutta: Men and Music on the Desert Road. While Sublime Frequencies’ website states that its members are “dedicated to acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers”, Bhattacharya refers in the notes to his 1956 LP to “a living tradition of folk music” in every country he traversed, a string of political states from France to India, as the title implies.
Fittingly enough, then, it is on Sublime Frequencies that the fieldwork of the late Bhattacharya returns to the forefront – not just in sound but in text. Four discs of international field recordings accompany 160 pages of word and image, centered around a previously unpublished manuscript that sheds light on Bhattacharya’s personal experiences traveling and collecting. It makes for a fascinating examination of the ethnographer as an imperfect but ultimately irreplaceable tool of data collection. In his impressions of each place, Bhattacharya occasionally reveals biases and makes broad generalizations, but he also sets detailed, multisensory scenes, each one an immersive slice of his life. The observations are at least as fascinating now as they were when he wrote them in 1955, perhaps more so for the way they transport the reader through space and time. Black-and-white photos and more typewritten field notes add more visual and technical layers to the reading experience.
All of this is new to the extant body of Bhattacharya’s work; in an introduction by Deben’s widow Jharna Rose Bhattacharya, she describes her late husband’s “search for authenticity”. The movement to embrace the complexities of human involvement in ethnographic work instead of trying to present unencumbered facts is a relatively recent one, and Bhattacharya, like the Sublime Frequencies team, eschews embellishment in his recordings. It makes sense that he would also be cautious about adding more of himself to the narrative, but doing so is perfectly appropriate for this project, of which Bhattacharya is ultimately the true topic.
Placing Bhattacharya in the center of Paris to Calcutta in this way means that the music (an extensive collection of vernacular tunes that run the gamut from Bedouin coffee grinder rhythms to suites of Syrian classical music) is ultimately on the periphery, a soundtrack to set the atmosphere. Physically, the discs are set inside the covers, framing the text rather than inlaid within it, and that positioning holds on a less literal level. Brief notes on each track sit in the back of the manuscript, including track names, locations, instrumentation, and performers when known. Some, the book notes, have never before been released; all are brilliantly rough, raw works by performers often “as unused to being recorded as Deben was to recording”. It is this exact phenomenon, this sometimes shaky interaction between Bhattacharya and the participants in his project, that underscores why Bhattacharya’s reflections matter. As traveler, as researcher, Bhattacharya has always been a part of his own work, his experience or lack thereof shaping the incredible and diverse sounds that would eventually make up more than 40 hours of recordings.
Paris to Calcutta offers a wealth of words, pictures, and sounds. Taken separately, they excite the ear, marking moments in time that are preserved only in archival material as compiled in projects like this. Taken together, they are a complex and holistic portrait of a prolific and deeply influential musicologist. They illuminate the worldview and work not only of a researcher, but of a man, and in doing so, bring his unique journey to life.