A professional musician for over four decades, guitar player Sanjay Mishra, 57, harbours no illusions about celebrityhood. It was underlined for him one April morning in 1996 at Rishikesh. Mishra sat in a restaurant facing the Ganga, having accompanied and helped in the discreet immersion of the ashes in the river of Jerry Garcia—frontman of the legendary American rock band Grateful Dead, icon of 1960s counterculture, who had died the previous year.

With him were Garcia’s widow Deborah Koons, and Grateful Dead co-founder Bob Weir. Even in hippie-overrun Rishikesh, a likely pit stop for Himalaya-bound Deadheads, as the band’s fans are known, nobody could recognize Weir, the band’s other singer-songwriter-guitarist, says Mishra. Fame and its spread, it became apparent, has its limits.

For a while immediately after Garcia’s death, the Kolkata-born, US-based Mishra, a struggling, classically trained guitarist, tasted celebrityhood in the US. Dazed by the death of their hero, millions of Deadheads were intrigued by, according to Mishra, “this strange and unknown Indian guitar player" with whom Garcia had recorded his last collaborative album, Blue Incantation, and which contains some of Garcia’s final works from a three-decade radical music career. The media, including biggies The New York Times and The Washington Post, were at Mishra’s doorstep and he was on stage with Weir.

“The album with Garcia lifted me from complete obscurity. It would have been impossible otherwise. Fortunately, the music stood on its own," says Mishra, who visited Kolkata this winter, as he does every year.

Fortuitous fame is one thing, recognition quite another. Nearly 19 years after the release of Mishra’s second album, Blue Incantation, and as many years after Garcia’s demise, acknowledgement of the album’s cross-cultural influence is coming from the US-based Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum and research complex.

Its forthcoming exhibition, Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation, which will detail the history of Indian Americans and their contribution to the US, will feature Nocturne/Evening Chant, one of the tracks from Blue Incantation. Masum Momaya, curator at the Smithsonian Indian American Heritage Project, says in an email, “The track Nocturne, which showcases compositional elements and instruments from both Hindustani and rock music, came about through Mishra’s collaboration with Garcia."

A guitarist in the 1970s with the Kolkata-based rock band Mahamaya, which performed covers of bands like The Beatles and Grateful Dead in Park Street restaurants, Mishra took the difficult route when he chose to be a student of Western classical music at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory at The Johns Hopkins University in the US. A decade of studying did fortify his musical skills, particularly the rigid structures of the classical form, but it wasn’t enough to propel a career or support a living.

As a brown-skinned Indian playing European classical music in the West, Mishra was also up against racial stereotypes; a situation he likens to a Japanese playing country music in a redneck bar in the American Midwest; a circus exhibit, as he describes it. “There would be groans when audiences saw me with a guitar and not the sitar."

Mishra with Garcia. Photo: George Thomas

The offer to work with Mishra came soon after. “Before recording with him for Blue Incantation I kept asking him, but Garcia never told me what he liked about the music. It may be because he didn’t want me to be conscious," says Mishra. The album, which was released in India in 2008, finds both the guitar players focused on their fortes—Spanish, classical, jazz and Indian melodic influences in Mishra’s playing, and the atmospheric rock style of Garcia.

Since the heady post-release phase of Blue Incantation, Mishra has delivered the critically acclaimed Chateau Benares(with DJ Logic contributing) and Rescue (featuring veteran Santana drummer Dennis Chambers), done the soundtrack of the award-winning French film Port Djema, and played at the iconic Blue Note jazz club in New York. In between, as one of the few Indian guitar players working professionally in the American music industry, he has seen many changes in swirling, attention-deficient America.

His own survival tactic has been simpler. His concert promoters have occasionally planned his gigs in the same city as, and right after Furthur (now on a hiatus), a band comprising Grateful Dead survivors, have performed. For many of the Deadheads at the Furthur concert, he says, “The Sanjay Mishra concert becomes the after-party."

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