Kabir Suman, a songwriter, a singer, a musician, a journalist, an author, an activist, and an ex-parliamentarian (Lok Sabha, Parliament of India, 2009-2014), probably needs little introduction. About a quarter century back when Suman burst into the musical firmament of Bengal it was a never-before-seen phenomenon in the contemporary cultural world of Bengal — he had an instant cult following. In this exclusive interview with AlalODulal Suman talks about music, religion, and Bengal. AOD Interviews Kabir Suman — Kobigan, the lost musical heritage of Bengal and more
by Nadine Shaanta Murshid and Awrup Sanyal for AlalaODulal Editorial Collective
Kabir Suman, a songwriter, a singer, a musician, a journalist, an author, an activist, and an ex-parliamentarian (Lok Sabha, Parliament of India, 2009-2014), probably needs little introduction. About a quarter century back when Suman burst into the musical firmament of Bengal it was a never-before-seen phenomenon in the contemporary cultural world of Bengal — he had an instant cult following.
However, as opposed to what many thought then, and perhaps still think, he was no passing fad; he was not an overnight sensation contrary to what the release of his first album ‘Tomake Chai’ made him into. His impact was for far deeper reasons: first, he came with solid grounding in music of Bengal, the subcontinent, and the world — arguably, he is the ultimate authority on Adhunik Bangla (Modern Bengali) music that includes Rabindranath, Nazrul, the ponchokobis (the five poets), a veritable living encyclopaedia, though he suggests his memory is failing him; and, second, the words he penned, his “leftist” ideas, his revolutionary thoughts, his support for the disenfranchised, the minority, the marginal, and his alternate views of the world gave people an insight into a world that they were not confronted with, a world they perhaps didn’t even know existed. He made people think. He chronicled his times. He reported. He critiqued. He eulogised. He sang in a language that people understood. His words had impact. He introduced new enunciations, articulations, and vocalising techniques. He provided a worldview. His music cut deep. He experimented with new idioms, forms, and of course content. Standing on the solid foundation of Hindustani classical and Bengal’s house of music he built floors in the ‘Tower of Song’. He wasn’t just a musician for many a middle-class Bengali, he was what one calls a dik nirdeshok, a guide and a trailblazer.
According to his own analysis of his work and its impact, many a times, even in his songs, and in interviews, he has repeatedly stated his own ‘class’ position and its incumbent privileges and limitations. He has iterated that his songs are not for the masses, that he, because of those very class barriers, will never reach the working class men and women of Bengal(s). It was not a lament but clear understanding of his own place in the stratified class divided society, and by extension his place in the musical anthology of Bengal. For example, as he argues in the interview, many of the creators of Kobigan who came up from the vibrant urban trading classes mostly, like Bhola Moira (Moiras were the sweetmeat makers), or even Anthony Firingee (he came from a family of salt traders, and so on), were pre-Babudom, and the bourgeois Boithoki style of music that came with the creation of this class; these Kobiyals were also singing/performing for the ‘koumo’ (working class) people. They were, to paraphrase him, neither bourgeois nor proletariat. His own music, he feels, clearly does not communicate with the same working class people. It must be noted here, however, that time and again he has used his songs to stand by the working class movements in Bengal – from the Kanoria Jute Mill Andolon to the Singur-Nandigram people’s movement – breaking away from his class position to use his music as a tool of protest.
He was born into a family that was steeped in music. His parents, Sudhindranath and Uma Chatterjee, were popular singers in their times, cutting basic records on Rabindranath’s songs, both solos and duets, as well as Adhunik Bangla Gaan (Modern Bengali Songs). Additionally, his father worked at All India Radio (AIR) — he was for a while posted at the Dhaka AIR station in pre-Independent India. Suman was trained in classical music, Kheyal being the form he took to, for 15 rigorous years, with Ustaad Amir Khan having a special impact in shaping his musical genius. He himself has basic (which means the first ever recording of a song) records of Rabindranth’s songs. He learned to play the Classical finger-style guitar when he was almost in his mid thirties, from a much younger Italian guru, while working in Germany for Deutsche Welle radio, Germany’s international broadcaster. He is equally adept with other instruments like the keyboard, harmonica, harmonium, and the Melodica.
A polyglot, and a polymath, he has also authored many books: ‘Discovering The Other America – Radical Voices of the 1980s’, interviewing legends like Maya Angelou, Bertell Ollman, Pete Seger, Noam Chomsky, George Wald, Paul Sweezy, Amiri Baraka, to name some of them; ‘Mukto Nicaragua’, on the Nicaraguan Revolution that he had covered; ‘Nishan er Naam Taposhi Malik’ on the people’s mass movement in Singur-Nandigram; and other autobiographical tomes and essays on music, like ‘Hoye Otha Gaan’, ‘Alkhallah’, etc. He continues to write regularly on music and politics in newspapers, periodicals, and journals.
This year, 2014, Kabir Suman got the National Award for the Best Music Director for Jaatishwar, a film by Srijit Mukherjee, which is based on the life of Anthony Firingee (1786–1836), aka, Hensman Anthony, who was a Bengali language folk poet of Portuguese origin known for his works in Bengali devotional songs in the early part of the 19th century. He was also noted for his performance in literary face-offs known as Kobigan. Jaatishwar’s music is significant in many ways – to borrow from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude it was like ‘discovering ice’ of Bengal’s musical heritage pre-Rabindranath, with whom (Rabindranath) Bengal seems to have almost forgotten its hallowed musical past. Everything almost starts and stops at Tagore, limiting and doing disservice to the countless geniuses that dot Bengal’s musical sky, both pre and post Rabindranath. Unfortunately, poor documentation, oversight, and biases of the chroniclers of Kobigan have left us in the dark about this very rich heritage of Bengal’s music.
In this comprehensive interview with AlalODulal Kabir Suman dissects, argues and explains the myriad social, cultural, historical, and musical hues of this genre called Kobigan. He also segues into Rabindranath, Nazrul, the impact of colonialism, the musical heritage of both the Bengals, the similarities and differences in the two major religious communities of Bengal – the Muslims and the Hindus – and their nuanced takes on musical traditions and practices. He also discuses the impact of Rabindranth, Nazrul and his own songs. Finally, the interview transitions into his role as a political activist and a parliamentarian. He also comments on the ongoing Indian elections (when the interview was recorded) and the impact on India’s relationship with Bangladesh.
The interview was designed, planned, and taken by Nadine Murshid and Awrup Sanyal from the AlalODulal Editorial Collective. It was recorded on a SONY HDR-PJ660 Camcorder, handheld, with no special sound recording equipment, which renders it noisy. But, it must be said that that was our intention, to keep it a simple free flowing adda-styled interview, adulterated with the sounds of the city – the whirr of a ceiling fan, the honk of car, the clinking of cutlery and crockery, the trill of mobile phones – that blend and fuse with the words giving it an atmospheric quality that sits you in that room. On the jacket of an LP of Cuba’s New Song maker and singer Silvio Rodriguez the following words were printed: “The content of this album is more important than its fidelity.” We would like to say the same for this interview.
Warning: There are smoking sequences in the interview and AOD requests discretion while viewing.
To guide the viewer, the sequence of the video links are as follows:
Part 1. Suman talks about his recent compilation of songs in the movie Jatishwar where he discovered ‘Kobigaan’, which we liken to Marquez’s story of “discovering ice”. He expands on the history, sociology, form, and content of Kobigaan, and the probable musical kisim (idioms) being used then.
Part 2. Suman on music pre and post Rabindranath and the change in what constitutes music in Bengal. Why is it that Rabindranath did not pay much attention to political issues, such as the HIndu-Muslim divide, which we find was part of ‘Kobi gaan’ predating Rabindranath Tagore’s time. Rabindranath marking the gentrification of Bengali music. Suman’s own class position.
Part 3. Continues with Rabindranath gentrification and D. L. Roy’s Hinduism. The Islam of Bengal. On Tagore’s Brahmo ideology or aykisshorbaad (one God), or Brahmo separatism. The modernity of Rabindranath, Nazrul as the first professional songwriter-musician. He talks about Muslim songwriters, like Chand Kazi, writing Boishnob Padabali, and the art of songwriting through the ages, and the evolution of songwriting to its modern form.
Part 4. On what is “Rabindrik” and the distortion that came along with it in the name of “Rabindrik”. Is there an element of elitism there? The influence of European prose. He extols on Joydeb, polligeeti, kirtan. Talks about the acceptance of music or barriers to music in the Bengali Muslim society.
Part 5. Suman on working on Bangla Kheyal and his use of political Bangla liberetto in Kheyal. The content of his libretto is on Bangladesh’s Felani who was shot and thus killed by the BSF. How does Suman reconcile his two entities: role as an activist in people’s movements and his role as an MP in the Indian Lok Sabha? He talks about Modi, the recent Indian elections, its impact on Muslims and Bangladesh, and his own political experiences. Finally, he talks about: Rabindranath. Nazrul. Suman and the impact of these three individuals’ work in his life and the lives of the people in Bengal.
He ends with two lines of his song on Bangla and Bangladesh – “jay matir jonnye aymon honnay aymon akul holam…jay bhashar jonnye aymon honnay aymon akul holam; shey bhashaye amar odhikaar…”.
[For people interested in the music from the film here is a link to the YouTube post (be adviced, not all are Kobigan, but we are sure the reader/listener will be able to make the distinction): http://youtu.be/ZyNwMmG9ITw]
[AlalODulal thanks Kaushik Dutta, his organisation Song of Soul, Kolkata, and his colleague, for helping us with editing, and Souvik Misra for allowing us to use his photographs.]