Friday, August 19, 2005

Contemporary Truths
The music of Suman Chatterjee

Since the early-nineties, the history of the popular Bengali song is being re-written. Yet, even in Bengal Suman Chatterjee remains a cult figure despite creating a body of work that will outlast the next few generations much like Rabindranath Tagore’s has. Much like Bob Dylan’s will, at the other end of the world.

Suman Chatterjee has made the Bengali popular song a powerful expression of contemporary times. This is in contrast to the abstractness and romanticism that has prevailed in metropolitan Bengali music (and popular Indian music overall). Rural folk music, in fact, has always been more real and relevant, but since very little of it is recorded, it almost entirely eludes the popular consciousness. This, in fact, was the great revolution in western popular music in the sixties, when suddenly artists like Dylan and The Beatles figured that anything could be the subject of a pop song. And there too this consciousness came from the traditions of rural Folk music, particularly in North America.

Chatterjee was also greatly influenced by that movement…but much later. In 1966, at the age of 16, Chatterjee had given his first radio recital. He’d become a trained Indian Classical vocalist and was considered a very promising artist. After delving into Rabindra Sangeet, however, Chatterjee began to feel the itch of his own expression, which resulted in profound dissatisfaction. He left India in 1975 and became a broadcast journalist in West Germany and later the US. It was here that he began to understand and appreciate the enormity of what had happened in the world of popular music. It was the folk singers who influenced him the most – Dylan, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Donovan, Tom Paxton…and also artists like Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen. He also studied Western Classical music and learnt the keyboard and guitar. In 1979, Chatterjee began to compose his own songs. But it was only 10 years later, in 1989, when he came back to Calcutta, with a one-point-agenda – to use the tools and skills he’d finely honed to express his personal feelings and those of his own people through song.

In 1992, he released his album Tomake Chaai (I Want You) and the rest is history. His superb voice gave shape to essentially intimate songs, musings about love and life, old age and urban loneliness, everyday struggles and their inherent nobility. Despite functional production qualities and a back-up band that sometimes sounded like a roadside wedding party orchestra, the songs were riveting – thanks to the immensely powerful songwriting. His one-man guitar-playing on some of the tracks was astute and evocative. Even though lyrically Chatterjee was literate and inventive, like Bob Dylan, it was his tunes that gave the songs their memorability. The album became a success and inspired a whole generation of Bengalis to become guitar-troubadours.

Suman Chatterjee never looked back. Several albums later, he has only solidified his body of work. He’s actually got better, and shows no signs of resting on his laurels. Suman Chatterjee’s muse is life, often its seamier side; he has a breathtaking ability to turn anything into an intimate song…like newspaper items. He’ll read about a man who volunteered to walk 25 kms in the scorching sun to get himself a job in Orissa and make it a trenchant song (“Sanjib Purohit Haatchhen”). Or about schoolboys playing cricket on election-day with a ball that is actually a bomb (“How’s That?”). Or about a little girl who swallows an object by mistake and dies due to doctor-negligence (“Paaprir Gaan”). He explores various points-of-views in the songs; that is truly a gift. Even more amazing is his ability to go through many different emotions in the SAME song. Examples are “Aamaader Jonne” where he lovingly catalogues Calcutta’s proudest possessions and “Teenee Briddho Hollen” where he goes through a whole gamut of great Classical musicians, both Indian and Western, who mean the world to the narrator. His cover versions are also special – his version of Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” for example. After wrestling with a literal translation for 14 years, he finally changed the rhythm, incorporated a bit of his own melody and changed the refrain to give it a quintessentially Bengali feel. He did something similar with Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” and Seeger actually was delighted when he heard it. “This is how folk songs are born,” he reportedly said.

Indeed, to express local expressions intimately and powerfully using universal tools is Suman Chatterjee’s greatest achievement. Now if only the rest of India could catch on.

September 2000


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