Friday, August 19, 2005

Urban India’s Guitar Poet
Why Anjan Dutt's Bandra Blues is important

On the sleeve of Bandra Blues - the first English album by Bengali singer -songwriter Anjan Dutt, he reveals that although he's been thinking up his songs in English for 5 years, a "middle-class Bengali reluctancy" was making him write and sing them out in Bengali. Now, egged on by his well-wishers, he says he's proud of bringing out his first English album, proud of "being an Indian who thinks, feels and sings in a language he's also comfortable with".

Anjan Dutt's Bengali songs have been largely derivative (often to a fault), stylistically and melodically. The influences of Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, John Denver, Donovan, Don Maclean have been palpable in his treatments. In spirit, the incomparable Suman Chatterjee has obviously been an inspiration too; no-one has used Western folk music formats to write quintessentially Indian (Bengali, in this case) songs as well as Chatterjee has. Anjan Dutt's keen sense of observation (which also makes hima very fine actor), a wry sense of humour and the gift to balance twin sensibilities have shone through a lot of his work. Though Dutt doesn't have the greatest voice technically or the consistency to fill a complete album with outstanding songs through and through, at his best, he has been pertinent, entertaining and compelling.

Bandra Blues' best moments have all these qualities. Strangely, the 3 least impressive tracks open the album - the title track is somewhat pat; "Ali Baba" is a drag and sickeningly self-conscious (it's a first-person account of a slaughter-house boy, yet uses the line "ain't that cold"!); "Mizo Boy" exemplifies the perils of excessive derivation. The first signs of brilliance appear on "Two People" - an emotionally resonant song about the night a couple decide to split up and the early morning thereafter. Its deeply ingrained feeling of regret gets under the skin. The tempo picks up with the delightful "Daily Diet" - a catalogue of urban exposures. This is Dutt at his best- witty, verbally dexterous and infectiously energetic. "Middle Man" is a sister-concern of "Daily Diet" - a devastating account of the discontentment relentless upward mobility can lead to. The bluesy "Love Is An 8-Lettered Word" evokes Dylan in title and even in tune somewhat, and is a wry lament about Calcutta (the 8-lettered word). "Hashmi and Being Free" is about playwright Safdar Hashmi's death - there's even a Randy Newmanesque play on the word "free" here. Dutt saves the best for the last- "Mr. Brown" is a beautiful song about (presumably) his old music teacher who taught them just one song - the folk standard "500 Miles". The nostalgic narrative is interspersed with verses from "500 Miles" and it works superbly.

There are at least 2 songs on this album that Dutt has translated from his Bengali original - "Two People" and "Mr. Brown" ("Mr. Hall" originally). Both are among the best tracks on the album and though both seem more resonant in Bengali ("Mr. Hall" particularly, as the English rendition of "500 Miles" punctuated the Bengali narrative; the contrast added to its poignancy), their impact isn't diminished by much here. At times, in some songs, Dutt's self-consciousness induces a slight American twang that punctures the immediacy but thankfully, such moments are few and far between.

Bandra Blues is an important album in the nascent Indian pop scene. One, it is the first lyric-led, acoustic guitar-styled album in one of the 2 mainstream Indian languages. Two, it's the first album that delves into life in urban India, in its many dimensions. Three, there's a do-it-yourself, spontaneous feel in the album - definitely a source of confidence for budding singer-songwriters. Though there is something repugnant about pen-pushers like me suggesting that Dutt hasn't perhaps pushed the envelope enough, he'd probably agree too that consistency is not the album's strength. Still, the sparks of brilliance on the album are adequate for it to be highly recommended. I would personally place it with Lucky Ali's two albums, Junoon's Azadi and Silk Route's Boondein as the albums that have genuinely taken Indian pop forward. What's perhaps worrying is that quality Indian pop is still an over-thirties club.

February 2000


Anonymous Anonymous said...

gr8 analysis man!...

5:19 AM  

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