Friday, August 27, 2010

The Bong Connection OR why Bengali music is still the best

WARNING: WORKING KNOWLEDGE OF BENGALI ESSENTIAL. 
NON-BONGS, PLEASE ACCEPT THE HYPOTHESIS AND WAIT FOR MY NEXT POST ON  HRISHIKESH MUKHERJEE!

A few months back, I wrote a post on my favourite music videos. The songs were mostly Indipop and I consciously tried to avoid remixes (though one crept in).
In the intervening period, I ended up listening to a lot of Bengali music - right from the 1950s till recent times. My aunt and cousins kept me reasonably up-to-date on the latest albums and some of the better films. I visited Calcutta more frequently than I would have liked. I spent more time on YouTube than what my wife would have liked. Net result, I managed to refresh most of my memories and felt a lot better.

Revisiting my favourite videos list (most of which have music I just adore), I realised how uni-dimensional the topics are.
Except for Mile sur, which was a patriotic number and Bulla ki jaana, which was a philo-Sufi-cal (ha ha!) number, ALL the remaining songs were in the broad romantic domain. There is a lot of experimentation around musical style, orchestration and voice but essentially, non-film Hindi music (even without the limitations of having to adhere to a film's structure) is predominantly - dare I say, exclusively - romantic.

On the other hand, Bengali music of recent times (by which I mean about two decades - from around the time I started college) has explored such a wealth of topics that it takes your breath away. Musicians and bands - almost without exception - have taken up issues, poked fun, got naughty, paid tributes, evoked nostalgia and yes, written love songs as well. And in the process, they made Bengali music far richer.
For a very long time, Bengali music was totally dependent on one man's output. While that output still remains the touchstone of versatility and style, it is quite heartening to see that people have dared to go beyond. Way beyond.

So while Hindi music today is still drowning in the blue lakes of the lover's eyes or drinking the ambrosia of her lips, Bengali music is thinking about tomorrow.
To prove my point, I have taken five of the most popular artistes / bands and a few of their songs.   The list below is neither exhaustive nor representative. They are a random selection of songs around a variety of themes (and ones which I could dig out videos for).
With that disclaimer, let me step back and present the collection. 

Nachiketa
I never quite liked Nachiketa when he was at his peak, probably because he had to play second fiddle to more talented contemporaries. One complaint against him was that he was too changra (loosely, immature!) but the hummability of his songs were never in doubt. And after so many years, neither is his durability.  
But to present how different even love songs can be, I choose three out-and-out romantic songs from his list.
His first major hit (probably from his first album) was a song called Neelanjana (ignore the silly slideshow) which was dedicated to his first love - a schoolgirl in red ribbons, white socks and blue skirt. The romance is understated and details of the various meeting scenes are very well-etched.
The second is a song called Tumi ashbey bolei (Because you'll come), which would have been yet another love song if not for the two lines - Tumi ashbey bolei amar dwidhara uttor khnuje paeni / Tumi ashbey bolei deshta ekhono Gujarat hoye jaeni.
The third one is not merely a song but a wonderful story. It is called Pacemaker and about a 36-year old man in love with a 19-year old college girl. I think it would make a very cool film, if it hasn't been made already.  

Chandrabindoo
This is a band - one of the many who came up in a bumper crop - I have a soft corner for because the individual members were growing, jamming, smoking in & around my college when I was there.  
And hence, their huge hit - Sweetheart - is one I like for more reasons than one. For starters, this song was first performed in our college fest. And, I have seen so many stories like this happen! By the way, this is a 'romantic' song as well. Except one which ends with - E amaar keu noi, pishtuto bhai hoi... (Oh - he is nobody, probably a second cousin.)
Their speciality is satire.
On crazy beauty tips - Twaker jotno nin (Take care of your skin).
On modern love stories - Geetgovindam (which opens with Tomakey dekhabo Niagra, tomakey shekhabo Viagra - I will show you Niagra, I will teach you Viagra).
On things we fear - Juju.
And on disciplinarian English-medium schools (which maybe a prescient take on La Martiniere) - Bathroom.

Mohiner Ghoraguli
A group which formed in the mid-1970s, disbanded and was then revived by some of its original and some new members in the 1990s, deserves a post of its own.
Instead of giving their Twitterified history, I will - for the benefit of the non-Bongs - link their song on increasing personal distances. Prithibi ta aaj chhoto hotey hotey, satellite aar cable-er haatey drawing room-ey rakha boka baksho-tey bandi / Bhebe dekhecho ki tararao joto alokborsho durey, tumi aar aami jai kromey kromey shorey. (As the world is shrinking to get trapped in the box in the drawing room, you and I are growing light-years apart like the stars in the sky)
But why is it so familiar? Because Mahesh Bhatt is better at marketing than Gautam Chatterjee.



Anjan Dutta
Anjan Dutta's best known number is a love song - in which the girl never speaks. She sobs on the phone when her lover asks if she will marry him. The only explanation of this sob was that she had reneged on her promise and married a better-settled alternative. When I heard it now, I wondered why? Because she may well have cried out of relief, now that her lover has a job! But then, happy endings are so un-cool!
One of my favourites is Raja Ray - the handsome & confident struggler in the Tollygunge film industry (affectionately - and aptly - called Tollywood). The harassment of the junior artiste is brilliantly sketched in two lines - Keu boley gnof rakho, keu shudhu boley dyakho, keu boley achha dnarao / Jonmodiner sceney hero-r pechhoney, out of focus-ey kothao. (Keep a mouche, the assistant says. Look here, says the other. Okay, let me see - says yet another - if I can fit you in the birthday scene, behind the hero somewhere in the crowd.)
His other songs include Haripada - about aliens.  
Darjeeling - on hill station nostalgia.
Calcium - on the pressures of growing up, predating Taare Zameen Par by 15 years.
And yes, a love story - about the Bengali boy who likes Elvis Presley and loves an Anglo-Indian girl, Mary Ann

Suman Chatterjee
As I had written before, Suman will be the last named in this list since he was the pioneer of this movement that brought a new variety to Bengali music. An extremely political singer, Suman is now a Trinamool Congress MP (though he threatens to resign every now and then).
And without getting into his biggest hit, I can pick the time he did a fantastic reprise of Blowin' in the wind.
When he evoked nostalgia for all the first things we did in our beloved city.
Sometimes he based his songs on true stories of government apathy (punctuated with commentary).
And almost always, he touched a chord. Like this song, Haal chherona bondhu (Don't give up, my friend), which I did not like when I heard it in college. But now - nearing 40 - I find a resonance with the lines which go, "Amaro toh boyosh holo, raat biretey kashi / Kashir domok thamley kintu bnachtey bhalobashi."
Brilliant!

To end, I will put forward a song which is a wonderful mix of Bengali and Hindi - composed by Neel Dutt, Anjan Dutt's son and performed by Shantanu Mukherjee.
Sujan majhi re is yet another wonderful addition to the long list of boat songs composed by those two geniuses with Bong connections.   
And yes, it is from a film called The Bong Connection.
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