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Interview with Suman Chatterjee: March 1994

by Sudipto Chatterjee SUDIPTO: Can there be a common generic basis for Protest Songs in a global sense? SUMAN: Well, sure, depending on how you choose to look at it. Like, if it's a song it must necessarily have two things: a text, which consists of words, and melody. Now, as far as the melody is concerned, it would all depend on the place where the song is being written and performed... every nation would have its own choice maybe. So that is... that's what remains flexible, you know. But as far as the text is concerned, the global basis is there, it is there. The global basis is that of protest against establishment, the source of the protest or whatever, you know. It can be for liberation, it can be for this, that... but what you can be sure of is that that is the bottom line...it's against the establishment, revealing in any particular place.... Like here I am in Calcutta, answering your questions, and if I would only protest against President Clinton in Washington D.C., from Calcutta, I don't think it would necessarily be a very honest protest. The anti-establishment terms must apply to the establishment here as far as my protest songs are concerned. So there is a global basis. SUDIPTO: From what we know of your career thus far, you've been to various countries, you've spent a lot of time outside India and I was curious to know how songs from another culture influence, inspire and inform your creativity. SUMAN: Immensely. After Ravi Shankar started... got established as a concert artist in the West, we received (...) some discs, gramophone discs featuring Pundit Ravi Shankar and Pundit (I'd also call him Pundit) Yehudi Menuhin, the violin master, and the discs were titled East Meets West. To me it was a kind of a ... well, I could not conceal a laughter, not that I would like to make fun of it, but as far as Bengali songs are concerned, modern Bengali songs--the East had met the West long ago in the mid-nineteenth century... and ever since Rabindranath Tagore started writing songs and then Dwijendra Lal Roy, ever since the genre Modern Bengali Song was born. But it was not born out of any business interest, it was born out of sheer creative interests because in those days there was no radio, there was no gramophone recording system, nothing. So the people who wrote songs wrote them because they could not but write those songs. And as you know, Rabindranath went abroad and so did D.L. Roy and they imbibed... they came home, I would say, loaded with ideas. Brilliant, interesting and fine ideas that were probably alien to us, to our territory, but not to our mind because Bengal and gradually the whole of the sub-continent opened up to the West in a very brief period of time in the nineteenth century. It probably started in the eighteenth and blossomed in the nineteenth. Well, melody travels like ideas, like Newton's Laws of Motion... they do not belong to any particular country and although Isaac Newton was born in Britain one could not say that his theories were British. So the forms, they should not, they do not, they cannot belong to any particular people. They belong to the world. Ideas travel. If you invent something in New York it's quite probable, if the press gets wind of it, the idea would travel, travel far away, maybe to Japan, maybe to Timbuktu. And so melodies travel too. Now, if you, er... and this is the most interesting thing... I would know a Knickerbocker if he would come to Calcutta, listen to our music--Baul, Bhatiali, etc., etc.--I don't how much he would be... he would certainly be impressed by our folk music, but how much he would be prepared to take and that makes the difference. Here I am very proud to be a Bengali... the only reason that I am proud to be a Bengali is that Bengal, as far as music is concerned, has never known any territory, has never subscribed to any politically circumscribed notion that you have boundaries. And this is our heritage. So when I, as a modern Bengali (who has) traveled abroad, it was not that all on a sudden a new unknown window was thrown open in front of me. No, no, no. Ever since I was

born I've been listening to Western music. May be not too much of African music, but a lot of Latin American music, too. Thanks to our radio broadcasts. So, in that way, I was kind of... the preparation was there, the process of accepting ideas, accepting notions, accepting impressions, musical impressions.... SUDIPTO: The base had been created. SUMAN: This was already there. I mean, it's almost... I would even go to the extent of saying it has become a part of our genetic endowment today. That if you are born in Calcutta... anywhere in metropolitan India (of course, it has to be metropolitan, it cannot be on the mountain top), you are most probably genetically endowed. One should not take it too literally, but most certainly, if one could give any credence to Professor Jung's theories, it kind of belongs to our Collective Unconscious. So it was not that all of a sudden I discovered the West. No, no, no. It was that I was allowed... the moment I was in Europe or in the United States I was allowed to go deeper into their music. SUDIPTO: I know you have adapted songs written by specific singers in the United States and turned them into very successful, well accepted Bengali songs. And I understand, from having heard from other people, that a lot of those songs that you have translated and set to melody... of course, very often you maintained the same type of melody... were accepted by the people of Bengal unquestioningly, who took them as "Bengali" songs. Now, could you give me a few instances of such specific songs and singers who have helped you create your own songs. SUMAN: First of all I have to mention Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." The rhythm pattern (of the song) was 1-2-3-4, you know: (1) How many roads (2) must a man (3) walk down (4)... 1 and 2 and 3 and 4, like that. Like a Sumo wrestler, I had been desperately trying to get a hold on that particular song so that I could force it into a process of translation and that was stupid of me. After 14 years of hard struggle I realized that one should not think in terms of translation but one should kind of wait for a proper transcreation. And it did happen after 14 years. And, well, the thing is that, when it came... when the lines came, they came so automatically as though I had written them. Do get my point? SUDIPTO: Yes, and... SUMAN: What I did (was) I changed the rhythm. I changed it into 5-4. 1,2,3--4,5; 1,2,3--4,5... you know. This (scansion) is today accepted even in Western Rock. We call it ardha-jhhampak which had been much used by Rabindranath Tagore eighty years ago. So I changed the rhythm and I took the verse, what they call in the Western part of the world, the refrain and I just took the melody and wrote a proper Bengali text which reflected the spirit of the song. It is not a literary translation. Sometimes it's a translation, sometimes it's not. And what I added was my own second movement. In Bengali we have that. In European music you do not have that. You have a song, and when you say I've written a song it's a line of melody and you could just go on playing that melody over and over again with one variation and that would do, people would accept it; whereas in our country it's different. We have the first movement--sthhayee, the second movement--antaraa, the third movement--sanchaaree, and then we come back to the second antaraa for which we have a funny name which I do not use because musically it's a repetition of the first antaraa. What I did for this song is that I did not write a traditional sanchaaree. I took the first movement as a starter... it starts right off with Dylan's melody but it's, I mean, not forced into but... kind of, I would say, dovetailed into the 5-4 or 5-8 rhythm pattern. And then in the second movement--"How many years can a mountain exist before it is washed to the sea?"--for this Dylan had used the same melody, etc., etc... and, one minute... [he counts the number of beats for a brief moment] In my song I changed the Dylan melody for the second para... er... stanza, "How many years can a mountain...." For this part...

SUDIPTO: You changed it a bit. SUMAN: I used my own melody. Then I went back to Dylan's melody. SUDIPTO: The resultant effect is that the song continues to carry the sense of despair that was there in Bob Dylan's song... but as I continue to listening to it, it strikes out as a creation of its own and justifies the process of hybridity as a creative one. I understand you have also transcreated poems from Langston Hughes and also from Pete Seeger, right? SUMAN: In the case of Langston Hughes, The Dream Variation, well, Hughes did not write any melody to it, it was just a poem. SUDIPTO: Of course. SUMAN: There again, I transcreated it. And after 17 long years I found a melody for it. SUDIPTO: 17 years! SUMAN: After 17 years. SUDIPTO: And what about... er... I have read this song in your... SUMAN: No, more than that. In fact, it's almost after 20 years that I finally succeeded in finding a good melody for that. And for Pete Seeger's song it's again the same thing. SUDIPTO: "Where have all the flowers gone?" SUMAN: "Where have all the flowers gone?" I translated it as far as I could when I was 17 years old and even in those days I had a feeling that the last stanza was missing. You know, because Pete's song ends like... "Where have all the soldiers gone? Gone to graveyard everyone. When will they ever learn." And there the song ends.... I thought that the circle should be completed and that would make the experience of the song more agonizing. So, I added the last stanza... without his permission, of course. And after many many years, in 1983, I finally met Pete Seeger and told him that I had added a stanza.... SUDIPTO: And how did he react to that? SUMAN: He was very happy, extremely happy, you know. He said, "That's exactly how a folk song is born." And I remember... not only I, everybody should remember Bertolt Brecht's beautiful poem on bread. When breads are in plenty who would ask for the baker? SUDIPTO: Now I want to ask you a very basic, primary question. Why do you write and why do you sing? SUMAN: Because I can't but, I cannot but, I have to! It's like asking a human why do you smile, why do you breathe...? It's like asking a calf why do you jump around? It's essential to me. I cannot but, you understand? I have to. SUDIPTO: Do you think you could write a song about anything at this point? SUMAN: Yes, yes... theoretically, yes. And this where the West has enriched me. We in metropolitan Bengal, we hardly ever, really, basically, honestly care to know about our rural

music. We do not have the chance either, because there's not much recorded, truly recorded Bengali folk music. And there is a plethora of Bengali and Indian folk music. They're beautiful. But how much of it is recorded? Hence, we remain ignorant. Sometimes because there is no way of getting educated, sometimes because we're too indifferent, that, too, because the divide is very deep. SUDIPTO: The class walls are rather steep. SUMAN: Exactly. After I went to the West, I though that here they could write like the Beatles had written "I am fixing a hole... to stop my mind from wandering." It was beautiful. It was as though the line just came and grabbed me by my shoulders. And then Dylan, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Donovan, Tom Paxton... SUDIPTO: Leonard Cohen also... SUMAN: Leonard Cohen, too, but especially the folk singers (I wouldn't call Cohen a folk singer, it's more rock and he's a poet). They had written songs on guitars, on trousers and jeans, on laughter. In Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel's songs cigarettes and magazines come automatically and that is beautiful. And this... through this exposure, later on, I started looking for similar elements in our music and I did find that rural Bengali musicians had also written songs on their dotaaraa, their instrument, their huts, whatever they discovered. But we have not done that. To us, metropolitan Bengalis, unfortunately music and song writing had always been very abstract. And I hated that, I disliked that. I think that anything could be the subject of a song. SUDIPTO: And that is what you've proven to us and that is why we are so thankful to you. SUMAN: [Laughs] Don't be so thankful so early because I am in the process of trying. To me a song is, in the literary sense of the term, an "essay"... the French word essayer, "to try." So, to me every song is an attempt, a try. Sometimes I can get my message through, in terms of text and... melody, and mostly I fail. SUDIPTO: How many languages do you speak, Sumandaa? SUMAN: Beg your pardon? SUDIPTO: How many languages do you speak? SUMAN: Well, these days I speak only Bengali, some sputtering English and German. I used to speak Spanish and French very well before, but I have successfully forgotten them. SUDIPTO: [Laughs] They say it's like swimming, you never forget a language. SUMAN: No, you do, because you get out of practice and once you are out of practice, you're bashful, you know, you're ashamed of making mistakes. Children are blessed with a great talent, you know. They are not ashamed of making mistakes. SUDIPTO: Your daughter is learning Bengali well? SUMAN: She is a Bengali. I mean, one wouldn't know that she did not know Bengali three years ago and now she speaks only Bengali.

SUDIPTO: Really? Well, thank you very much, Sumandaa, for this interview, you've been very gracious and helpful for a poor student's project, and I hope I will be able to come up with something that will poke a finger at the enigma you are creating around yourself. SUMAN: No... Thank you, but... please, no formalities with me, Sudipto. Let me give you some food for thought. You know, usually, all over the world you find a phenomenon that when people think in terms of a song they consider only one element, they tend to concentrate most of their attention on only one element of the song and that is the literary text. The text, as it goes, what it means, etc., etc. But that's only one element, but there are several other elements. And this is my quest, I mean, I would like to know--maybe you could find it out, too, some day--what would the melody for a protest song be like, how do we scan a song in terms of melody and rhythm. Do you understand what I mean? SUDIPTO: Yes. I certainly do. SUMAN: A certain American gentleman, named... if I am not mistaken... Philip Meyer (Mayer?)-you may check out on this--had written a very interesting essay... I don't know where, I do not remember the book... but it was on how to analyze music and he had used information theory and grafted its methodology onto music. How a piece of melody gives out new information, how far, whether at all... and that could be a basis for analysis of music, you know. Otherwise it's like limping on one foot, you know. All our conversations, globally, on music are limping on one foot. The other foot is music, in terms of notes.... SUDIPTO: I guess, that's simply because understanding music carries with it the additional onus of having to learn the language of music, the technical aspects of it... 'cause music touches your ears but then to understand and speak music you've got to master a certain language which is not accessible to everybody. That could be one reason. SUMAN: Right, right.... SUDIPTO: Anyway, thank you Sumandaa, we can now revert back to Bengali....