When director Srijit Mukherjee approached musician Kabir Suman last year to compose a few tracks for his film Jaatishwar, he was turned away at the door. “I had nothing to do with the Bengali film industry. So I wasn’t interested in filmmakers trying to get me to work for them,” says 65-year-old Suman. But Mukherjee had an inkling about Suman’s temperament and knew exactly how to draw him in. He visited again, with 13 kabigaans (songs written and composed by kobials or folk poets) in tow, which as Suman says, “was a stroke of genius”.
Jaatishwar (2014) is the tale of a 19th-century Bengali folk poet of Portuguese origin, Anthony Firingee, and has won four national awards, including one for best singer. In the film, Suman remastered old classics by poets such as Bhola Moira, Ram Basu, Thakur Singh and Firingee using 250-year-old forms of music such as Kali kirtan, palagaan and tappa. “Srijit is a good professional. He may not be the best director around, but I trust him,” says Suman, who is also a sitting Member of Parliament from Jadavpur Constituency in Kolkata since 2009, and will be in Delhi today to receive the award.
To generations of people living in West Bengal in the ’90s, Suman, who was Suman Chatterjee back then, was the rebel with a guitar who struck a radical note by doing a series of live concerts followed by a slew of albums. The musician who began his career by being associated with a band named Nagorik gave the Bengali-speaking population of the country some well-crafted, mini masterpieces by way of his songs.
Unsparing in their analysis and scathing in opinion, the songs turned Suman into “Calcutta’s Dylan”. “Who is Dylan anyway? He’s just a brilliant songwriter, who could not keep up the standard,” says Suman, who helped redefine what new sound meant in Bengali modern music, during his 25-year-long music career.
Mukherjee was 16 when Suman sang Tomake chai (I want you) that got three generations in his house to listen to the tape recorder every day. Soon enough Mukherjee and his friends were lapping up every song Suman sang. His next song, called Jaatishwar, which came in 1997, spoke of timelessness of love, reincarnation and urban myths. “It changed my life forever. Here was a man, who sang what he felt like. Jaatishwar talked of love being a constant factor and in many ways inspired me to write the script for my film. The film is actually derived from one song I heard back then,” says Mukherjee.
But the award has come more as a shock than a surprise for Suman. “For someone who has always been against the wrongdoings of the government, an award like this is a silver lining. It makes me have better hopes for India,” says Suman, who recently put out a song opposing Zubin Mehta’s concert in Kashmir. In fact, Suman also turned against his own party, The Trinamool Congress, calling it an anarchist party. He thinks that being in active politics has changed him as an artiste and as a person. “I’ve lost faith and that has affected me as a person. I have now become weary of politicians and the system,” says Suman.
Growing up in a traditional Bengali household with parents who were eminent singers, music happened by default for Suman. Rabindra Sangeet and classical music was always reeling out of the gramophone. “But my father would play everything and that was my initial brush with music,” says Suman.
It was his travels through Europe and the US (he was reporting from Nicaragua as a broadcast journalist for Voice of America) that exposed him to jazz and Blues and folk music of various countries. “These influences and song writing made me the person and the musician I am today,” says Suman, who for now is busy figuring out his next song, his next issue, the world’s next iniquity. “What’s the point of living otherwise?” he says.