Last month, a social media controversy made Ratan Kahar, an 85-year-old Birbhum-based singer in the bhadu folk tradition, quite famous. Popular rapper Badshah had released his new single, Genda Phool, which became an overnight chartbuster, with over 250 million views on YouTube till now. As the song’s main hook, Badshah used a Bengali folk piece Boroloker biti lo/lomba lomba chul/ emon chul e lagiye debo laal genda phool (Daughter of a rich man/ long, long hair/ I shall adorn such hair with a red marigold). The piece was written in 1972 by Kahar, from the perspective of a prostitute who is singing this to her daughter – the child of a rich man she bore – while combing her hair.
Badshah’s interpretation of the song, which came with bawdy lyrics and underwhelming choreography, came with double entendre at the heart of it and was objectifying women, with the usage of words such as ‘bum’ and ‘butter’. Soon enough, Bengalis were up in arms – on Twitter and in a letter to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. A petition was started on Change.org accusing Badshah of “stealing” a Bengali folk piece and using it out of context in his rap. A little later, footage from an unfinished documentary, Ratan Kahar: The Forgotten Gem, made by Kousik Mondal of Birbhum-based Infinity Waves Production, on Kahar being the original writer-composer bolstered the claim of the otherwise bhaat-ghum (siesta)-loving community. “We’d never imagined this scale of its reach,” says documentary maker, Mondal, 26, who is also the frontman of the music band, Sesh.
The trial by social media, however, led Badshah to speak to Kahar. He gave him Rs five lakh, hopes of visiting him post-COVID-19 and of a song in the future. One of Badshah’s Instagram stories said: “Kal tak tha main sabko pyara, aaj chor ban gaya/ Gaana hit par kuch logon ke liye shor ban gaya (I was loved until yesterday, but today I’m a thief/the song’s a hit, but for some it’s noise)”.
In these 50 years, he’s been singing, not many knew of Kahar, who dropped out after Class V to roll and sell beedis to support his family, and started singing at age 16, going door to door during dawn, in Bhadra month (August-September). He performed jatra folk theatre, too. But in this one month, life seems to have found a purpose for Kahar. It has given him a name and the confidence to apply for copyrights. After the lockdown is lifted, he will go meet the Birbhum district information and cultural officer Subhamoy Mitra to get his papers in order. “It’s god’s grace that for the first time, people outside Bengal heard this song and I have finally found my place in my twilight years,” he says.
The local Birbhum-based label, Nibir Music, has now come forth to make music videos of his songs – from the melancholic Aami ek shukno pata (I’m a dried leaf) to peppy O bou (Oh, wife), where we see the dhoti-clad senior hop, skip, and be happy. These are posted on YouTube so that in the future, anybody thinking of appropriating them would discuss the copyrights first.
The controversy, however, also opened up another can of worms. This isn’t the first time the song has been taken and not credited. In 1976, a record label named Ashoka released a record on All India Radio comprising two songs in jhumur folk style. Boro loker biti lo and Boli o nanadi were sung by Swapna Chakraborty and composed by Chandra Kanta Nandy, while the latter’s lyrics were credited to Ashanandan Chattaraj. For the former, it mentioned: Bengali traditional folk. The record’s rights later went to HMV Saregama.
In that particular version of Boro loker biti lo, the dotara (the two-stringed indigenous folk instrument from Bengal) was played by famed musician Paritosh Roy, known popularly for playing the instrument in the iconic Satyajit Ray’s composition Kotoi rongo dekhi duniyay (This world astounds me with its different shades) in his 1980 political satire, Hirak Rajar Deshe. Roy came to be known as one of the finest dotara players in Bengal. “Baba played the dotara at Akashvani. Every time a folk song was recorded, he was called in to play,” says Tapas Roy, the musician’s son and a Mumbai-based multi-pluck instrumentalist, with films like Lootera, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Bajirao Mastani, Tanhaji to his credit. It was after the song became a hit that Paritosh came to know that “the song isn’t entirely Chandra Kanta Nandy’s”, and that Ratan Kahar was associated with it. He soon arranged for Kahar to sing at AIR.
About eight months ago, Tapas was called to a Mumbai studio by Genda Phool arranger Aditya Dev and asked to play the folk Boro loker biti lo on the dotara. So, he did. He was told that Badshah was doing a music project, but Tapas didn’t know why it was being recorded. “I am a musician; I was called to play and got paid for it,” he says, adding that Dev had once later asked him if he knew who the original composer was. Badshah and Dev, however, remain unreachable.
When Tapas saw Kahar on a news channel call his father and Nandy dalals (agents) of the recording company for not giving him credit, Roy released a video on YouTube last week, titled: The Truth Behind Genda Phool, with telephonic recordings with Kahar, who later apologised and said he wasn’t in the right frame of mind when he had given the statement initially. Roy couldn’t speak up earlier, he says, because “my father is dead and nobody would have believed me. I wouldn’t have been able to prove it. So, I had been collecting evidence: audio-video recordings, telephonic conversations for the video,” he says.
When Badshah’s video released on March 26, Tapas, a little taken aback, sent Krishna Kanta Nandy, the son of late Chandra Kanta Nandy, the photograph of the old track with his father’s name, and asked him to demand Sony Music for the credit. Nandy, whose phone has remained switched off since, had put up a Facebook video to say that he was 11 and present at the 1976 recording, and knows that the lyrics are by Kahar but the tune is his father’s.
“It was wrong on Swapna Chakraborty’s part to have hidden the real credit and the truth,” says Tapas, who then rang up Chakraborty, whose husband Manas Chakraborty told him, “‘Whatever is publicly known, is the reality’. They still didn’t open their mouth. That’s bad.” Swapna, however, had given credit to two songs by Kahar in her subsequent album. “Swapna didn’t give me credit but made the song famous,” says Kahar, who’s known to have given his songs to whoever came asking, including baul singer Purna Das Baul (Palare palare rabon) and singer-actor Silajit Majumder. “We’ve grown up hearing our fathers and uncles tell us that this is Kahar’s song,” says Mondal. “Also, Swapna’s version had changed the original line dekhechhilam sopone ore sopone, bhalobasha darin chhilomatha’r sithene (I saw in the dream/ In the dream, love was standing/ waiting beside my pillow) to lal dhulo’r sorane ore sorane/bhalobasha darin chhilo mathar sithane (Down the road of red sand/ Love was standing/ Waiting beside my pillow), which makes absolutely no sense,” he adds.
As Kahar, who says, “Badshah is a big-hearted man”, awaits the day the rapper keeps his promise of a song for Kahar and visits him in his hometown, while Mondal waits for the lockdown to lift, to complete the documentary. “There are many people who know the real story. Were the property rights bought? What actually happened? We’ll investigate and expose,” he says.
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