When death deceives one closely, they start looking at life differently.
I took an interview of the most revered folk singer Kalika Prasad Bhattacharjee, lovingly called Kalika da, on February 21 in Guwahati, Assam on International Mother Language Day. A fortnight after this interview, he passed away in a tragic accident in West Bengal. It was March 7. This interview is one of his last. It was an honour to meet him, although my wish to know him more and learn from him remained unfulfilled.
“Aami… anande gaan geyechi. Tokhono anande korechi, akhono anande korchi (I sang in the state of real happiness then and doing it even now),” these were his words.
In the pic with Kalika Prasad Bhattacharya
Here is the interview with folk singer Kalika Prasad Bhattacharjee, lead singer of the Bangla folk band – Dohar, whose contribution in music for Bengali flicks like Jaatishwar and Moner Manush is widely known. He spoke candidly about his thoughts, experiences and challenges.
Q : You are hailed as Loksangeet Samrat (folk music maestro). What other genres of music interests you besides folk music?
A : I hear all kinds of music, be it Indian Classical music or Western and both Indian and Western folk music and others. Although my expertise is in folk music, I study the research of Western music, which is vast, besides listening to the various range of music.
Q : That means you are open to all kinds of music. Can we hear you sing in films – be it folk songs or modern?
A : I have sung adhunik (modern) songs in Bhuban Majhi, a Bangladeshi flick, releasing on March 3. You can also see actor Parambrata Chatterjee in it. Only two of us from India are part of this project. As I said, my field is folk but I am open to all music.
Q : Is there any particular genre of music or any singer or musician that has influenced you personally?
A : There is no particular genre or person that I can mention. My outlook towards music is quite different. I sing folk music may be because it suits my timbre but music cannot be tied down to any particular person, who has a great impact on me. When it comes to listening to music or music that has influenced me, it is vast and varied. Sometimes songs of Hindustani Classical vocalist Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahab has influenced me, sometimes American folk singer Pete Seeger, even the songs of Jatin da, a hairdresser, and also songs sung by rickshaw puller. It is difficult to say any particular name.
Q : There was a phase when we lost touch with folk music due to many reasons and over the past one-two years it has resurfaced or found a new platform. However, it is seen mostly in fusion form. What is your take on this?
A : It is undeniable that folk music has become popular in the last one-and-a-half years. I have worked with Zee Bangla SaReGaMaPa where we (he and his team) performed folk songs of Bengal, Assam, Tripura and even Rajasthan and Kashmir, besides others. The interesting part is we performed in traditional form and not fusion. We have performed Kirtan with 10 dhols and flutes and did not use modern instruments like electric guitar. We received great response and reviews from the judges of the show, audience and people. Henceforth, Kirtan and baul geet can be seen being performed in various programmes on and off screen.
Q : Then it is not another wave of folk music but ‘neo-folk music’ – the one without fusion – and you have a major contribution in it.
A : Folk music is eternal and was always there. In Zee SaReGaMaPa, it got a mass platform and we made it presentable. Nowadays, fusion is defined as clubbing of music but it is not that easy. To do proper fusion is very difficult and for that one needs to have in-depth knowledge of their own field to fuse it with another.
Q : Can you please elaborate?
A : Like the fusion work of Pandit Ravi Shankar, Satyajit Ray, Salil Chowdhury... but not everybody can do it. Fusion is done today as well but work of their level is rare. Ray created the song ‘Aaha ki ananda akashe batashe’ using Bengal’s dhol and Mozart Symphony number… but then the word fusion did not exist. Like the works of Pt Shankar with George Harrison of Beatles.
Q : What are the challenges that you are facing in bringing folk music to the forefront?
A : In today’s time, the biggest challenge of folk music is to make it presentable. When we perform Bihu songs and dance in melas (fairs), it does not get monotonous as the crowd participates with us but when it is brought on stage or TV that means we are bringing it out of context. In such a situation, there are only two ways: One, to make it commercial, which I believe should not be done as it destroys the essence of folk music. Second, to make it presentable so that masses can connect with it while maintaining the essence of it.
Q : How can it be made presentable and yet not make it commercial?
A : When one is singing a modern (adhunik) song, they have the liberty to sing it the way they want to but if they say they are singing a folk song or any particular genre than it is important to maintain the essence of it. That is when we have to make it presentable as we are taking it out of context. This is the challenge Dohar is facing for the past 17 years and while working on the musical reality show last year.
Q : Was it difficult for you to make others understand about your choice of music in the initial years or adapt to folk music?
A : Luckily, I did not have to face many struggles as I was born in a very small town in Silchar located in Cachar district of Assam. Kirtans, pujas and vratas were a regular practice at our house and music or singing was a must on all such occasions. So, I did not have to adapt to folk music separately as I have grown up in that environment. It came easily. Fakirs, peers would visit my uncle (Late Ananta Bhattacharya, a well-known artist), who was also into music, at home often. I have played instruments and sang in Silchar but started Dohar in Kolkata.
Q : Songs of Dohar are very popular with the masses. How did you perceive the future of Dohar after the band’s first performance?
A : When we started Dohar in the 1990s in Kolkata, in our first event, we said that this is our first and last performance as a band. I, personally, did not have an aim to reach a certain point as a singer or build a career upon it. That was never my desire. Aami gaan geyechi, anande gaan geyechi. Tokhono anande korechi, akhono anande korchi (I sang in the state of real happiness then and doing it even now). I am happy and ecstatic even if five people likes to listen to my kind of music and songs or 5 lakh people. The feeling remains the same. I will not go out of my agenda and perform songs sung by Kumar Sanu or others if somebody wants me to so as to attract 50 lakh people.
Q : Against the backdrop of International Mother Language Day, a lot has been said about the conflict over language in Assam during the event (Bhasha Sanskriti Milan Utsav in Guwahati) by eminent personalities of Assam like senior Journalist Ajit Kumar Bhuyan and others. Would you like to comment on it?
A : Yes, I want to. Assam is a multi-lingual state. People speaking in different languages and dialects here should have the right to speak their language and do research (bhasha charcha) of their language and art form. Then only Assam will become a more beautiful state to live in.
Q : There has been a long-standing gap between Barrack Valley and rest of Assam for decades over language. A lot of controversies has triggered post the recent demand of some nationalist parties to make Assamese as ‘the’ only official language of the state. Social media has been stormed with protests from various quarters. What do you have to say on this considering that you hail from Silchar, where Bengali speaking people are in majority?
A : The conflict is not limited to Barrack valley but it is highlighted as Bengali speaking people are in majority there. Dimasa, Rabha, Kuki, Missing, Karbi and other tribes of Assam have also protested time and again over the same issue. If everybody is brought under the umbrella where Assamese is made the only official language than these tribal groups and other communities will lose their beauty and their art form, which otherwise makes them unique. The people should have the right to speak in their own language, in their mother tongue and we should try to make it happen.
Q : Bhasha Sanskriti Milan Utsav, which has been organised in the heart of Assam, is a proof of cross-cultural unity as people speaking in different languages are taking part in the programmes which are in Bengali. Even there is a mixed crowd in the audience who are cheering the performances.
A : Definitely, it is a massive step.
Q : How has the response of the youths in Assam to “neo-folk music”?
A : Overwhelming so far.
(This exclusive interview was released by UNI on February 27. On the occasion of International mother language day, Kalika da performed Dhamail on stage with a troupe and his fellow singers from Dohar)