Hallelujah, or Not

The day I asked doctors to stop my father’s treatment, to let him go after a year of suffering, to just make sure he wasn’t in any more pain, a relative of mine said I was godless. I was violating the rules of humanity by not stretching out a dying man’s agony. It didn’t matter that no amount of medicines could ever bring him back.

Two days later, the clock stopped ticking. He had found peace. Presumably, on his onward journey, he would also find God.

But that relative of mine was right. I was godless. I felt it, as clearly as a cold draught of fear flowing through my insides. There was nothing there: no tears, no regrets, no prayer, no faith. There was emptiness, because I had lost a part of my being without finding a replacement.

I went on living, I couldn’t give up. My mother could. Less than two years later, without a fuss, she simply closed her eyes and didn’t open them again. She had become my baby: helpless, dependent, unable to recognise anyone but me, unable to eat unless I fed her. And now she was gone. And my being had taken another blow.

I stared at an abyss, and it stared back at me. I realised that for the past 15 years of my life, I had been inching closer to its edge. Now was a great time to step over it, surely. How could anyone blame me now for not being strong, after 15 years of hell?

What held me back was a blood tie, a baby who needed me more than I needed to run away. And so, without hope, without a clue, without light, from day to day, I pushed ahead, still faithless, still godless. What I lacked in courage, I made up for with routine, with dead habit. I didn’t have peace, but I had numbness, and frozen detachment.

It’s been almost five years since then. Surprise, surprise, it’s also been five years since I wrote anything for this forsaken blog.

Nothing dramatic has happened now to make me write this dreary account, except that a few days ago, I listened, really listened, to the lyrics of Hallelujah, to the soul-clenching, terrible, beautiful, disintegrating poetry of Leonard Cohen. And his bizarre, guttural singing to go with it.

Or perhaps it’s my numbness that is disintegrating. For it no longer matters that I can’t keep the faith every day of my life. It will come when it does, and it will often be cold and broken. It may also be holy, and still be broken. Faith is the crutch I used and discarded. Now, when I no longer need a crutch, it has come back as a companion who walks alongside.

I don’t take this to mean I’m no longer godless. My faith is still, at best, a nebulous realisation that I can allow some warmth back into a frozen ice pond. I argue violently with it often, but I acknowledge its existence. I feel it, as clearly as a cold draught of fear flowing through my insides. But I also, sometimes, feel it as clearly as the salty taste of tears on my lips. I have dared to cry again.

And I have concluded that God is an emotion. As love is an emotion. Or music is an emotion. I just need to reconnect to long suppressed emotions. Note how easily the mention of that mammoth task rolls off my tongue.

Visceral is not a word I’d use loosely, would you? No. Well, I’d use it for what you read below. I’m grateful to Leonard Cohen, for showing me again what true redemption looks like.

“Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the lord
But you don’t really care for music, do ya?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to ya?
There’s a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool ya
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah”

~ Music & Lyrics by Leonard Cohen, 1984


Fading Music of the Darbesh

Kalachand derbash--Samir4

The Joydeb-Kenduli mela (fair), held every year in West Bengal’s Birbhum district on Makar Sankranti in mid-January is a gathering of wandering minstrels (Bauls, primarily) like no other in India. Gathering in almost equal numbers are lay aficionados addicted to the Baul and Fakir ways of life.

In 2003, young folk arts ‘conservationist’ (what else do you call an archivist, promoter, film music composer, documenter, filmmaker?) Deb Chowdhury was in Kenduli, as he is every year. But that year, he was on a mission, filming the performances of Kalachand Darbesh — the last of a rare breed of singers and philosophers, the Darbeshis.

Technically descended from the Sufi dervishes, Bengal’s Darbeshis are in a league of their own, because they incorporate elements of Vajrayana Buddhist principles as embodied in the Charyapada (8th-12th century), and the sahajiya principles of Sri Chaitanya’s Bhakti movement teachings.

“There is a tendency to club Darbeshis with Bauls,” says Deb, “but it is an entirely different way of life, as are Baul, Fakiri and Shain.” More than a mere musical genre, Darbeshi is a religion, one which encourages a follower to talk about ‘Allah’ and ‘idol’ in the same breath.

Kalachand is the last adherent of the faith. A former headmaster of Dhupguri Junior High School, the B.Com graduate chucked it all up in 1981 when he began his quest for nitya (permanence). That quest is still on, but the 75-year-old has, meanwhile, performed in 16 countries, been felicitated by the likes of Amartya Sen and Ustad Vilayat Khan, and been blessed by Pandit Ravi Shankar, who was ecstatic about the swaraj, the traditional Darbeshi accompanying instrument, which is also fading into oblivion.

Kalachand’s principal source of income is the alms (madhukari) that he collects by singing on local trains. While voluntary begging is a Darbeshi tradition, for Kalachand, it is a need, because all that he has by way of a supplementary income is Rs. 800 that he receives from the state government. When he needed treatment for a heart condition, it was Deb and friends, who run the Sahajiya Foundation in Kolkata, who arranged it. His biggest hope now: a Rs. 4,000 pension from the Ministry of Culture.

Kalachand’s voice breaks as he talks about his dying art, of his son who refuses to “sing beggar songs”, and of his quest for the “param guru”, but the mood lifts as he describes how William Wordsworth’s poem Daffodils revealed God to him, how William Shakespeare is actually a Baul because Romeo and Juliet are Krishna and Radha, and how, for his international performances, he has been regaling audiences with Darbeshi versions of Daffodils and Shakespeare’s sonnets.

He calls them the bard’s “English Baul” songs.

This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times on September 26, 2009. Photo courtesy Samir Jana

Cities of the Dead

A view of South Park Street Cemetery

Two men sit deep in discussion in a small, sparsely furnished office inside the South Park Street Cemetery (SPS), cups of tepid tea in front of them. Outside, the antique, silent tombstones stand cool under the shade of giant trees in the blazing noonday sun. The bustle of Park Street is a muted hum, nothing that the chirping of birds and squirrels cannot easily drown.

The men are Ranajoy Bose, executive member of the Christian Burial Board (CBB), and Dr Sudip Bhattacharya, a reader in the department of English, at Ramakrishna Mission Vidyamandira, Belur. And both are engaged in a task that has the potential to make the difference between survival and extinction for a large chunk of the city’s heritage – its colonial cemeteries.

Bose, a former member of Kolkata’s corporate circles, and Bhattacharya, who almost accidentally finds himself writing a book on Kolkata’s colonial cities of the dead, are united in one other respect: a fierce pride in their city’s past, and an urgent realisation that unless steps are taken now, cemeteries such as the ones on South Park Street and Lower Circular Road may well go the way that a few others of their kind have done – become irretrievably extinct.

“Outwardly, some of the cemeteries are in relatively decent condition, such as South Park Street, but without constant fund, maintenance and renovation, the existing tombstones will join those already ruined,” says the 41-year-old Bhattacharya. Bose adds, “South Park Street is one of the world’s oldest walk-through cemeteries, but not too many people in this city know that.”

As they take us on a guided tour of the eight acres of lush green land, Bose and Bhattacharya point out graves of historical significance. Mary Bowers, who died in 1781 after having survived the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta, young Rose Aylmer, a renowned beauty and the heroine of Walter Savage Landor’s poem of the same name, Sir William Jones, the celebrated Indophile, Sanskrit scholar, and founder of the Asiatic Society, and, of course, HLV Derozio, founder of Young Bengal and rebel extraordinaire.

A few blocks away, at the still operational Lower Circular Road cemetery, Bhattacharya points out an interesting fact. “You’ll find the graves of many American sailors here,” he says. “They came out on the ships that brought ice to Kolkata, which was stored in the old mint near Howrah Bridge. Clearly, the Europeans here had a weakness for natural American ice.” Interestingly, LC Road also houses the tomb of Rev Sudhir Chatterjee, a member of the IFA Shield winning 1911 Mohun Bagan team.

This is just one of his findings, one of the many that he has come across as he read up about the cemeteries and the people buried in them. “You know, I found out that when he first came out to India as a judge, Sir William Jones’ only priority was to save 30,000 pounds from his salary, which he calculated would take him six years, and then go back to England,” he smiles. “Without exception, Europeans came to this city to get rich. India was the pagoda tree for them.”

Bose adds, “When you look at the graves, you realise the enormity of Kolkata’s cultural diversity in the 18th and 19th centuries, and its tremendously cosmopolitan nature. As a Bengali, that is a source of great pride for me.”

Also significant among Bhattacharya’s findings is the fact that many of the deceased in these cemeteries died young, and of diseases as yet unknown to European medical science (the earliest death in SPS dates back to 1768). “On the one hand, they were forging an empire, and on the other, their doctors were trying to combat diseases for which they often didn’t even have names,” he says. So, with the cemeteries as his starting point, part of his agenda is to figure out the European plan of action in the face of the assault.

Neither is it possible to ignore the archaeological significance of SPS in particular. “This cemetery is probably unique in that it is a Christian cemetery with almost no crosses on the tombstones,” says Bhattacharya. “Instead, you have an explosion of Indo-Saracenic architectural styles that clearly indicate the influence of local builders and architects on the tombstones.”

A most remarkable example is the tomb of Maj Gen Charles ‘Hindoo’ Stewart, who converted to Hinduism and ritually bathed in the Ganges, though he was given a Christian burial. Modelled on Orissa temple architecture, his renovated tomb proudly attests to his flamboyant life and times.

Also clear is the economic significance of every burial. “Quite clearly, the more lavish tombstones contributed handsomely to the local economy,” says Bhattacharya. “An average tombstone would cost in the range of 900 sikka rupee (around 400 pounds). The more lavish ones could cost anything between 3,000 and 5,000 sikka rupees.”

At none of the other cemeteries, though, is one to find the level of renovation evident at SPS. As Bhattacharya and Bose both point out, the relatively happy situation at SPS is the result of the combined efforts of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA), the CBB, and the Association for the Preservation of Historical Cemeteries in India (APHCI). Add to that the efforts of retired archaeologist A Bandopadhyay and botanist Dr KN Ghosh, and SPS has a relatively decent outlook.

“At both Lower Circular Road and SPS, we are planning a botanical map of the rare plants on the premises,” says Bose. “And both are also potential ‘carbon sinks’, or green zones that provide much needed pollution control.”

Clearly, though, it will take several years for the same efforts to reach the Maniktala cemetery, for instance, which houses the graves of the remarkable poetess and novelist Toru Dutt and her family. Though partially renovated recently, the graves are lying in the midst of appalling neglect and ruin, as are those at the Scottish Cemetery on Karaya Road. The Greek cemetery at Phoolbagan is in a happier condition, but strictly keeps visitors away.

Happily for the Scottish Cemetery, the Kolkata Scottish Heritage Trust has taken up its cause and is seeking to at least restore parts of the cemetery, to it former glory, as was done with SPS. ‘These cemeteries are clearly among our most important colonial relics,” says Bandopadhyay. “Every single grave is worthy of preservation.”

While those preservation efforts may have come too late for some cemeteries and tombs, Bose feels the only way forward is to make the cemeteries more tourist friendly, so that revenue generation is a possibility. “These tombs are a testament to the social, economic, and political conditions that have shaped our present. We ignore them at our peril,” he says.

This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times on November 27, 2011

Add to Technorati Favorites

Song of the Road

Soft-spoken, unobtrusive, unassuming. That pretty much describes the poet-songwriter whose lyrics for the recently released Autograph seem set to start a movement. With phrases such as ‘chol rastay’ and ‘gia nostal’ rapidly gaining ground among the young brigade, Srijato is a name you’ll be hearing more of in future, a fact the poet himself typically tries to play down.

“The first soundtrack I wrote for was (Birsa Dasgupta’s film) 033,” he says, over a cup of coffee. “I was convinced I would fail, but Birsa wanted to try me. And once I found out I could actually write songs, it became easier to say yes to (director) Srijit (Mukherjee) and Debuda (composer Debojyoti Mishra) when they approached me for Autograph.

Watching his lyrics turn into Chol Rastay Saji Tramline, he says, was like watching straw turn into an idol. During our entire conversation, that’s about as poetic as he gets. His words are measured, his gestures minimal, his voice controlled, his humour wry. The impression is of a firmly grounded man, a man who focuses on the lyricism and romanticism of life’s ordinary, everyday realities, and expresses them in language accessible to everyone.

But that is what Gulzar has been doing for years for Hindi films, hasn’t he? Mention of the legendary poet-lyricist’s name moves Srijato to a state that actually resembles excitement. “How do I put this? Gulzar, for me, is a combination of Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan,” he says. “Quietly, entirely on his own, he has redefined film song writing.”

The other icon of Srijato’s life, evidently, is Kabir Suman. “His appearance was the Big Bang of Bengali music,” he says. “All creative efforts in Bengal since then owe him in some way.”

There’s something endearing about the way Srijato constantly negates his own rising fame, or the growing popularity of his edgy, irreverent, yet heartfelt poetry. Now in his mid-30s, he’s been writing poetry since his early teens, and despite close to 10 published volumes of poetry, one senses that he still feels a sense of surprise at the fact that publishers actually approach him for his works, or that his poetry actually finds readers.

“Of course, writing for films, one reaches a far wider audience,” he concedes. “But that’s about it. I never hang on to my works. The moment I handed over Chol Rastay to Debuda, I forgot about it. I wouldn’t want to be one of those people who change with fame. I’ve seen it happen too many times.”

As he talks, however, one realises that for all his seeming sensibleness, there’s a streak of eccentricity somewhere. From joking about how the ‘tramlines’ of his song are rapidly becoming history to describing how, on the eve of his BA Part II Geography examination, he ran away from home, there is an inherent quirkiness about him that constantly belies his appearance and demeanour.

“I’ve never believed in self-assessment,” he muses, as our interview draws to a close. “As I have grown older, my poetry has become more complicated, perhaps, and a little harder for me to get hold of, but, as (poet) Shankha Ghosh once said, ‘We have no history’.”

But he certainly has a future, with films like Parambrata Chatterjee’s Jiyo Kaka and a few others coming up. The tramlines may be vanishing, but the rasta (road) is getting wider.

This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times on November 20, 2010

Add to Technorati Favorites

Where Have I Read This Before?

Manju Kapur
Random House India
Price: R 450, Pages: 415 (hardcover)

Familiarity can sometimes be comforting, they say. Which is why all of us seek familiar faces, voices, and spaces in the absence of other sources of comfort. The trouble is, for a writer, the thin red line between familiarity and repetition often becomes invisible, so what you get is one big sigh of having seen it all — or at least major chunks of it — before.

Manju Kapur does not repeat herself throughout this, her fifth book, but she does rely on certain old faithfuls who enhance our sense of déjà vu. Her award-winning debut, Difficult Daughters (1998), was a thoughtful study of the bourgeois, newly awakened Indian middle class, and the novels that followed, such as The Immigrant, followed suit, in placing the characters in posh, wannabe Delhi locales.

And so we come to Custody, where Raman, complete with degrees from IIT and IIM, works for a multinational. At home, his beautiful wife Shagun and two children, Arjun and Roohi, are models of perfection, until Shagun begins an affair with Raman’s boss Ashok. As she and Raman head for divorce, Kapur draws attention to the plight of the two children and their parents’ sordid battle for their custody.

Along the way, there are the mandatory aunty jis, and there is Ishita, another divorcee, who Raman is drawn to and eventually marries. However, as we are drawn slowly into their world of separation, pain, betrayal, anger, et al, a vital element that we miss out on is sympathy.

Apart from the children, whose pain we feel mostly indirectly, it is hard to be sorry for any of the others involved. Shagun is as petty and lifeless as she is beautiful, Raman seems capable of fusty self-pity and little else, Ashok is inexplicably unbearable, and Ishita, who starts out believably enough, becomes something of a cardboard cutout towards the end.

What Kapur does with these characters is endlessly balance and counterbalance, so we aren’t allowed to come to conclusions about any situation or character. More damagingly, perhaps, it also causes her to repeat situations and lapse into cliché-ridden dialogue that the book could well do without. The children draw attention, yes, but Kapur finds little that is new in describing the first awkward interactions between children and potential step-parents, or the signs of emotional disturbance that they exhibit.

It doesn’t help that most of the supporting cast are almost caricatures rather than real people. This is where you get the feeling that Kapur is overdoing her ‘focusing-on-a-small-section-of-upwardly-mobile-India-with-all-its-idiosyncrasies’ a bit. And she does with an obviousness that mars much of the pleasure of what could have been an engrossing read.

This book review first appeared in the Hindustan Times

Add to Technorati Favorites

The Timeless Music Maker

Soumyojit Das, Stefan Stoppok, Sraboni Sen, Sourendro Mullick

As a youngster in Essen, Germany, in the 1960s, Stefan Stoppok laid hands on an album by sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, a name that Europe was beginning to wake up to, thanks to the Beatles. “I heard it often, and the music went deep into my heart. And in the early ’70s, Anglo-American musicians thought it cool to include Indian influences in their music,” he smiles.

In the 1980s, having started his musical career as a street musician, he went to form his own one-man band, Stoppok, in 1982, and shifted base to Bavaria. As he went on to become one of Germany’s foremost folk and rock guitarists and singer-songwriters, however, his connection to Indian music remained confined to the memories of his childhood and youth.

Now, the wheel has turned full cycle. For the past few days, Stoppok has been stationed in Kolkata, working on an album of Tagore songs along with noted Rabindra Sangeet exponent Srabani Sen, and musician duo You & i.. (vocalist Soumyojit Das and pianist Sourendro Mullick), who Stoppok met in Germany in 2005, and whose idea it was to invite him, on his first ever trip to India, to collaborate on the album as a guitarist and singer. Incidentally, Stoppok was a guest artiste on the duo’s debut album, Back to the Future (2009).

The experience has been a revelation. Sitting in Sourendro’s north Kolkata home, Stoppok gestures freely with his hands and consults his mobile phone dictionary as he hunts for the right words to describe Tagore. “He is so rooted in this area,” he says finally. “What is wonderful is the way everyone here knows him, and I find it exciting to reinterpret his music, without any idea of how listeners here will react.”

Sourendro and Soumyojit say that reinterpreting Tagore the composing genius is the biggest theme of the album. And the other USP is that all the tracks have been recorded live, in real time, in a brave departure from the mandatory mechanised studio recordings.

“Tagore’s music is so timeless and versatile that you can recreate his songs in a modern soundscape for a national audience, even if they don’t get the lyrics,” says Soumyojit. “And we opted for live recordings, as they used to be done in the past, because we didn’t want the lifelessness of computerised rhythms.”

“What I love about this project is that it connects the past with the present,” adds Stoppok. “As a musician, when I look beyond the boundaries that I know, the East is exciting because Anglo-American music has become too familiar. Tagore is a different taste.”

So Khorobayu Boye Bege has taken on a contemporary romantic pop sound, aided by guitar, electric piano, and a few notes of Raga Bilawal. Aj Jemon Kore Gaichhe Akash features “Bavarian percussion patterns”, says Sourendro, or Kaar Milan Chao Birohi, essentially a dhrupad in Raga Shree, is embellished with the electric piano and electric guitar, and a hint of the theme from Manihara, the Satyajit Ray classic. Then again, Brahms’s immortal lullaby, Guten Abend, Gute Nacht, has found a spiritual cousin, according to Soumyojit, in Amar Raat Pohalo.

But that isn’t all that has kept Stoppok busy. He has also been shooting for a music video in Kolkata along with filmmaker Sebastian Niehoff, for Tanz (Dance), a solo that he has composed. The video is themed on Stoppok’s street singer days, which required him to pose as a street singer in this city, too. “In Europe, street singing is a completely different culture, but people here actually started requesting Stefan for songs,” laughs Sourendro.

If the response to the Tagore album is anything close, Stoppok certainly won’t complain.

This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times on May 22, 2011

Add to Technorati Favorites

With love, from us, to you

Distinctively yours... Aparna Sen

You & i.. in performance

A unique concept and a unique performance. That is an apt description of Lovingly Yours, a Valentine’s Day show based on love letters by famous people, staged at GD Birla Sabhagar on February 14.

Conceived by You & i.., the musical duo of Soumyojit Das and Sourendro Mullick, who also performed at the event, the show was also significant because it brought to the stage Aparna Sen, in a never-before appearance.
Also on the beautifully designed stage, in a cameo, was industrialist Harsh Neotia, who opened the show with a very competent reading of Gulzar’s translation of Shakti Chattopadhyay’s poem, Aj Shei Ghore.
The show essentially comprised Sen reading out the letters, chosen by Soumyojit and Sourendro, and the duo performing musical pieces to suit the mood of each letter.
It was interesting to note the combination of text and music, and though not all the letters were conventionally ‘romantic’, they clearly showed various facets of love.
While Sen did an outstanding job with the readings (particularly the letters from The Japanese Wife), musically speaking, worth a special mention were Tagore’s Ke Boshile, Tu Hi Re from the film Bombay, and a kirtan.
More such shows would be a welcome additon to the city’s cultural calendar.

This article was originally published in the Hindustan Times

Add to Technorati Favorites