Suman Chatterjee

স্বরলিপি আমি আগেও লিখিনি এখনো লিখিনা তাই

মুখেমুখে ফেরা মানুষের গানে শুধু তোমাকেই চাই

I was a little bemused when my friend, who just a moment back stopped singing paeans to this new singer, said the name of the album was “Sumaner Gaan” (Suman’s Songs. Actually he was wrong – the album was called “Tomake Chai” and the “Sumaner Gaan” moniker was almost an announcement of the arrival of a genre). Hearing the album in a squeaky Philips cassette player was a revelation. Toshok-kantha (mattress & quilts), Pichuti (eye-rheum), beshya (harlot), dalal (pimp) were words that hitherto had no permission to enter bengali song lyrics. Suman Chatterjee sang words we spoke in, stories that were ours and in a way we would tell the story. The first time I saw the man in person was at Medical College lecture theater just after the Babri Masjid demolition. Without any fanfare, Suman Chatterjee just walked onstage with his guitar, a touch more plump than I imagined in a pair of jeans and check-shirt sleeves, bowed to the audience so low that you knew this man would go bald in five years flat and immediately started singing. “Rai Jago” was his opening song I still remember – a song no album has had the guts to hold as it had words like “Rai jago rai jago padme uthlo keute shaap, dhormo jigir tulche jara tara nipat jak” (wake up my darling for the lotus has in it a cobra, down to those who stand by the religion-agenda. The “lotus” metaphor is self-explanatory). Since then I would keep a hawk eye out on advertisements in newspapers and my friends’ network to almost stalk the man at his live performances

Suman was always a showman. He mixed his songs, moving to lyrics of songs of the 70s and Tagore and Nazrul seamlessly as he sung his own numbers. He would play the harmonica like Dylan and would play the mandolin instead of the guitar for folksy numbers. He sung Tagore’s “Krishnakali” with the electronic keyboard – something that was a sacrilege in the 1990s. During a program at Bijon Theater, on request from actor Dilip Roy, Suman sang a D. L. Roy number – “moloyo ashiya kohe geche kane, priyotomo tumi ashibe” (the gentle winds have whispered to me, my beloved, that you shall be here), which remains the best rendition of any D. L. Roy song I have ever heard (I had dragged my mother for the first time with me and I could see tears coming down her cheek). But Suman the showman was in his best elements – and got highest audience engagement – when he was fighting an adversary

That adversary he chose with care to produce maximum impact. He was a known leftist but would direct his barbs at the then Chief Minister Jyoti Basu (Jyotibabu had the Forest Department hunt down some foxes near his residence in the leafy Salt Lake area – their howling wasn’t allowing him to get sleep. “Sheyal er daak kane jaye bondura, kintu biplober daak kane jaye na”, said Suman as the audience broke into raptures). Sometimes he chose his audience as adversary. He would deliberately break his rhythm each time the audience would try to clap alongside a song. I have never figured out why, especially when his sign-off song would invariably be “Tomake Chai“, alluding to a degree of association with his audience. Off stage he displayed the same feisty behavior – entering politics, sympathizing with naxalities and then turning on his own party leader, Mamata Banerjee. Somewhere deep inside him he has a button that says “self-destruct”, I was convinced.

Suman Chatterjee recently made an announcement that he will never perform in public. Which is really not such a bad thing because it is much better for the world to remember Suman Chatterjee for what he was than what he had become. He is a phenomenal writer – both prose and verse – and I wish he still wrote. I wish he anchored TV shows, like he did once and created a touching homage to Salil Choudhury a day after the master musician passed away (At the opening, Suman sings “Prantarero gaan amar” playing a piano). He has recently created a website, which seemed quite sorry in terms of design. He broadcasts himself staring down at a low-resolution webcam, often unshaven and evidently without a pre-written script. The golden voice of Suman Chatterjee – now Kabir Suman after a controversial conversion to Islam – has become heavy but he still sings. And the iron resolve of the man has withered as he breaks down singing a D. L. Roy number.

Like I said, I’d much rather the world remembered Suman Chatterjee as someone who went out to create a genre of Bengali music all by himself than his attempts at politics or controversies. Let “Suman er Gaan” be that pedestal that rallied bengali music in the post Rabindranath era.

I have listed ten (plus one bonus track) of my favorite songs of Suman Chatterjee (add on to the list – you are most welcome)

  1. Mon kharap kora bikel (wistful dusk – the most perfect marriage of lyrics and tune)
  2. Haal chhero na (great motivational song. More relevant as one gets older)
  3. Tumi je andhar (a Himangshu Dutta song. Never made it to a CD)
  4. Pagol (the smartest lyrics in a song. Ever)
  5. Amader Jonno (the best celebration of Calcutta in a pulsating rhythm)
  6. Surjodoyer Ragey (a semi classical number. Tribute to Pandit Bhimsen Joshi)
  7. Boyesh amar mukher rekhaye (the lyrics – each stanza starts with bits of words from the last line of the previous)
  8. Rashtra (an anti-state song) & Bhora Kotal-Mora Kotal (on Chuni Kotal’s suicide) [Both these songs have not appeared in the public domain or ever will thanks to the ultra-strong anti-establishment tone]
  9. Jwatishwar (the last of Suman Chatterjee’s greats. And source of the opening quote in this article)
  10. Tini Bridhho Holen (a tribute to his father, Sudhin Chatterjee, who was a noted singer/composer himself)
  11. Hojmir gaan (for children. Suman sang this with Anjan Dutta and Nachiketa Chakrabarty)
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