Prothomoto ami tomake chai,
Ditioto ami tomake chai,
Tritioto ami tomake chai,
Shesh porjonto tomake chai.
Firstly I need you,
Secondly I want you,
Thirdly I need you,
And till the end I must have you.
These lyrics are from the iconic song “Tomake Chai”, by Kabir Suman. It created a buzz in contemporary Bengali music when it was released in 1992, and helped create a genre of songwriting that was to dominate Bengali music for years.
Was the longing in “Tomake Chai” directed at a mystery woman? “Certainly,” says Suman over the phone from Delhi, where he is attending Parliament. “But the woman whom I began the song with ceased to dominate the subject after the first eight lines.” He explains that his love for this woman was quickly overshadowed by his love for Calcutta.
Suman has recorded almost 300 songs in his career and his lyrics have inspired a generation of Bengali songwriters. “Suman’s work was revolutionary in the 1990s. He used colloquial Bengali words in lyrics the common man could connect with,” says Rupam Islam, a songwriter and musician and a junior contemporary of Suman. When he heard “Tomake Chai” for the first time, Islam says, he tore many pages out of his notebook of songs, because Suman’s new style made other contemporaries look outdated. “If Tagore was known for Rabindra Sangeet, Sumaner gaan, or ‘Suman’s song’, created a revolutionary genre,” add Islam.
Songs like “Boshe Anka” (Sit and Draw), “Stabdhotar Gaan” (Songs of Silence), “Shob Amaderi Jonne” (Everything Is for Us) are some of his noteworthy songs of the 1990s.
Suman’s songs would have unconventional everyday lyrics strung together to convey a subtle note of protest and resilience. One of his popular numbers goes: “Haal cherona bondhu borong kontho charo jore,” or “Don’t give up, my friend, lend your voice instead.”
Nondon Bagchi, of the Kolkata band Hip Pockets, says that Suman’s extraordinary gift of words and melody enabled him to reach the mind of the common man. He adds, “Suman’s irreverent attitude and his rejection of the set moralities handed down by past generations have made him extremely controversial to the Bengali middle-class.”
Suman says, “I am a musician and I wrote songs on the subjects that were occurring around me.”
The protest singer eventually turned politician. Suman is a Trinamool Congress Member of Parliament, representing Jadavpur constituency in South Kolkata. However, he and his party supremo Mamata Banerjee no longer see eye to eye. “I am not a politician but a political activist,” he says — a ganapratinidhi, or a product of the Gana Andolan, or People’s Movement, against the former Left regime. “I wanted to defeat the CPI(M) and people had put their faith in me and I am their representative,” he adds.
He keeps away from conventional marketing, including glitzy launch parties. “Suman’s USP has been his lyrics and his unconventional voice, and there is still a niche of listeners for his songs,” says S F Karim, head of content and studio at the recording company Sa Re Ga Ma Music. “His album Tomake Chai remains the highest sold among Bengali contemporary albums in cassette format, and was later converted to compact disc,” he says.
That pathbreaking album is not widely available now, but Suman’s music is still drawing listeners. At city music shops, he remains a favourite and his later albums sell well.
“Twenty years ago, the media cast him aside and a lot of negative publicity was done,” says Islam. “But, slowly, owing to his sustained popularity, his staunch critics have been compelled to acknowledge him as the man who revolutionised contemporary Bengali music.”