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Coffee with BS: Kabir Suman

The day the music died

Saubhadra Chatterjee 

Since he says the Trinamool and the CPI(M) are two sides of the same coin, West Bengal’s revolutionary singer-MP looks for a new tune.

Kabir SumanOne of his most famous songs describes the plight of the urban families living in dingy, 10 ft by 10 ft rooms. During his 11-month-old political life, Kabir Suman is living up to his song: the bard (not the one from Stratford upon Avon) is currently sharing a small room at Delhi’s five-star Hotel Samrat with his aide as the flat allotted to the MP is undergoing renovation, writes Saubhadra Chatterjee.

The hotel too is getting a facelift and there is constant hammering from adjacent rooms. But Suman, a first-time Lok Sabha member from Kolkata’s prestigious Jadavpur, is more irked with the cacophony in his party —  the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress. “I failed to acclimatise in Mamata Banerjee is a great leader, a phenomenon. It will take 100 years to understand the phenomenon of Mamata Banerjee. But her party is not a democratic party. I believe the CPI(M) must go and she will become the next chief minister. But Trinamool can’t be my party. It doesn’t have an ideology,” Suman laments smoking like a chimney inside his closed hotel room.

At 61, after becoming an MP, the singer realises Parliament needs a different style. “I don’t enjoy I can lie in personal affairs, say, in love or in relationships with women. If I fall in love with someone else, I will probably lie to my wife and that lady. But involves people’s lives and I can’t lie in politics. I am a political activist. An activist can’t become a politician.”

I sip the black coffee quickly prepared by his room-mate and Suman recalls how “boring” life has become for him since he became an MP. He calls his new avatar a “disaster”. The man who swept Bengali emotions with songs on almost every subject (from a lonely lunatic’s life to Maoist rebellion) is now under Trinamool’s Taliban-style gag order. “I have always been an anti-establishment man. But in Parliament, all I have to say, is “aye” and “aye” and “aye” (to pass government Bills) and do nothing. Sometimes I doze off.” Inside the party, Suman says, “it was always a soliloquy (by Banerjee) and there were always only listeners. Again, I dozed off.”

Even before a year in politics was up, he realised Banerjee had stopped giving him any importance. “I went to Mamata to resolve a serious issue in one block of my constituency. She replied, “Your constituency is my constituency. You don’t worry about it. Tell me, when will you teach me how to play the guitar?” It was her affection and love, but I found myself degraded.”

Now married to Bangladesh’s famous voice Sabina Yasmin, Suman was trained by his parents to become a full-fledged singer. He has a special weakness for khayaal and other North Indian classical vocal traditions (“I am still an ardent follower of khayaal and can sing a raga or two”, he claims). His world of music also included Bengali songs and bhajans but he soon realised that the music he was listening to had “nothing to do with the times I was living in”.

“I stopped singing altogether and started looking for ways. My travel began in the early 70s. I went to Europe and even to the US. I took a job there in Voice of America (VoA) as it was the only way to get a foothold in the US. It’s a wonderful country and I used to say, there are two Americas: the USA and the VoA.” His resume also boasts of writing a book on Nicaragua. Suman’s “good friend” country singer and left-wing American artist Pete Seeger (who is now 88) arranged for his tour to Nicaragua at the invitation of the government of Nicaragua to write about its revolution.

Suman left journalism and came to Kolkata for the love of Bengali songs. After revolutionising Bengali music, the one-man-band landed in Banerjee’s anti-CPI(M) camp. But Suman, a converted Muslim, sees this as a gradual transformation. “I have always been a political man although not a man of politics. Ever since my college days, I was engaged politically, especially in Marxist politics with radical leanings. When I went to Europe in 1973, Jean Paul Sartre was still alive. I was in Paris, working as a musician at the age of 24. I went to hear Sartre’s speech, the police chased us and we fled. Those were the days of Vietnam, the student’s upheaval in Europe and the Naxalbari uprising in India. I come from that generation,” he recalls.

It was during the Singur and Nandigram movements that Suman met Banerjee for the first time. He had joined the movements as a TV journalist and then became an activist. One day, he heard a Left leader saying something “very nasty and physical” about Banerjee on TV. “At once, I decided to meet Mamata and show my solidarity. It was an impulsive decision but that’s how I am. That was our first meeting at her hunger strike site in Esplanade of Kolkata.”

Suman and Banerjee teamed up to travel together in rural Bengal and gradually, Suman’s songs became a regular feature in Banerjee’s rallies. “I travelled with her a lot but as an activist and not a follower. She too never made me feel like her follower. We became really good friends. In our text messages, we used to sign off as ‘gr8 frnd’. I felt that she really was rural Bengal.”

But now Suman finds Banerjee and Marxists two sides of the same coin. “When I started my career, CPI(M) wanted to grab me but I refused. They didn’t like that. They wanted me to bow before them. In Bengal, concerts were made into an industry by the ruling party.

“When I made the album on Chhatradhar Mahato (the leader of the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities), I was asked by Trinamool leaders, why did you compose these songs without taking our permission? I was shocked and said, ‘I am a professional song writer.’ Trinamool leaders said, ‘you are an MP first’. I told them I was a human being first, then a musician and then an MP.”

Emotions were mounting after the Singur and Nandigram episodes and Suman played a pivotal role in opening up the world of intellectuals to the Trinamool leadership. Meanwhile, he also composed his first song on Banerjee. As the friendship grew, Banerjee, according to Suman, started taking his counsel. “I told her to keep a distance from the BJP.” Soon, Banerjee started pursuing the singer to contest the election. She told him, “You have to contest the Lok Sabha election. You have to go to Parliament. Who else but you can highlight the plight of Bengal in Delhi?”

“My first reaction was a resounding NO”, he laughs. “I told her I was not one of her clan. I didn’t speak the language of a politician. I had a different temperament. I was impulsive, impatient, rash and an artist. I had even warned her that if she took me, she would face trouble. But she has that great talent of chasing an idea relentlessly. She tried to convince me for almost a year. Finally, one evening, we exchanged 35-40 text messages. She kept insisting that I take the plunge and I kept saying no. Finally, she sent me the final message: ‘please don’t say no’.”

Suman’s Bengali music career began at 42. His first album Tomaake Chai will soon be 18 years old. But he is unhappy with the current trends in the music world. “It is good to see so many young people in music today in the form of Bengali bands. But the lyrics and the content of music are poor.”

What about A R Rehman? “He is good. He is very talented. But at times, he is repetitive. Salil Chowdhury once told me, if people can hum your tunes, it means the music is good. But many of Rehman’s tunes are too complicated to hum.”

Politics to him has meant “thousands of people come to see you, sit in front of you with nothing to say and you can’t communicate with them. They are simple, nice people but all simple and nice people can’t be my friends”. So, Suman is back to basics — his music. His next album will be out in two months. “The overriding theme of my new album is power to the people. It will talk about tribals, the downtrodden, the so-called Maoists. It will be a salute to the fighting spirit of the common man.”

But why don’t you raise these issues as an individual MP, I ask. Suman smiles at me before stretching his hand to bid adieu. “Mamata told me the party will decide what topics I can raise in the Lok Sabha. I was also told to get my speech approved by her. Is she Tagore that I have to show her my writings?”

First Published: Tue, April 20 2010. 00:46 IST