Rain Ragas in the Vernacular

In this series of articles, Cuckoo News documents the revival* of a music genre, Bangla Khayal, by a musical genius, Kabir Suman.

“I am not the ‘miss you’, ‘miss it’ type,” says Kabir Suman, matter-of-factly when asked if he misses his “shadow mistress” Chhayanat, the mysterious evening raga that had gripped the musician as though she would never let him go.

But rain has lashed his beloved Calcutta, washing away the past from rooftops, doors, windows and balconies of his house. And the lyrics – only in his beloved Bengali – that now flood his heart, mind and soul, wants to cling to something else, someone else: the music of the monsoon.

And so Chhayanat gently exits, taking her shadows with her and through the blur of drenched glass panes the poet catches glimpses of golden light bathing drops of water on green leaves of trees beyond. And presently, Kabir begins to hum the tunes of “Shyam Kalyan” — the rain raga.

Rain. Photo by Dola Mitra.

Like Chhayanat, Shyam Kalyan is an evening raga but like an evening guest who has stayed on until morning and through the next day, Kabir does not limit the movements of Shyam Kalyan (and any raga for that matter) by restricting its practice to particular times of the day, but lets it move around freely from dawn to dusk to midnight and back.

“Shyam Kalyan,” says Kabir, is a vibrant, vivacious raga, full of light and life. “But that doesn’t mean it lacks depth. On the contrary, it is one of the deepest, most profound ragas in the vast range.” One just needs to fathom the depths and navigate it.

Kabir has learned to do that since the age of twelve, when he first started training in Khayal, the north Indian classical music tradition, from his Guru, Kalipada Das. Even today, Kabir, now a world renowned singer and composer, begins his “riyaaz”, his deeply personalized music sessions at home, each day – whether, dawn, morning, noon, afternoon, evening or night – taking the name of and, in imagination, touching the feet of his late Guru. “He taught me everything,” he says, humbly. “And he tried to teach me more but I have learned nothing,” he says modestly. This form of humility and modesty is the secret of success in the tradition of the classical music of this land and the greater the height a disciple climbs in his musical journey, the lower he descends as far his own sense of the “self” is concerned.  “I have learned nothing,” Kabir reiterates. “I know nothing.”

And then, as though in complete contradiction of himself, he renders the Shyam Kalyan, in a performance as delightful as the falling rain. The applause would be thunderous, as they usually are in Kabir Suman’s packed performances during live concerts, but in this time of lockdown, there is silence. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Indeed, according to Kabir, the lockdown has unlocked a creative phase in his life that was lurking in the shadows. The world has shutdown. And it is a time of terrible ‘ends’. But like rain that brings new life, Kabir says, he has awakened to a new beginning. He has always wanted to sing classical ragas in Bengali and he has done so in the past decade while creating the genre of Bengali Khayal.

“But never before have I experienced the kind of inspiration that I do now. I wake up for Bangla Khayal. I go to sleep for Bangla Khayal. I dream of Bangla Khayal. I live for Bangla Khayal.”

There are those who have been completely dismissive of it, says Kabir, trying to laugh it off. Trying not to sound hurt. “But for the life of me, I cannot understand why the Bengalis are so up against it.” In fact, he says dumbfounded, “all the adverse criticism is emanating only from within the Bengalis”.

The speculations galore. Could it be because Bengalis, innate purists, decry any kind of experimentation with tradition? Is that not why the songs of Rabindranath Tagore remained shackled to a particular type of rendering until they broke free, spread their wings and soared high to cross horizons?

A fan of Kabir Suman, offers a tongue-in-cheek explanation: “Haven’t you heard the Bengali ‘bang’ (frogs) jokes?” he asks rhetorically. “A container of frogs was being shipped from Calcutta to a foreign land when an observer pointed out that it was not covered. ‘Oh, don’t worry,’ said his shipmate, ‘that cart doesn’t need a lid. These are Bengali ‘bangs’. The moment one tries to rise up and jump into the sea, the others will pull him down by the leg.’”

Kabir Suman’s live and lockdown performances are sprinkled with large doses of humour. The Bengali Khayal that he is creating now, from his home studio, are now all encapsulated in audio clips. A street dog barks in the background as he sings. He stops singing, smiles and says, “They have a voice too. Let them use it.” He uses the Bengali word “onara” to refer to the dogs (which is “they” in the formal, used only to depict utmost respect).

The humour apart, Kabir Suman is genuinely disappointed that fellow Bengalis are so averse to the rendition of this form of music in their mother tongue. He loves Bengal, Bengali and Bengalis. So he feels betrayed. But he also knows that he has more supporters than detractors.

A Bengali, and his close friend, the renowned sitarist, Harashankar Bhattacharya, has been instrumental in Kabir experimenting with a number of ragas in Bengali Khayal, including Chhayanat and Shyam Kalyan.

Indeed, on the day that monsoon arrived in Calcutta, Kabir found a photograph of a lush Bengal village just after a shower on his WhatsApp. It was from Harashankar. The accompanying message asked Kabir whether the photograph could possibly inspire him into creating a different raga altogether.

“It was a challenge and I took it,” said Kabir. “I thought that (the raga) ‘Desh’ would work beautifully with Shyam Kalyan.” The fusion is now a new composition: “Shyam Shohag.” And the bandish or lyrics? In Bengali of course. But says Kabir, “You don’t even have to understand Bengali to appreciate Bengali Khayal. The lyrical language that Bengali is, just adds to the beauty of the sound.”

Kabir disagrees with those who feel that in classical music, lyrics don’t play much of a role. “Vocal classical music, such as Khayal is essentially the singing of songs,” he says. “The lyrics and tunes combine to create music. And in my experience no other language is more able to bring out the best in the movement of musical notes than Bengali. The old and traditional ‘bandishes’ (words or lyrics) have become too archaic. Over the years the art of Khayal has honed itself to become more sophisticated and one needs to synchronize it with a language that has also grown culturally strong and become more modern. Bengali is that kind of a language. I can’t think of a more perfect match for Khayal than Bengali.”

(*Editor’s Note: During the publication of this series, Kabir Suman, the musician whose work in the musical genre of “Bengali Khayal” is the focus, pointed out that it is important to highlight the fact that he is not the “inventor” of this particular tradition and that there have been renditions of the Indian classical form of Khayal in the Bengali language earlier too and that his role is that of a revivalist rather than a creator. Those who credit him for “creating” the genre, however argue that inherent in the idea of “creation of a genre” is the endeavour that involves bringing to the fore lost art, infusing it with new creative energy and elements, organising and interpreting it into a composite whole.)

Photographs: Kabir Suman’s courtesy Kabir Suman Facebook

“Rain” by Dola Mitra

Twitter: @kuhumitra

Categories: Music

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