In this series of articles, Cuckoo News documents the revival* of a musical genre, Bangla Khayal, by a musical genius, Kabir Suman.
August 27, 2018. Exactly two years ago today.
Kabir Suman, singer, song-writer, composer and creator* of the musical genre, “Bangla Khayal”, was immersed in deep thought. Eyes shut, tears rolled down his cheeks.
Tears of sheer joy. “I was thinking, ‘it was the best day of my life’,” he said. “At the twilight of my years, my dreams had come true.”
A few weeks earlier, he had sent a hand-written letter to West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. “Since childhood I have trained in the tradition of Hindustani classical music,” it read. “I am no Pundit or Ustad,” it continued, modestly, humbly. “But this much I can confidently say and that is that I know and can sing Khayal.”
The letter then implored her to consider, “In the Indian sub-continent, Khayal is composed and sung in at least ten different languages. Not that it has never been rendered in Bengali, but too sporadically. And that practice too has stopped.”
Kabir drew Mamata’s attention to the fact that he has been endeavoring, almost against all odds, to revive the tradition and recreate Khayal in Bengali. “I am and have been writing songs and trying to sing,” he wrote to her sincerely. And then, appealingly, “If Bangla Khayal receives some semblance of support from the state government, it would help garner its due respect and recognition.” Finally he stated, “This is the need of the hour for Bengal, Bengalis and for Bangla Khayal.”
Mamata did not reply to the letter.
A few days later, however Kabir got a call from the state’s Cultural Secretary.
He informed Kabir that the state government had arranged for him to conduct four workshops on Bengali Khayal. “I burst into tears,” Kabir recalls. Tears of sheer joy.
He says, only once earlier did he experience that kind of unadulterated joy and pride. It was in the year 1985 and he was at his home in the city of Springfield, in the American state of Maryland. He was then working as a journalist and broadcaster for the Voice of America. “I had just returned from work and was going through the day’s mail,” Kabir reminisces. “There was a letter from the then Culture Minister of Nicaragua, Father Ernesto Cardenal, inviting me to their country to write a book on the Sandinista Revolution. In Bengali.”
Kabir’s love for Bengali, his sweet, rich, mother tongue, can be matched only by his deep devotion, passion and commitment to music, especially Indian classical vocal music. Driven by a compulsion, as it were, today, he says, he lives only to compose Bengali Khayal. “I am a humble servant of my music and of my mother tongue.” He says the only work – duty, as it were – left for him to do in the world, is to unite them.
“It is my ‘shesh paranir kori’,” he says alluding to the Bengali song by Rabindranath Tagore, that evokes the sense of the last ferry crossing the river with the straggling passengers, before evening descends and night falls.
“Night”, of course, is the metaphor for death and Kabir evokes it as a parallel to his visions of finality. “I am 72 and I can feel that the time has come for me to cross the river of life and go on to the other side. I can see the ferry tied to the shore, yonder,” Kabir says, in spite of protests of his fans, followers, family and friends.
But there is much work yet to be done. Bangla Khayal still needs to be nurtured, nourished and no time can be wasted.
Kabir Suman knows Mamata Banerjee and her love for Bengal and the Bengali language. She had invited him to join her in the peak of her movement for “change” which culminated in her Trinamool Party dethroning the 34-year-old Left Front government in the Assembly elections of 2011. He did join, becoming a Member of Parliament in the Parliamentary elections of 2009.
Today, on August 27, two years after Bangla Khayal was accorded its due respect and recognition, Kabir expressed his utmost gratitude. “I wanted to, once again, recall the joyous news about the workshops on Bangla Khayal that day two years ago and acknowledge the contribution of Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of this state.” In a Facebook post, he further wrote, “As long as I live, I will be grateful to her and remind her that if ever the situation should arise that the entire world has deserted her, I will be by her side.”
Two lovers of Bengal and Bengali. He will do anything for Bangla Khayal. And she did everything she could for it. Indeed, August 27 is a special day for Bangla Khayal.
(*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
“27th August” by Dola Mitra