The Arts

Moushumi Bhowmik, on the Subtle Art and Politics of Choosing Songs for Protests

The singer, whose voice has been inseparable from the anti-CAA protests at Kolkata's Park Circus, speaks on what makes some songs protest favourites, and others, not so much.

Kolkata: At the ongoing Park Circus protest in Kolkata, a young girl was working on a poster with the line, “amaar ei deshetei jonmo jaano ei deshetei mori” written on it. It means ‘this is the land where I was born, let this be the land where I will die’. The lines are from Dwijendralal Roy’s famous song Dhano dhanyo pushpo bhora.

Bengal’s cultural resistance is transforming everyday songs into the evocative music of protest. Strains of D.L. Roy, unsung verses of Tagore’s Jana gana mana, and chants from the devotional bhajan Raghupati raghav raja Ram can be heard in the streets and at gatherings, both formal and informal. It is an extraordinary moment when nationalistic or devotional songs – as they are usually defined – have mutated into the music of resistance.

“Protest is not just about arousing people to action or reaching out to some higher idea. It’s also about collective singing. You are firmly situated in the present moment. A moment of love and hate, one intensifying the other,” Moushumi Bhowmik, the Bengal musician whose name has become inseparable from the melody of protest, told me when we spoke about Kolkata’s aural political landscape.

Photo: Sumaan Sengupta

We met in Moushumi’s Jadavpur flat in late January. Sunlight was streaming into her living room; it was that time of the year when the weather in Kolkata puts its best foot forward. This winter was also a season of outrage, anxiety, and some extraordinary music threading those emotions together. As we spoke, Moushumi periodically sang a couple of lines from the song we were discussing. Unaccompanied by instruments, her voice, deep and melodious, resonated throughout the room – a capacity anyone familiar with her voice would know well.

“I am not especially thinking of songs as conventional or unconventional,” she said.

“The music is coming together organically. You know these songs maybe as part of your growing up. It’s just that you haven’t sung them [for a long time]. Even if you didn’t learn them from somebody, there’s so much that you already know.”

Certain situations, Moushumi explained, trigger sonic memories.

The movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens has been such a trigger. And the music it is making people reach for, transcends borders and languages. At Philip More’s cultural programme on January 18, Moushumi sang a Joan Baez song and her own Bangla composition based on the verses.

All the weary mothers of the earth shall finally rest
We will take their babies in our arms and do our best
When the sun is low upon the field
To love and music we will yield
Weary mothers of the earth shall rest

“This was the first song that I wrote three decades ago – Amaar mayer mukhe chchaya ghaniyechche (‘a shadow deepens on my mother’s face’),” she explained.

On the morning of the  cultural programme that Sunday, Moushumi had a “recollection of the song.” She said, “I thought of all the mothers sitting out there. And how we think of the land as the mother. The sense of belonging we have with the land.”

That idea of belonging has come into conflict with the way the state wants to define citizenship. To a large extent Moushumi’s work has shaped her idea of belonging. The Travelling Archive project she co-created with sound recordist Sukanta Majumdar in 2003 was a collective space for listening to field recordings of Bengal’s folk music, spanning Bangladesh, West Bengal, some adjoining areas of Assam, and even distant Bengali and Bangladeshi neighbourhoods of East London. “I have been working beyond the nation,” she said.

Also watch: How Young Anti-CAA Protesters Are Turning Love Songs Into Revolutionary Ones

She has travelled across borders all her life: “My displacement and search for home have always been central to my work. Right now, I am looking at Jana gana mana from the sense of belonging because that melody and that structure are embedded in us. This song belongs to us.”  

At an event earlier last month, the Carnatic musician T.M. Krishna revived those poignant, unsung verses of the national anthem. Moved by Krishna’s rendition, Moushumi, in a Facebook post on January 3, wrote: “I have been listening to T.M. Krishna’s ‘unsung anthem’ from the morning. I never thought I would actually sit down and listen to the national anthem (he clarifies though that this is not the national anthem, but rarely-sung verses selected from the longer poem); listen, and listen again and think …”

The first time Moushumi herself sang the unsung verses was in a march from Jadavpur University, protesting the violence in JNU.

“We sang the verses together. So many people joined us. We were also chatting, meeting old friends, making new ones,” she narrated.

At one point, they were walking behind the police. “As we sang, the police turned around – probably liking the song. I said to one of them ‘Aapnarao shikhe nin na gaan ta?’ (‘Why don’t you too learn the song and sing with us’). The policeman quickly made way for us to move ahead.” 

The singers next sang the verses at Park Circus maidan, where people sang along with them.

Moushumi recalled one photograph and its caption in Ananda Bazar Patrika, now embedded in her memory:

“It was the photograph of a mother holding a 20-day-old baby at Shaheen Bagh. She is sitting there. And below the photo were the following lines from the anthem: Ghoro timiro ghano nibiro nishithey/ Peedito murchhito deshey/ Jagrato chhilo tobo abicholo mongalo natonayane animeshey/ Dushwapney aatankey rakkha kariye ankey/ Snehamayi tumi mata (‘In the bleakest of nights when the country is wilting away/ you, the compassionate mother, kept unwavering vigil, blessing and protecting us’)…It was like a pieta.”

With D.L. Roy’s ‘Dhano dhanyo poshpo bhora/aamader ei boshundhora’ (‘Our land of plenty, abounding in grains, flowers, and wealth’), Moushumi picked the two lines representing India as a land of love and affection:

Bhayer mayer eto sneho kothai gele pabe keho
oma tomar charan duti bokkhe amaar dhori
amaar ei deshe tei jonmo jeno ei deshe tei mori

(‘Where will we find such affection from mothers and brothers
let me hold you in my heart
this is the land where I am born, let this be the land where I will die.’)

“We repeated these lines and turned them into a call. This is the nation of compassion that we want to see become real.”

The singers avoided singing the lines: ‘shokol desher rani sheje amar janmobhumi’. The words which translate to ‘our country is the queen of all countries’ project the kind of national supremacy that protesters did not agree with.

Also read: Jana Gana Mana and the Danger of Passing Sentiment as Law

Moushumi has also brought into bhajans like Raghupati raghav raja Ram into the repertoire of protest music. The bhajan, known particularly for its association with Gandhi, is perhaps another unconventional choice. At a rehearsal at Moushumi’s flat, the group of singers present discussed whether to sing a composition by Kabir or another song which belongs to the audience at Park Circus.

“One of us started singing Raghupati raghav raja Ram. And we thought we should sing this song. It was when the controversy around Faiz and the narrow reading of Allah (in Hum Dekhenge) was underway. One line in Raghupati Raghav goes ‘Ishwar Allah tero naam sabko sanmati de bhagwan’ (‘Ishwar and Allah, give us good sense’). The word ‘bhagwan’ contains everything. For me that moment was a moment of rupture. It was beautiful,” Moushumi explained.

But not everybody in the movement agreed. Some protested bringing a paean to the glory of Ram into a space of resistance. “They argued, ‘you have problems with Islamic religious slogans. You have asked protesters to not raise such slogans. But now secular people are finding meaning in Raghupati raghav’.”

Critics also protested using a song with the idea of Gandhi’s Ram in it. 

However, “this song was born in the non-cooperation movement. Only the first verse was sung at that time. The timing is important,” Moushumi countered, adding: “To me it is a radical song.”

According to Tridip Suhrud, the scholar, the lines ‘Ishwar Allah tero naam’ were written by Gandhi’s grand-niece Mridula, popularly known as Manuben or Manu, during the 1946 Noakhali riots. 

Moushumi told me about her encounter with Shankar De, of Kishoreganj in Bangladesh, while she was on the Travelling Archives project: “Shankar sang the story of Lab, Kush, Sita, and also the revered Ram in all his complexity. He broke down as he sang, sometimes the audience too would break down. Everyone has pain and suffering at home, and they can relate to the story as Shankar sang it. Ram is many things.”

The singer said she would apologise if people thought that RSS and BJP were going to gain because of their singing the bhajan, but is resolute.

“We will still sing this song.”