For the past five decades, Indian urban folk music has been synonymous with one name – Susmit Bose. Armed with a guitar and harmonica, Bose sang about the truths seen on the streets while his contemporaries played covers. And at 70, he is still going strong.
Bose was a familiar face for college students in the 1970s, when interest in pop and rock music was at its peak. But he went the folk route, like his heroes Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. He wrote his own songs and recorded them too.
His first EP ‘Winter Baby’, was released in 1971 and ‘Train to Calcutta’ (1978), was the first original English album to come out in India. Forty two years later, it was re-released digitally on November 1 as one half of the double album ‘Then & Now’, to commemorate his milestone birthday. The other half is a compilation of songs from his later albums.
Singing for change
“’Train to Calcutta’ was the first album which addressed social change for a better world,” says Bose, who was inspired to become an urban folk artiste after hearing Pete Seeger’s song ‘I Can See A New Day’ at school. Dylan’s unconventional songwriting had an enormous influence as well. “I was so caught up with the idea of change – a better vision and perspective, that I started writing my own songs. ”
These were first played to the crowds at the Cellar, a Delhi discotheque which held folk nights every Monday, where solo artistes sang covers. “During the performance, I would slip in my own songs without mentioning it. Some would notice and later, I would confess that it was my own. That’s how I got people interested in listening to my music,” said Bose.
Exploitation of the vulnerable, including children and protest songs were major themes he dealt with. The albums ‘Public Issue’ (2006) and ‘Be the Change’ (2007) talk about the division of the world and man on racial, economic and territorial grounds. The song ‘Dear Sir’ broaches the topic of discrimination against women while capitalism becomes the target in ‘The Economic Hit Man’.
‘Essentially Susmit Bose’ (2009) contained songs about the Babri Masjid demolition, female foeticide and activist Dr. Binayak Sen, whose imprisonment for allegedly helping Maoists affected him deeply.
Bose also became the first singer to render ‘Hum Honge Kamiyab’, the Hindi version of ‘We Shall Overcome’, for All India Radio, which became a cult anthem for protests. In 1990, American broadcasting company CBS approached Bose to make an album called ‘Man of Conscience’ in honour of anti-apartheid movement leader Nelson Mandela.
Initially, he had wanted to be a classical musician like his father Sunil Bose, but took to English music. Conflicts between the rebellious teenager and the parent resulted in Bose being thrown out of the house. He would spend nights sleeping on railway platforms and public places like Connaught Place.
Once in a while, he would flee to Kathmandu, a cultural hotspot on the hippie trail, to immerse himself in music, radical ideas and psychedelia amidst ‘empowered and enlightened’ thinkers.
“One day, I was singing Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on a broken guitar. Somebody came up to me and said it was incorrect. He took the guitar to play and was terrific! I was too stoned to even look at him. When he went away, my group asked me, ‘What were you and Jimmy talking about?’ It was Jimmy Page (Zeppelin’s guitarist),” said Bose, narrating an experience he had in the Himalayan city, to which he paid tribute through the song ‘Kathmandu’ in ‘Train to Calcutta’.
The 1978 album was thought to be lost for good. Bose himself had given away all the copies he had. Today, only a handful of record collectors have the vinyl, making it extremely valuable.
Jaimin Rajani, who made the film If Not For You about Calcutta’s fascination with Bob Dylan, tracked down several collectors but finally struck gold with Kalyan Kamal Roy, a mechanical engineer based in Kolkata. His impressive collection of 5,000 records included two copies of ‘Train to Calcutta’ in mint condition. Consequently, all 13 tracks were salvaged and cleaned. A lot of those songs are seeing the light of day for the first time and are now preserved forever. Rajani has produced ‘Then and Now’.
“I had found this record in a second-hand shop in the early ’80s. It was so incredible that when I come across a second copy a few years later, I bought that as well,” says Roy, revealing that he had to walk back home because he had spent all the money he had on the vinyl.
The album’s lyrical themes range from vignettes of city life and love songs to observations about human behaviour. The title track is about how a poor boy is ridiculed and thrown off the train as he has no ticket., The upbeat ‘Street Soliloquy’ talks of poverty and hunger faced by an unemployed man and his child. Also included are the anti-fascist Spanish song ‘Viva La Quinte Brigada’ and the album ender ‘Baul’, a Bengali folk song taught to Bose’s father by its writer, the revolutionary poet Kazi Nazrul Islam.
This song was only the beginning of Bose’s long association with the Bauls, nomadic minstrels from Bengal’s countryside. Ethnic folk instruments such as the percussive khamok can be heard on several of his albums while the worlds of urban folk and rural Bengal folk merged on ‘Song of the Eternal Universe’ (2008).
“The Bauls were famous all over the world but their language was not understood. So, the Ford Foundation supported me to bring out this album. I sang the thematic equivalent of the Bengali lyrics in English,” said Bose.
Are protest songs still relevant? “These songs are ageless,” Bose says emphatically, “But I wonder the real meaning resonates with today’s generations. A person may be a Dylan fan but perhaps may not imbibe the values the songs preach, which are antithetical to the consumerist good life. “
Protest songs will always be overshadowed by the mainstream, believes Bose. “For new guys doing this today, they aren’t many opportunities. Music has become far more ornamental and visual. Artistes have to be sexy. There is a lot of pretense. This is because music is a trade now,” he said.
But Bose is acutely aware of his role. “A folk singer isn’t out there to change the world. He just keeps the thought and ideology alive, so that people listen and there’s a chance of listening and possibly getting influenced,” he says.
Shaswata Kundu Chaudhuri is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata and interested in music.