Virginia Woolf, in her essay Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown wrote: “On or about December 1910 human nature changed.” Woolf was philosophically referring to the experience of modernity but functionally to a culture quake: the 1910 London exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists, which caused a great convulsion in the understanding of how art should represent modernity. Woolf was, of course, overstating the case by putting a precise date to what could only have been a gradual and subliminal shift. But what attracts us here is not the correctness of philosophy but the provocation of preciseness. This is because we are referring to April, 1992 when something changed forever in the life of Bengali music. In that month arrived Tomake Chai (In Want of You), an album of urban ballads that caused a “culture-quake” in Bengali music; 80 years since Manet did the same in England. This is the 30th year of that quake.

Tomake Chai was an ensemble of 12 distinct compositions, all of which were written, composed, and sung by Suman Chattopadhyay who later became Kabir Suman. He was that single, guerrilla troubadour against prevailing templates of music, a former Voice of America journalist, who has had long training in classical forms and who now, just after turning 40, came back to his city to make music. Alluding to Joan Baez, Tomake Chai could be said to have “burst on the scene”.

The impact was such that we remember exactly when we first heard songs from that album. One of us walked into a room as a friend was playing a mix-tape recorded in a Meltrack 90 audio tape, with the names of the songs handwritten in English on the sleeve of the cassette. A baritone voice boomed “Pagol.” Some distances apart, maybe a month here and there, the other took another bootlegged tape home from a friend and put it on his Vintage 1991 Realistic CTR-73 Cassette Recorder. It played “Hal Chherona Bondhu.” We stood mesmerised. Neither of us had heard anything like that before. As more songs played and replayed and the tapes turned scratchier, that feeling of being in the company of an insurrection was unmistakable.

"Haal Chherona Bondhu" by Kabir Suman.

In the 44-minute album of 12 songs Suman created an alloy of compositions that were laced with empathy, political education, and a call to action. There were songs about the philosophy of desire (“Tomake Chai”); the will to upend everyday compromises (“Jodi Bhabo Kincho Amay”); structural violence of low-income habitation (“10 feet by 10 feet”); rights of children (“Petkati Chandiyal”); the casual calculus of exclusion (“Pagol”); the topology of the unknown (“Chena Dukkho Chena Shukh”/Known Heartbreaks); the seclusion of melancholy (“Mon Kharap Kora”/ A Pensive Evening); hope as the last man standing (“Haal Cherona”); the playfulness of a young girl (“Tui Heshe Uthlei”), small epiphanies that keep us going (“Kokhono Somoi Ashe”/Once in a While), and more. The crescendo of the album (“Amader Jonyo”) was an ode to the chaotic convulsions of Calcutta.

The politically punchy compositions not only invoked a tactile consciousness of a lived, fragile, and yet fortuitous world, but also voiced the tribulations of a stratified, loaded, and messy democracy. The songs complimented Suman’s talents with multiple instruments, and his enthralling, stage performances involving story-telling in denim shirt and jeans. He spoke his music and sang his views. Soon it was clear that here was a poet, a balladeer, a composer, a guitarist, a pianist, a provocateur, and a knowledgeable curator of global music histories. In short, Tomake Chai heralded a new artistic liberalism and sonic architecture to Bengali music. The compositions perched comfortably on the razor-sharp poetry; and Suman’s baritone so convincingly rendered them, that they could easily surpass the forced righteousness of erstwhile agitprop music, or the atonality of band compositions.

"Tomake Chai" by Kabir Suman.

A new musical form had finally erupted here in full poetic maturity, having travelled through much of the geography of counterculture in the United States and Europe. Tomake chai was a fountainhead of an array of albums and innumerable stage performances that followed, through which Suman managed to cannonball the forced fences between the performer, the syntax of performance and expanded the consciousness of the listening public. Tomake Chai, hence, was not just a turn in a mode of making music but a metamorphosis in the sonic temperament of what urban, sentient music could be. Above all, Suman emerged as a keeper of conscience, as it were, of a generation. No wonder that it was Suman that drew the iconic Pete Seeger to perform in Calcutta a few years later.

Kabir Suman and Pete Seeger performed together in Kolkata in 1996 | Picture credits: Wikipedia.

A new vocabulary

India in the early 1990s was going through an enormous flux. The economy received a plastic surgery by opening its gates to multinational market players after which foreign investments became the norm, consumerism the new oxygen, and transactionalism the new currency of social exchange. As India opened up, parallelly, its mind capitulated, for in the year within the “economic reforms” in a violent assertion, Hindutva mobs wantonly destroyed a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya. All these manufactured multiple fractures, opened newer avenues and discontents, new lacerations and newer frictions.

These volatile turmoils created an unstable substrate as the lines between the right and wrong – morally and politically – started blurring. They spawned many uncomfortable questions. The primary companion of public music broadcast was still the radio, which was an imaginarium of melodies and histories but missed finding any anchor in the chaos of everyday life in the city. The Bengali musicography too, was soaked in older times. Post-Tagore Bengali music had two robust strands: the cinema soundtrack, and the all-encompassing modern music, the latter largely betrothed to a vintage, ahistorical idea of romance. The third, smaller slice constituted protest music, choir music, and bands but even the best of them had little impact beyond those who had an ear for western tonality. As the 1980s thickened, these three strands had run into dry sand. It is in this context that Suman emerged. And what he brought was indisputable: a vocabulary to articulate our ephemeral, restless, and insistent zeitgeist. It is in this sense that the impact of Tomake Chai had resonances with Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home (1965).

As a society, we have so internalised poverty and squalor of the everyday visual and moral landscape that they have been virtually invisibilised. The uniqueness of Tomake Chai lay in how the poetry would be wrought with the throbbing presence of those whom we refuse to see. For instance, in “Petkati Chandiyal” (Kites of Freedom), we hear of an underage rickshaw-puller as he peddles to ferry a passenger while his heart longs for the fate of the kites flying above him, till “the flying kites send notes of liberty” to this boy, sandwiched as it were, between the fantasies of freedom and the compulsions of existence. In “Pagol” (The Madman), the discarded homeless who “harvests a college of lice in his unkempt beard” is described as playing snakes and ladders with the almighty; and the song, wondering at his exclusion, asks if he ever got counted in the decennial statistical carnival we call census. In “10 feet by 10 feet,” a small damp room is home to a “party of cockroaches in the day and rats at night with the stale remains of a half-eaten abandoned biscuit” in the corner, invoking a family trapped in the claustrophobia of scarcity. Another song, “Tintaler Gan,” (Song of Three Beats), has these stark lines: “If the play of feasting and hunger/ Continues without end/ What might suddenly happen, no one knows, my friend.”

“Petkati Chandiyal” by Kabir Suman.

In other songs, where he talks about the existential concerns of the relatively privileged, the poetry is abstract. The song called “Jodi Bhabo Kincho Amai” (If You Think You Can Buy Me) says, “You think you’re buying me?/ You are wrong. You can eat my voice in parts/You can feast on my fingers too/ Not me, you consume my compromise.” A lighter song “Tui Heshe Uthlei” (When Your Laughter Spreads) about watching a young girl go about her way, says: “Grammar goes on a vacation when you speak, and Zakir Hussain stops playing the tabla and starts petting birds when you clap.” Next to it sits the life-affirming “Hal Cherona Bondhu” (Don’t give up, My Friend): “I am getting old too, I cough after dark/But when that cough stops, I on life embark.”

We conclude with lines from what were the first and last songs of the album. The eponymous “Tomake Chai” (In Want of You) is about desire as an everyday practice. A part of it goes like this: “In the timeworn city of Calcutta/ New and old faces jostle in houses/To the tired crowd in procession/You have brought the whiff of a vacation/In urban fatigue I want you/In a drop of peace I want you/After a long walk I want you/Having loved life, I want you.” The concluding song “Amader Jonyo” (All for Us All), which is a part rap, part synaesthetic celebration, Suman sings of the sublime and the ridiculous that seamlessly cohabit on the enlivened, embattled streets of Calcutta. The song ends with a call to release from the bondage of the banal. It says: “For us dawns the new day,/On the East corner, red makes hay,/These sweet mornings are for us/And the limitless blue of the universe/The rain has arrived for us all/ The flooded banks are in life’s thrall.”

Must we add that we are still in thrall of that album and what it did to our questions about life, universe and everything (in between)?

“Tui Heshe Uthlei” by Kabir Suman.

Sayandeb Chowdhury teaches at Ambedkar University, Delhi. Rajendran Narayanan teaches at Azim Premji University, Bangalore and is affiliated with LibTech India. Their Twitter handles are @sayandeb and @rajendran_naray.