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Keeping it simple

PHEROZE L. VINCENT
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TABLE FOR TWO Odia singer Susmita Das on her musical journey

music and muffinsSusmita DasPHOTO: Pheroze L. Vincent
music and muffinsSusmita DasPHOTO: Pheroze L. Vincent

Iwoke up late last Sunday to a phone call from a friend who said that he was a kilometre away from me, and he was with Susmita Das. I was too sleepy to register the name, but I knew that my friend, a senior journalist with All India Radio, wouldn’t wake me up on Sunday for nothing.

I rushed through the alleys of Kalu Sarai, stopping at a construction site for lemon tea. The chai-wallah had his hands full, catering to Odia masons from the site. One of them had a shrill song crackling from a worn out mobile phone. I asked him who the artiste was. He replied: “Susmita Das”.

In Noël Coward’s 1930 play Private Lives , the main male character Elyot tells his ex- wife Amanda: “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.” Amanda’s reply made it to the quotation books and took on far greater philosophical meaning than perhaps Noël had imagined. She said: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is.”

This is Susmita’s USP. For around half a decade now, Susmita has concocted a heady mix of poetry with popular music. Felicitated by the Odisha and Chattisgarh governments, Susmita sings in Odia, Hindi and Bengali. Her songs appeal to a wider demographic than the peoples of the plains between the Chhota Nagpur plateau and the Bay of Bengal. Loyal fans buy her CDs. Most, like the masons, download them for free. Susmita is always in demand for live performances from Noida to the Niagara Falls. Two of her five albums were released at conventions of the Orissa Society of the Americas. She says that the aim of her music, if any, “is to prevent our children from abandoning Odia music and culture.”

We meet for brunch at a Barista outlet opposite the Indian Institute of Technology.

The smell of freshly baked cakes fills the bright orange room. IIT-ians, more groggy eyed than me, come in one and twos settling for smokes and lattes, sitting on the chairs kept outside. The menu is Spartan, unsurprisingly expensive, yet wholesome – large muffins, cakes and sandwiches. Susmita sticks to coffee but is later coaxed to try a raisin and almond muffin. Most respectable Odias have a sweet tooth. “I hate eating in a queue,” she says, describing a long dining table with her fingertips. “I stick to dal-roti-sabzi and I feel better eating while seated on the floor. There’s more interaction with the food.”

Her interaction with professional music began after marriage, with the encouragement of husband’s parents.

Her husband moved around the country, like forest officers tend to do. Wherever she went, she found a guru she and her daughters could practice Hindustani classical music with.

Her first break came after her elder daughter Ankita left home to study law, she says. “I began to sing, in functions, with the encouragement of my friends. An uncle of mine in the US presented a CD with my recordings to (geophysicist) Lalatendu Mansingh and the son of renowned poet Mayadhar Mansingh.”

Lalatendu requested her to sing Mayadhar Mansingh’s poems. This formed her first album Maya Darpan in 2007. “Mayadhar Mansingh’s poems are provocative. When we were in school it was kept out of the syllabus. Still we read them in secret. But it was very difficult to compose them into songs… The songs I did were raga based. The response was huge. Then former IAS officer and lyricist Devdas Chhotray called me up. He wanted me to read his songs.”

Chhotray’s lyrics and Susmita’s voice are a hit. She brought out four more albums, the latest are Rubai and Radio Days . Rubai is an Odia adaptation of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat , translated by Edward Fitzgerald, and, Radio Days is her rendition of the songs of Odia love song legend of the ‘60s and 70’s Akshaya Mohanty.

“Most of these songs are not available. They are not in the Akashvani archives. But no Odia person who has listened to Akshaya Mohanty on the radio, can forget him,” she says.

Susmita is an avid watcher of reality music contests. “It breaks the monopoly in music. Also, children are getting back to classical music classes. But the producers should nurture singers and not dump them after a year,” she says, leaving me half a muffin.

PHEROZE L. VINCENT

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