The songs that bind

Urban folk balladeer Susmit Bose on his lifelong struggle to make his kind of music popular in India

May 09, 2018 12:36 pm | Updated 12:37 pm IST

09dmc Susmit Bose4

09dmc Susmit Bose4

Urban folk legend Susmit Bose has performed all across the globe over the last five decades. His singing style is often compared to the likes of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. Like Dylan and Seeger, Bose’s songs often call for social change, condemning aggression, violence and social injustice, championing human rights, peace, and equality. Bose, who mostly sings in English, gained global recognition for his participation in the International Folk Song Festival in Havana, Cuba in 1978. He has composed songs for films such as I Am Kalam . Bose is also the central subject of Aneek Chaudhuri’s upcoming documentary film Urban Voice which highlights his lifelong struggle to make urban folk music relevant in a country like India with rich tradition of classical music. Although, he has delivered many hit songs over the years, Bose is perhaps best known for his rendition of the gospel song “We Shall Overcome” which since then has been translated into various regional languages and still remains a popular song of protest in the country. Of course, its Hindi translation was most famously used in the 1983 Kundan Shah classic Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro . With his trademark guitar and mouth organ, Bose is still seen by many as a rebel figure whose music has continued to inspire generations of Indian singers.

Excerpts:

How would you describe Urban Folk music? Tell us about its origin.

A stock broker friend described urban folk music simply as “public issue”. That I thought was the best layman explanation for the genre. I used that as the title for my album released in 2005. In India, folk music has a different connotation – it is a rural art form about life in the village, about seasons, it is about customs and social events like a wedding or a birth of a child, etc. The urban appreciation of this form is rather patronising and not very serious. Being my father’s son, a renowned thumri singer and a musicologist, I was often asked to explain the origin of the genre. There is not much written about the beginnings but I understand, subsequent to the industrial revolution in the West, workers from villages moved into towns for work carrying their instruments along and instead of writing and singing about their homes in the village they wrote and sang about their lives in the cities, quite like the Blues. In the West, unlike in India, there was not much distinction between the folk form and the popular art. Contemporary folk as it was then known in the West was so attractive because it was real life stories that they could relate to and it appealed to their social conscience; people took to it with great enthusiasm.

Urban Folk music became very popular around the ‘70s. What led to it sudden rise in popularity among the masses?

From the late ‘60s, the world was dichotomous, there was the Vietnam War – a shame on humanity – and there was the man on the moon – a sign that the cosmos was under earthly invasion – there was the movement for women’s emancipation, there were the hippies with their idea of a world without war, hate and a free society, there was the new found spirituality and most were seeking Nirvana, and there were the extreme left groups, the Naxalites, which young people were joining. Politics and society found a new meaning and all this had to be communicated to the young for a better world and what better way than through music, and folk music – a direct interaction between the artist and the audience. In the course of time, this genre went through various definitions – from contemporary folk music to protest songs to folk rock to social change. Urban folk’s popularity was in its real life stories that people could relate to while questioning the older generation on politics and social justice. And the terminology ‘Urban Folk’ music soon found ready acceptance and it spread as a genre, taken over by the pop world...songwriters stopped writing songs like “Put On Your Red Shoes” or “Love Me Do”. Instead we started hearing songs like “Heal the World”, “Blowin in the Wind” and “Masters of War”.

Sidharth Bhatia’s book “India Psychedelic” talks about how the American protest-singer movement that inspired Indian songwriters to comment on India’s prevailing affairs. Tell us about your association with urban folk and how it allowed you to popularise a whole new brand of music.

The late ‘60s through ‘70s was a period for a global change movement and the youth spread its message through literature, songs, arts and poetry. Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and so many others began talking about a need for socio-political change through their songs. In fact, a lot of young people took to writing as a part of that movement and thus began my involvement as an urban folk musician. For me it was more of an occupation than a profession and as I understand I was perhaps the only one who was singing my own lyrics in the public spaces and soon it was carried on by lot of the youngsters. Although I was not so fortunate to get trained in music, the influences of the Hindustani classical music alongside the folk tradition of the Bauls in Bengal and the songs of Pete Seeger and then Dylan and others were the inspirations for my writings.

What was the first time that you performed in front of a crowd? Tell us about your experience of performing live. How different it is from recording in a studio?

Those days it was difficult to survive as a professional with the kind of songs I sang so to earn a livelihood I had to sing popular songs till such time that I was established. Much to my disappointment in spite of being an anti-war singer, the first opportunity I got was to sing to felicitate Air Marshal Arjan Singh at the Army Club in New Delhi. But the money was good so all was well.

I usually had two kinds of audiences – the mainstream who heard me sing popular songs and the other was the one who heard me, questioned me and discussed with me. The first was pure entertainment and a little pretentious and the second was as an artiste expressing one’s feelings/reactions to the real life world. Recording in a studio is easy as you can correct your mistakes but it is also very clinical. I prefer performing live where the mistakes is a part of your performance – natural and uncorrected.

Although you have sung mostly for peace and brotherhood the authorities continue to see you as a rebel figure. How did it affect you as a performer?

Yes, in the ‘70s, I was seen as a communist after which I was referred to as a socialist and then a social change singer or an urban folk musician. All these did not affect me because I was not a mainstream musician and the commercial benefits were not my interest. As I said urban folk music was my occupation so it did not affect my performing because I expressed myself and not sang other people’s emotions. I think I got my due and never felt sidelined in general although I was always excluded from mainstream platforms but then for me life was far more important than just living.

You mostly sing in English and in a country like India with so many regional languages English can easily alienate people. How did you manage to keep yourself relevant?

Besides asking me to explain urban folk music, my singing in English was yet another aspect that the media always questioned me. I was raised in an English medium school. My constitution allowed me that freedom to speak and sing in English and my songs were targeted at opinion leaders and change makers who came from similar background and understood the language. I sang about people who were marginalised and so singing to them about their problems was not my idea. Also, it also gave me a wider audience internationally. But, I must admit that I love the vernacular form.

Your critics condescendingly describe you as an imitator of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. Do you ever feel it unfair to be dubbed as an imitator?

I don’t think people who say that know much about the arts; there is a lot of ignorance about it here in India. I have been following a “gharana” so to say that of the Guthrie family – Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. And if I write or sing in the manner of Pete or Bob, I think I have been a good “shishya”.

Is there any particular reason why the guitar and mouth organ are your favourite musical instruments?

Well, actually, these two instruments are very much a part of the genre that I follow of Woodie and Bob.

The world is witnessing a rise in aggression and violence all around. And yet the artists today are keeping mum?

Well, I think this is an age of hatred and anger. The angry man was well portrayed in the ‘70s in the Hindi films. Today art has become a trade and commerce is its main purpose so I think artists stay mum on subject of social issues so they don’t lose out on work.

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