Susmit Bose, a phenomenon in Indo-English music, is known for his unique use of music and poetry to address social issues. In an exclusive interview, he spoke to Ujjawal Krishnam
What does music mean to you?
Music is my occupation and I use it not just as a mere profession.
What has been the catalysing force behind your journey?
There have been several: Hindustani Classical music, my father being a classical musician besides his position as the Director, All India Radio; the Bauls of Bengal and several other folk music traditions that I heard travelling with my father. Later in my teens, the influence of Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan made me sing and write as an urban folk singer and the moment that happened is a long story.
You are an ardent follower of Woody Guthrie, Seeger and Dylan. Are you trying to fuse this genre from the west with Indian folk?
It is not right to fuse folk forms because it takes away from its simple and unpretentious style. I just follow a family style like a gharana in Indian music.
Why did you choose English as a medium? ….
I am a midnight’s child and grew up at a time when everything English was still considered to be the language and culture of empowerment. Though the upbringing was traditional, my orientation was English-medium. The reason for my singing and singing in English was to use it to highlight the wrongs in the society and get opinion leaders to take notice. They understood the English medium well and perhaps heard it better that way. The alienation of English is only now and is a mere rhetoric in times of Hindu nationalism. Even our constitution is in English and Hindi. We did throw the British out but we held no animosity or hatred towards them. That is the beauty of India – tolerant, accepting and inclusive.
“Be the Change” —you launched an acclaimed CD album in 2006. What do you try to say with the title of the album? What is ‘change’ for you? What is the role of music here?
The idea of change to me is very Gandhian, I grew up listening to “Vaishnava Junuto” written in the 17th century by Narsimh Mehta and Rabindranath Tagore’s poem “Where the mind is without fear,” and they influenced me greatly in my understanding of my social life. A ‘complete revolution’ without violence, hatred, distrust and jealousy. Music cannot change the society but it can keep endorsing the values and idealism. Soldiers at war always rely on music to de-stress and calm their minds, so I hear!
Folk genre is in decline. Your comments.
Folk music can never be in decline. It is the basis for all arts and culture. Yes, you might say, that it does not hold a prominent position as a performing art because it does not follow the parameters of entertainment today. However, there is a larger explanation to your question. For its preservation, we must understand that folk music should not be modernised. It takes away from its simplicity and the ethos. And more over, it needs far more exposure and patronage.
Why are you labelled as a communist rebel by authoritarian establishments?
I have had several labels – communists, socialist, liberal, social change singer/songwriter and few others! Hahaha…
Music cannot change society but it can keep endorsing the values and idealism. Soldiers at war always rely on music to de-stress and calm their nerves
How, according to you, can peace be achieved in the truest sense?
I suppose it has to be a realisation within oneself.
What binds humanity and what is the integral backbone of Indian culture?
The culture of “unity in diversity”.
How do you see Hindu nationalism which has now become an inevitable juncture of Indian socio-polity?
If you mean ‘Hindutva’, then it can never happen in a country like India, the idea of Hinduism and Indianness is too ingrained in our culture. It is the very basis of Hinduism that gives us the Indianness. Yes, today Hindutva is a different thing completely and that saddens and worries me a lot.
Would you like to be deported to Pakistan?
I consider myself a global citizen and it would not matter where I live as long as I have the freedom to return home whenever I like.
Artistes in India are afraid to speak. Naseeruddin Shah suffered a backlash because of his concerns. What does ‘political subjugation’ mean to you?
To me, ‘political subjugation’ means accepting the wrongs of authority out of fear. Only those artistes who have a lot in stake in their commercial lifestyle lose their voice to speak... there are lots of us who are speaking, but unfortunately the media only projects the voices of celebrities.
Some online poetry platforms are promoting newbies. By doing so, they are also compromising on the standard and quality of art to a great extent. Your reaction?
I feel today art is a trade and so compromise and barter art is to survive.
Popularisation of art is usually endowed by the organised chains of businessmen. To what extent business orientated propagation of art is feasible?
Art and artistes are not to be generalised. Only commercial art is “endowed by the organised chains of businessmen.” There are lots of art and artistes that do not fall under this category and are thriving in their own way. You have also raised awareness about HIV-AIDS with your music compilations. You might have travelled across India assessing the degree of taboos, myths and superstitions in the Indian society. How can these critical issues be addressed? Only through direct interactive education, not through TV talks, posters and leaflets.
In 2011, you launched an album ‘Song of Dharma’ based on the the story of the Mahabharata. This means you believe in scriptures. What is your comment on the Ayodhya dispute and delusional elements inciting violence on religious lines?
Of course, I believe in the scriptures and Ayodhya has nothing to do with it. The dispute and the delusional elements are just about politics. We understand that today politics has moved away from concerns of, or, for the society, culture and its well-being. Have you heard my song on Ayodhya written just after the Babri Masjid shame? I wrote about the self-interests of groups who were protesting.
Your future plans?
As I said right in the beginning, music is an occupation for me.