Singer actor Paul Robeson is still missed and he still inspires 44 years after his death

A Black American, a communist who sang the English version of Soviet Union’s national anthem, he inspired Indian legends like Bhupen Hazarika and Salil Chowdhury. April 9 is his birth anniversary

Singer actor Paul Robeson is still missed and he still inspires 44 years after his death

Papri Sri Raman

In 1947, Paul Robeson, the black icon of America said he would give up his career for two years to ‘talk up and down the nation against prejudice’. Does ‘prejudice’ sound a familiar word in today’s India? April 9 is the birthday of this great actor singer who was born in 1898 and died in 1976. He sang about race, poverty and the persecution in America and in many countries of the world in the last century

Soon after Robson’s prejudice remark, the House of Representatives Committee on un-American Activities accused Robeson of supporting Communist-front organisations. Many of us familiar with the words ‘anti-national’ and ‘anti-Indian’ realise how little is known in India about Paul Robeson, the voice America resurrected during its campaign to oust Trump from his presidency.

There are, however, many little loosely hanging strands that a look back into history can help weave a Paul Robeson story for India. India today is not too interested in history and 9 April 1898 may seem a long time ago, but a superstar was born at the turn of that century – the most magnificent western voice for the next fifty years.

Born to slave parents who later became preachers, in1915, Robeson won a scholarship to Rutgers College, one of the oldest colleges in the USA. A big man with a booming basso voice, he was twice named ‘All-American’ in football. (Nearly 80 years later, he was posthumously inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.) He then joined Columbia University’s law school and played for the National Football League. Little is known about his politics in the USA in this period.

A natural performer, soon after graduating as a lawyer, Robeson took to the stage. It is the British stage he embraced from 1922, with a tour for Voodoo, and in Emperor Jones in 1925. The London premiere of Show Boat in 1928, brought him huge success. Robeson played Othello twice for London productions and starred in the film version of Show boat in 1936, and Sanders of the River.

He wanted to study languages, especially African languages, which took Robeson to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in 1934. It is here at SOAS that Robeson got involved with Left politics, the Communist Party of Great Britain(CPGB),with unemployed workers, anti-imperialist students whom he met in Britain, supported the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War, and the American Civil Rights Movement. This is when he met Jawaharlal Nehru, Krishna Menon and several others like Upendra Krishna Dutt, Clemens Palme Dutt, Narayana Menon, Shapurji Saklatvala, Sajjad Zaheer as also British communist leader Rajani Palme Dutt.

Robeson is believed to have held dual membership of the CPGB as well as the CPUSA. Robeson returned to the USA in the midst of World War II, very famous. He was active in the Council on African Affairs (CAA) that advocated freedom of Allied colonies in Africa. Joseph McCarthy, of course, did not like this and soon the CAA was on his Subversive Organisations list. Throughout the McCarthy era, Paul Robeson was actively persecuted, but his voce did not fall silent. All this was before Vietnam and the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s happened.

Gerald Horne, author of the book, Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary, identifies Robeson as a neglected precursor to the modern Civil Rights movement. ‘You cannot fully appreciate how the Jim Crow system came to an end without an understanding of the life of Paul Robeson,’ he argues. ‘It was only with Robeson’s fall that (Martin Luther) King and Malcolm (X) could emerge as they did; the undermining of Robeson created a vacuum that these two leaders filled.’

Once you have heard him, you can never forget:

There's an old man called the Mississippi

That's the old man I don't like to be!

What does he care if the world's got troubles?

What does he care if the land ain't free?

Old man river,

That old man river

He must know sumpin'

But don't say nuthin',

He just keeps rollin'

He keeps on rollin' along…

(from the 1927 musical Show Boat).

Robeson has had significant influence on the Bollywood music industry of the 1950s and ’60s. Though it has never been recorded, Sachin Dev Burman’s music

ओ रे माँ झी, ओ रे माँ झी

मेरे साजन हैं उस पार…

ओ मेरे माँ झी अब की बार ले चल पार….

is a clear giveaway.

The increasing popularity of this genre of music – what is known as Bhatiyali in Bengal and Bangladesh, Tripura and Assam–in the 1960s cannot be denied. O Majhi Tor Naam Janina, from the Ritwik Ghatak movie, Meghe Dhaka Taara, Salil Chowdhury film music and songs like Sun more Bandhu re, sun mere mitwa…are obviously inspired by Ol’ Man River. The greatest follower, of course, was Bhupen Hazarika, who went to Columbia University to do a PhD and met Paul Robeson in 1949.He was deeply influenced by American Spiritual and Blues and his song, Nishobde nirobe burha Luit tumi / Burha Luit buwa kiyo? is an example. Hazarika translated the lyrics of ‘We’re on the same boat brother’ and ‘We shall overcome” into Assamese.

In April 1958, India celebrated Paul Robeson’s 60th birthday with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru saying, ‘This occasion deserves celebration…because Paul Robeson is one of the greatest artistes of our generation.’ He died in Philadelphia on 23 January 1976.But his voice still speaks.

Bajroi dile muku datto kontho / aaru dile saahosor jukti / bajror konthore / dhumuha rsoktire / geet gai kopam diganta…

(Thunder has bestowed me a robust voice/and given me bold reasons….)

(IPA Service)

Vies expressed are personal

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