The second life of a Bangladeshi song
Hok kolorob (Let there be an outcry)
Phool gulo shob lal na hoye neel holo keno? (Why did the flowers turn blue instead of red? )
Oshombhobe kokhon kobe megher shathe mil holo keno? (Impossible to tell when it fell into rhythm with the clouds, and why)
Part nonsense verse, part lyrical abstraction and part romantic musing, Hok Kolorob, a Bangladeshi indie hit written by Rajib Ashraf and composed and sung by Arnob (Shayan Chowdhury Arnob), has had a long and unusual journey. Released in 2006 as one of the songs on Arnob’s eponymous second album, it got a new and unexpected lease of life in 2014, when it was first appropriated by Jadavpur University students as the name of a social movement for justice.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when this song became much more than something young people strummed on their guitars. But at some point during the long days and nights of protest that started on 15 September in Jadavpur University, the poetry of Hok Kolorob, with its simple childlike questioning of the world, spread beyond the campus, to universities in Delhi and Hyderabad. Its popularity took even its creators by surprise. In a January 2015 Times Of India interview, Ashraf said: “The lyrics, to a great extent, were inspired by (Rabindranath) Tagore’s Kabuliwala. The opening lines were like the questions that little Mini asked Kabuliwala. They have a certain innocence that touched a chord with many.”
And it is this simplicity that opened up the song to varied interpretations. Some saw the imagery rife with political subtext and identified the red flowers as Communist emblems, with the blue flowers representing the Trinamool Congress. Others identified with the simple folk idiom and read it as protest poetry in the tradition of Pete Seeger and Cat Stevens. It was appropriated as a clarion call by some and a gentle plea for tolerance by others. Kolkata-based singer Rupam Islam composed his version of Hok Kolorob with a strong political message; several other versions of the original did their rounds on the internet.
“I think people preferred the Arnob version because it was a love song pleading for tolerance and gentleness, which the students felt were the core issues motivating the protest. People were objecting to the lack of sensitivity and gentleness on the part of the perpetrators (of an assault) and their protectors, and the vitiation of the space between the genders by that violence,” says Rimi B. Chatterjee, author and assistant professor of English at Jadavpur University.
And so Hok Kolorob, a gentle love song and an acoustic favourite among young Bangladeshis, reverberated through West Bengal as a clamour for justice and change. “It was very interesting for us to see a humble and benign song like Hok Kolorob becoming a protest song. I read about it in the papers and it was quite something to see university students of our neighbouring country find their language of protest in those lines. For us, however, the song had a different nostalgic connection,” says Bangladeshi film director and screenwriter Mostofa Sarwar Farooki.
The imagery in the song references rural idioms identifiable on both sides of the Bengal border. The word kolorob itself echoes with a range of meanings, from the poetic to a catalyst for change. According to Chatterjee: “Kolorob does not translate as ‘cacophony’, as some have rendered it in English, but is closer to polyphony or harmony. It’s the word used to mean the sound of birds at dawn, and so the students felt it was an appropriate word to denote the chorus of voices pleading for a more equitable gender dispensation and fairer treatment by the authorities.”
When Arnob came to Kolkata in April 2015 to perform at Sankruti, Jadavpur University’s annual cultural festival, it was like a homecoming . The protests, hunger strikes and maha michils (mega rallies) had had some effect. And as hundreds of students gathered to welcome the singer, an unlikely hero of the moment, he couldn’t help being overwhelmed by emotion. At that moment, political borders seemed to fade away as the singer, his song and the audience came together as a whole. That evening he sang Hok Kolorob twice.
In an interview after the concert, Arnob told The Telegraph : “I have a special liking for Jadavpur University because of the way they took the Hok Kolorob movement forward and used the song. They captured the essence of the song. As we grow up, we lose the innocence. Children question all the time, and similarly the students questioned the authority here in a peaceful way through a song. I now feel Hok Kolorob belongs to the students, it’s not mine any more.”
As a song, Hok Kolorob became a rallying cry for students. As the powerful #hokkolorob hashtag, it brought more and more people together, mobilizing students on social media as well as on the ground. As a chant, Hok Kolorob echoed across Kolkata as students marched through rain-sodden streets carrying their message to the authorities. From Jadavpur University to Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, no student remained untouched. Even today, the anthem endures.