When Susmit Bose performed a concert full of original songs in 1978 to an audience at a Chennai five-star hotel, he was booed off the stage. In Manipur, it took Rewben Mashangva many years to overcome audience prejudice for his unique form of Naga folk blues.
India’s singer-songwriters have had to fight a strange sort of struggle—one not so much for an audience, but an audience that engages. Their minimalist music, while powerful and affecting, lacks the histrionics that a rock-conditioned concert-goer expects, and their words go deeper than mere singalong choruses or anthemic chants. The nuances, says Shillong-based singer Gwyneth Mawlong, are often lost completely on the crowd.
It hasn’t always been a positive fight—steady inroads into a hostile music scene have often disappeared overnight. Kolkata-based singer Bertie Da Silva and Bose were both forced to take decade-long breaks from performing.
Part of their challenge is immersing their often-impatient listeners into their own left-field musical traditions—from influences such as folk singer Joan Baez to the music of the Bauls, from the sounds of a 12-string Gibson guitar to the twang of a Manipuri tingtelia.
“We’re not desi Dylans,” says Bose. “We’re just following a gharana, a tradition of socially engaged, relevant music.”
SUSMIT BOSE, DELHI
In 1964, as the Vietnam war gathered steam in South-East Asia and Jawaharlal Nehru’s death plunged India into a leadership crisis, 14-year-old Susmit Bose decided to be a singer.
Bose, then in school in Delhi and caught up in the idealism and headiness of the time, was battling his own search for a voice. “I was not taken in by the pop music on the radio, and Bollywood did not appeal to me,” says the 60-yearold singer-songwriter, who now lives and works out of a tiny Munirka flat across the road from Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. His decision made him turn to the music of the Bauls for inspiration, and to the work of folk singer Pete Seeger, but there was “still something more I was looking for”.
Multimedia: Bose went on a two-decade hiatus from music and made films. Photographs by Shamik Bag, Priyanka Parashar & Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
It was around this time that he discovered Bob Dylan.
Hey, Bob Dylan, I grew up with you, he’d sing in a song three decades later, Sometimes pretending to be like you.
Bose began working on his skills on the guitar, occasionally scribbling lyrics and fragments of tunes. “I was so hit by his music in the 1960s, I had almost chalked my course. It was already set for me.”
In 1971, 21 years old, he dropped out of college to became “a socio-political singer-songwriter”. Bose fashioned an improvised harmonica stand from a hanger wire, borrowed a friend’s acoustic guitar, and began playing small gigs around the city. An executive from recording company HMV watched one of these early gigs, and asked Bose if he’d be interested in recording a single. He wrote Winter Baby, a politically charged critique of child abuse rampant in the country. “All my friends said, this is a big chance—don’t record what you’re recording. It just won’t work. But it did.”
Winter Baby became an underground hit—a rare original song in a scene dominated by cover bands—but did little for Bose’s career.
By 1973, he’d been pushed to performing in the places he loathed—nightclubs and five-star restaurants, dressed in “ridiculous bow ties” and playing covers.
“The next seven years were the most difficult. I used to look around, see us singing about a lady in a red shoe, or downtown LA and wonder—are we really artistes?”
In 1980, he gave up performing, and took a 25-year sabbatical to concentrate on film-making. He was one of the seven directors who worked on Surabhi, the popular Doordarshan show.
“In 2005, my friends pushed me back on stage,” he says. In his workroom, sheafs of paper are arranged below a harmonica rack, filled with handwritten lyrics and guitar tablatures on the back of used letterheads and other correspondence.
On stage, Bose prefers a simple setup.
He wears long kurtas, plays a simple acoustic guitar with his notes propped up in front of him. He breaks up his songs (which range from commentaries on the situation in Manipur to a lament on the state of the Yamuna) with lots of interactions, explains his lyrics and layers his rich, deep voice over simple, three-chord song structures. He tours once or twice a year and promotes his own albums, which are sponsored by NGOs and advocacy groups. “I like this—looking, writing, bringing issues to the notice of people,” he says. “I think of it as being Sanjay in the Mahabharat, bringing news to the blind king. I like that role.”
REWBEN MASHANGVA, IMPHAL
Some years back, Rewben Mashangva chanced upon Trio, an album of American folk-based ensemble singing by Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. Far removed from the Appalachian backdrop of the album, in one of the songs the Imphal-based singer-songwriter found his “own native land”—the remote Ukhrul district in Manipur in the North-East. “The melody and the style of singing is the same and the song talks about a way of life that we are familiar with,” says Mashangva. To underscore his point, Mashangva starts singing a folk melody in his native Tangkhul language, one which he says approximates the tune he heard in Trio.
Genre-bending: Mashangva pioneered a unique Naga folk blues sound.
It is this kind of musical assimilation that has allowed the 48-year-old musician to “pioneer” a hitherto unheard form, Naga folk blues, a sub-genre and cross-breed between the Western blues chord structure and traditional Naga lyrics and ethos.
Having released two albums, Naga Folk Blues and Creation, these days Mashangva is equally at ease with his music in high-profile concerts such as the Roots Festival in the North-East and in Indian metros, at a five-star hotel in Kolkata where the Indian Chamber of Commerce in January awarded him the Northeast Excellence Award for being a cultural ambassador, and in government and academic get-togethers.
It is at one such Sahitya Academy of Manipur event in Imphal that we meet again. Mashangva and his eight-year-old son Saka are sporting the customary Tangkhul sides-shaved hairstyle haokuirat. The duo sings in their native tongue, with Mashangva playing the fiddle-like traditional string instrument tingtelia and Saka keeping time by beating a mallet on a yak horn. Occasionally, Mashangva even plays the tingtelia like a slide guitar, not unlike a style inherent in the Delta blues in America.
As a crossover artist, Mashangva had to overcome not just dire financial constraints at home, but also audience prejudices as a singer-songwriter. It took many years, he says, before he could establish Naga folk blues as a form.
“People would invariably think it’s either the blues or Naga traditional music,” he laughs heartily at his home in Nagaram in Imphal. His efforts have now found many takers; people who consider him a powerful original voice in a region where rock and metal bands are often judged by their note-perfect rendition of popular Western numbers.
As we speak, Saka picks up his Gibtone guitar and starts singing Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, causing the father to break into another round of laughter. “Youngsters think this song is a Guns N’ Roses composition,” says the Dylan fan who also spares kind words for the music of Bob Marley.
“You see, when Christianity came to the North-East, the missionaries rejected most of our traditional items, which also included musical instruments. I’m trying to revive the music from the pre-Christianity days. Hopefully, youngsters would also rediscover their roots,” says Mashangva. “My son might be learning Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in school, but when he comes home, he finds his father singing an old Tangkhul song.”
BERTIE DA SILVA, KOLKATA
Even from the street below, it is the voice that can be heard dominating over the rehearsing band. The voice is wispy and nasal and floats through the narrow passageway leading to the door; the mellow melody guides one up the staircase to the door of the rehearsal room. Inside, Bertie Da Silva, eyes tightly shut and forehead creased, softly delivers the line, Stay with me star of the morning…as the music rises, falls and plateaus off with the perfectly pitched voice that searches high and low, whispers and growls. The tune’s delicate constitution merits musical minimalism and the band remains attentive to every little detail.
Timeless: Da Silva’s fan base extends across multiple generations.
Afternoon Light is among the 80-odd songs that Da Silva has composed in a continuing spurt of creative prolificacy since he rejoined Kolkata’s original music tide a couple of years back, after a twodecade hiatus from the stage. These songs, in turn, have reintroduced the dean of arts at Kolkata’s St Xavier’s College to younger audiences as a singersongwriter worth filling up auditoriums or Facebook walls for.
In an age of sampled sounds and designer electronic loops, the music the 52-year-old has presented to audiences through a string of fairly well-attended solo concerts in auditoriums such as GD Birla Sabhaghar has been delightfully old-fashioned—imagine a musician, wearing a beret or hat, settling down on a stool within the middle spotlight, warm acoustic sounds showcasing intensely-elegiac lyrics and, between acoustic guitar and bare voice, creating powerful musical moments.
Despite listener loyalty and a fan base spanning young adults and earlier generations who heard Da Silva perform with bands such as the Country Music Show and High, and musicians such as Cyrus Tata, Willie Sorrain, Mel and Fuzz in the late 1970s and 1980s, Da Silva doesn’t plan an album. “Albums are passé. I don’t know anybody who buys albums these days and music companies aren’t generous towards artistes.” A dedicated website, which should be ready soon, will make his songs more readily available, either as free downloads or streamed. It is his study of classical music towards the latter part of his two-decade-old sabbatical from public performance that freed him from the musical knot he had slipped into in the past. “The fretboard became a metaphor for infinity. Classical guitar made me hear and see differently.”
See? “Yes, sometimes a tune is a feeling and the notes are pictures to the feeling.”
GWYNETH MAWLONG, SHILLONG
Since she wrote her first song at the age of 17, it took close to two decades for Gwyneth Mawlong to come up with Breaking the Silence. In Shillong, as an established singersongwriter who gave her first public performance way back in 1989, it wasn’t that Mawlong was committed to a code of silence; it is just that nobody spoke up, she says. The song cut through the calm.
Staying in verse: For Mawlong, poetry and performance go hand-in-hand.
“I came out with Breaking the Silence in 2005. The picture I painted in the song wasn’t clouded any more,” says Mawlong, looking back on a music career that will be encapsulated in a 12-song debut album next year.
The song about two women being in love—Forbidden Love—came as a natural progression for a singer who once fronted the successful all-girls Shillong-based band Mermaid, where the band played out the lead singer’s angst-ridden takes on life, according to a BBC South Asia report. Divas Night—a concert Mawlong has sporadically organized in Shillong from 2001 and which is likely to be held next year—is her way of showcasing musical talent among women.
Alluding to the similar subject of same-sex relationship, The Shadow, yet another Mawlong composition that preceded Breaking the Silence, reached out to an altogether new Khasi listener constituency, “people who have livedin the shadows”.
With words such as The wind was crying as their arms entwined/The secret hangs like a disease/A love unspoken to the world outside/Sometimes it is so hard to believe…, Breaking the Silence became a “self-proclaiming song in the third person,” says Mawlong. “I have been touched by many stories of injustice done to women I know. Gay women, especially, don’t have a voice.
As singer and songwriter, I want to be that voice and say ‘Yes, I am who I am, so what?’ How long can one hide?”
Mawlong writes poetry too. In 1995, she became the only woman poet from Meghalaya to be invited to an international cultural exhibition, The UK Year of Literature and Writing, in England and Wales. In 2001, Mawlong was conferred the International Poet of Merit Award by the Florida-based International Society of Poets. Poetry and music, she says, go hand-in-hand.
“In large concerts, it becomes difficult to make people understand the nuances of my music. It is easier with smaller audiences, when people have an idea of what the artiste is all about.”
It is easy to understand why. In the outer room of her airy home in Shillong, Mawlong softly plucks at the guitar strings; her version of Joan Baez’s Diamonds and Rust followed by the tortured chorus lines of Breaking the Silence (Break down the walls/Bring on the fight/With breaking the silence tonight) charging the room with a distinct temper that carries the sentiments of a singer wizened by experience.