Oral history interview with Aloke Ranjan Dasgupta

Dasgupta, Aloke Ranjan Manjapra, Kris 2010-01-13

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Interview Participants
ARD
Aloke Ranjan Dasgupta, interviewee (male)
KM
Kris K. Manjapra, interviewer (male)
KM
This is a Bengali intellectual history, oral history interview on January 12th, January 13th 2010 with Professor Aloke Ranjan Dasgupta in Kolkata and Professor Dasgupta it's a great honor to have this time with you. Let me begin by asking the same question that begins all of these oral histories, just the basic information of place and date of birth and then I have a question from there, but where were you born and when?
Well I was born on 6th October 1933, in Kolkata, and it was at 12 o'clock in the morning and the constellations must have been good, this much I can gather.
KM
There has been no, you know, annals actually recording whatever happened but what I have heard from my parents that the total ambience of Kolkata was wonderful one, and I think I am a product of this ambience this much I can tell now.
KM
Where exactly did you, was your family home in Kolkata and I should also say feel free to sit back, relax
It was in south Calcutta, it was south Calcutta my--
KM
in Bakul Bagan Road in Bhawanipur and, I was a you know I was not born in a hospital, but the residence and you know my mother was teaching in a near... nearby school, teaching music, musicology was her subject actually and so this much also I can this also I can add to your query or to my response that music is one unique ingredient of my being and becoming. It's coming from my mother and the school was in south Calcutta
KM
What's... What was the name of the school?
Beltala Girls School.
KM
What -- how did - what, first of all, what kind of music did your mother love most and what particularly your?
Well you know it was classical music and of course classical music, without classical you can't enter the texture of Indian music at all so, it can be the other way around, of course. Without folk music you can't learn the classical one, but you know I did it the other way because maestros came to our house and there was always some music on and at the same time is Adhunik Bangla Gaan, modern Bengali music was born with a Raga basis actually.
KM
It was also called Rag Pradhan Gaan. This is music where Raga plays a dominant role, of course although or albeit the fact that this is modern, modern music and there were great figures operating there like Himangshu Dutta and Nazrul Islam [Kazi Nazrul Islam]. Ma was also a student of Nazrul Islam which means quite something, and he composed songs for her also, and so you can imagine that it was a beautiful consolation for me to be born to that living tradition and after a couple of years or three years my mother went to Orissa in a state, there were rajas there at the time you know, and this was Madanpur, Rampur state and she was teaching songs, teaching music to the princess there, and there I was -- I should say I witnessed the movements and I experienced the world of folk music.
KM
It started with Orissa music actually, Oriya music, and as my mother was well versed also in that language, so I entered the domain of music with out any visa at all.
KM
What was your mother's name?
Niharika Dasgupta
KM
And she was a singer as well? A performer?
She was a singer as well yes.
KM
How did, you mentioned to Kazi Nazrul Islam, did she also, was she also a part of the ghazal and that tradition?
This, this, this entire tradition and I therefore from her I could imbibe and learn Nazrul's songs it was, actually you can imagine. I went to Santiniketan later, actually later after 3 years of demise of Tagore [Rabindranath Tagore] and there I espoused Tagore songs. The Tagore songs, Tagore music, Rabindra Sangeet entered my life a bit later when I was roughly ten... ten and from and when I was admitted to Santiniketan Patha Bhavan at the age of ten.
KM
It was I think I should say 1945 or so and '41, 1941 you know Tagore died and so James Joyce and Virgina Woolf and but Tagore's death meant the emanation of modernity in Bengali literature and his songs also because in the entire corpus of his literature the music play a very predominant role and I was lucky enough to be acquainted with that trend, that timeless trend, Tagore music which has definitely molded my being.
KM
How about the -- I believe the famous singer was Dilip, performance -- Dilip Roy?
Dilip Kumar Roy, yes
KM
Dilip Kumar Roy
Yes
KM
Who else apart from Kazi Nazrul Islam, your mother, Rabindranath Sangeet. Who were the other, let's say stars in a constellation of music at the time that were influencing you? Or maybe there were fellow students you had do you remember who are influencing you in this?
No you know.. you know the names are not -there have been many, many, many singers but one of them appealed to me from the very beginning of course Dilip Kumar Roy, of course Dilip Kumar Roy, but he is a major, he has been a major singer. You know only day after tomorrow there will be a performance Dilip Kumar Roy, unfortunately you will be leaving Calcutta... Well what appealed to me is the lack of dissociation of sensibility in him, the faith and the bhakti or faith and the questioning one's existence, the qualis...qualis in his... in his delivery.. deliverances and in his own compositions. You, just mind you that still Dilip Kumar Roy the composer and the text maker have been the same person and then there was a split with Himangshu Dutta.
KM
His songs were written by Ajay Bhattacharya, the brother of that great modern poet Sanjay Bhattacharya, and so I came to know both these trends. Actually to put it in another way I drew my sustenance from both these trends, that is when the singer is composing his own text that's one tradition, which was a very important tradition and let me be parenthetical here. What happened you know that Heine [Heinrich Heine] wrote about 350 lieder songs whereas Tagore composed and composed the mode melody and the text for his songs, and they, these are about 2500 on his own. Heine needed a Schubert [Franz Schubert] or Silcher [Friedrich Silcher] or Schumann [Robert Schumann], Tagore didn't need.
KM
So this division in one that one Himangshu Dutta was dependent for the text of his music which deviated quite from Tagore's perennial patterns and dynamism. This was important you know that the musician is looking for an adequate text where his autobiography will be spoken through a writer, a songwriter. This is a very important thing and .. and then.. then.. then the same thing was Dilip Kumar Roy was recomposing his life through his music and text all alone but was just not modern. Dilip Kumar Roy we cannot say that he was modern he was timeless. So he was, actually one can mention him in the same breath with Tagore, actually Dilip Kumar Roy, but I didn't dislike a musician who is pining for a suitable text and going to a lyricist, I should say in this context, for a text which serves the objective correlative of his inner life, of his outer life, of his failure in love and all that, and Himangshu Dutta was known for his singular agony because he... he fell in love desperately with a student.
KM
He was master and also... desperately and well you know and she turned him down and this ... this tragic core actually nourished his entire music and then this dichotomy between text and music, which is one of the emanation points of modern poetry, I should say. I like this also that the musicians want... they must have our words and what I didn't like about classical music was that. The words were of lesser importance, and so I was born maybe with that vocation that I should serve the words for the musician, yeah.
KM
Not to go too long because
Yeah... yeah, have a, take it, take it, make it half an hour yeah.
KM
Now you mentioned the words
Yes
KM
When.. when did words for you and the art of using words, the craft of using words, when did that first develop in your sensibility?
Yes, yeah it's ...it's very difficult to scan the timing, time but it was near your place, that's Mahanirban Road. 1, Mahanirban Road, I was -- there was musicians came, poets came, writers came and I was almost at age of six when I saw Tagore's funeral procession was gliding by and it was a congregation of life actually so one of the first poems I wrote under that occasion, on that occasion. Words came with, to put it in a very uncanny way, with the exit of Tagore, that great exit, that great tragic sense of life but which ... which was for me a celebration of a divinity. I didn't find, you know, find any pangs of separation from him because then he stayed on in my life, and it was a boon that I didn't see him otherwise.
KM
I saw his face like a sunflower or as Italian once put it, gyrating along with the sun, you know, around the sun, and so it was for me the perception came to stay in my life that he gave me a sort of elan and impetus. Now it is your time along some others, you know, I give my legacy to you, words. Of course he composed songs were great. When I compose the tune comes to me automatically. The rhythm, the rhythm of music, the tenor of music, and even if I, even if my words are notations that because this is.. this is also this partitur, this notation and there has to be someone because you know there's a heard poesy listening to a poem. It's a different thing than reading one and I want that my poem should be read and in different ways to different reciters that was the thing, yeah. They should be able to interpret each in his own way, yeah.
KM
So you would say that this experience at age six was an experience of hearing a calling, finding of vocation?
Yes .. yes.
KM
Were there other moments in the coming period when you felt that you were being directed or that you were finding more cleary --
Yes, because you know when the you know about the Second World War, and we went to, this was, we went to Bihar, Santal Parganas, and I think we stayed there for about one and a half years.
KM
This was during what time what the?
It was, it was the Second World War I should say about, yeah all most thirty nine, the six yes, thirty nine, and well I should say it is eight that I went to Santiniketan na .. na I went to Rikhia it was the it was the Santal place where I came across my grandfather had a villa there and there was a kind of, I should say, asylum granted by nature.
KM
It is a beautiful nature there with the hillscape actually, and these refugees who went there, I would call them refugees because Kolkata was absolutely empty because there was say you know.. you know the Japanese psyche they .. they might drop a bomb any time, and so that period also while I stayed at in the Santal Parganas. I think the muse called me along with a pastoral flute and drums, Santal drums, Santal dance .. dance .. dance songs. I think and I lived with the Santals also, with adivasis. the, these Ur-Einwohner, you know that word and I enjoyed and took a, took a dip in the, you know, basking in the sun of life. It was pagan. It was pastoral.
KM
It was idyllic actually, where we staged dramas, read poetry, sang with the Santals, attended the ceremonies of joys and sorrows. This gave me absolutely a basis, a very rudimentary aesthetic basis, and words had to obey this call of nature. Yeah.. yeah.. yeah.. yeah.. yeah
KM
What was the - this is just a slight side note -- what was the kind of religious background of your milieu, I should say, of your family?
Yes.
KM
As well as the political orientation of your family in this very historic moment in 1943?
Yes.. yes it was, I tell you, I tell you. My father was a freedom fighter. He stayed on in Calcutta.
KM
What was his name?
Bibhuti Ranjan Dasgupta. You can read Bengali also? So I will give you something. Remind me. My mother's autobiography is a biography of mine. You may like it.
KM
And so where were we? I went but that.. that didn't collide with my religious feelings, sentiments. In our cottage Durga Puja was performed in this rural residence, and it was conducted, initiated by my grandfather, you know, in autumn and after a couple of years or four years, five years he handed down this tradition to me. It was on me to perform puja, and you know Durga Puja has a Hindu tag, but it is secular because those who were non-believers also participated, and the adjoining adjacent villages, they all participated. So this was my .. my quintessence from my religious background, which I got that being religious doesn't mean, you know, performing certain rituals only, but it is actually, in essay, basically secular.. secular, so I remained secular while believing the divinity of life, and so my Hinduism has been unfortunately bereft of interest of the fundamentalism, you can imagine.
KM
The trends were there. They were Hindusitic revival, the days were like that where, you know, the background of Krieg, war people were looking for a kind of, you know, shelter in Hindu religion for that matter, and as I after my matriculation actually I went to Santiniketan by I started at the age of class 6 so I didn't have go to schools before that. This was war time, but I started Santiniketan, so I should come back to it. The thing is that and you know my English teacher was sitting under mango grove
KM
What was his name?
His name was Nirmal Chandra Chattopadhyay. He asked me "Alok I'm asking a question. Answer this: how would you spell the word beautiful?" and I could spell it. So I was initiated by beautiful, the beauty in Santiniketan. I became a citizen of that world city. Where the world -- "Yatra visvam bhavatyekanidam," "where the entire world becomes a nest." That is the Ashramic motto, and I became there, but after a while I turned a Marxist because the monotony of peacefulness there disturbed me, and this was a time when Communist Party in the underground and pre-independence, this was before '47. So I joined the party. I was the youngest member. I started leafing through Marx a bit and went from village to village in an urge to unfetter India. That was a very great experience.
KM
Who were the living Marxists in your region that were most significant?
There was one Sunil, Sunil Sen Gupta, who initiated me and Amartya Kumar Sen. He was my classmate, and there was another Chinese fellow, Tai Tan Lee. No Maoism was there in him but Marx, Marxism was in his veins.
KM
This is all, this was at Santiniketan?
Yes.. yes and so we didn't attend classes or we went from village to village from mill to mill and then this .. this factor of Birbhum, Suri, suddenly I addressed an audience of about two thousand people. I was hardly 12, 13, and I toured you know actually you can imagine that was very sentimental scene, Union Jack, the flag, you know and but it was not, it was not you know there was no showing of but it was automatically this just continuously that moment was born and I just dehoist that flag and so I got very popular and since then, I love to address an audience of at least two thousand people and I am very hurt when there are less people. Yesterday I attended a ritual in Alambazar, where Vivekanand [Swami Vivekananda] stayed on his return from America. It was his birthday and I gave the keynote speech.
KM
I was sad to see there were hardly a hundred people back there. So I like, you know, being listened to by a mammoth gathering, even when I recite lyric, and so clearly the Decembrist Movement has left some imprint on me with the motto "Intelligentsia e Narod," "the Intelligentsia and the People". I believe in this, but I don't lay any, attach any importance to isolated intelligentsia, and you can imagine even when Manabendra Roy [M.N. Roy] and these great people. They were launching a movement, also sometimes on underground. They wanted to address the masses actually that was the thing, these radical movements, but I was a Marxist, and what appealed to me here is a depolarization between the masses and elite. I should say the elite of the people.
KM
Actually people, this word verges on the term folk, again coalescing into the word forklore, folk songs. I don't think that intelligentsia can survive without that kind of instantaneous contact, support, contact with and support from the people, which you must have noticed also in West Bengal. You have seen it in a debased form in the last years because there is a kind of latent emergency now in West Bengal. The party which is dominating in the name of Marxism [Communist Party of India - Marxist, or CPI -M] has lost the Macht of its credo and then separated from the peasants, and the intellectuals went to the streets with poems and songs and street theater, street drama. A la Brecht, Badal Sarkar, the most powerful playwright, so they stood beside the people. One student of mine, you must have heard his name, Suman, Kabir Suman.
KM
He is still singing for the people all though he is an MP and he is composing songs. He is writing the text for them, the song for the people, and there is a dichotomy there as an MP he shouldn't do this and he's being understood and misunderstood this way by the political lobby. The party which can come to power, this grassroot party needs him, but he is not serving the purpose of the party. He is addressing people direct their cause, their misery, their impoverishment...impoverishment of the adivasis. So I like this ... I like this. Some of my poems also became touchstone lines like 'Khun Karatai Shilpo Ekhon' murdering has become an art 'Shilpo' which also means here in the West Bengal context industry.
KM
'Shilpo'
So it is on a humble example, in my case there are others Sankha Ghosh did his part and we joined our hands together and.. and so this is a very lengthy come back of the isolated intelligentsia, table-tied, at writing a text it is often it has happened [unclear] Joya Goswami for that example. As they have.. they have written poems and while walking while doing the demonstration. So this is also I should say folk, I .. I would love to see use the word folk instead of people although you can imagine.. you can imagine that the word "people" has a political impact or intent for that matter, but I like the word folk because it is creative.
KM
It is creating its own poetry by recreating day by day so many songs, not that all the songs will come to stay, but a part, actually a major part, will be there, and what I derive from this what I deduce from this is actually the .. the creative sprit which can challenge any establishment. You know Bengalis are more or less have been anti-establishment people. When McNamara [Robert McNamara] came to Kolkata to beautify this they sent him to Delhi, and Delhi was beautiful. This cultivated ugliness of the city is also, I'm not sublimating it at all. It's a kind of threatened protest.
KM
I have two last questions, first is connecting with what you were saying about the folk in the 1940's, also about your political activity, your writing, how did the Progressive Writers' Association, Progressive Writers' Movement which Tagore himself was involved
Yes
KM
How did that connect with your?
Very much so, very much so
KM
And who in that world did you associate yourself with?
Yes.. yes.. yes..yes. When I was in the St. Xavier's College
KM
So this is after
After my matriculation
KM
You came to St. Xavier's College
Yes.. yes.. yes in St. Xavier's College . '49 to '51 and that was a breakthrough in my life. I was very much spoiled by the Fathers, had the library was open to me, open for me and at the same time I joined the Progressive Writers' Association. I got [unclear] and great figures like Narahari Kaviraj, you know Sudipta is his son. Susobhan Sarkar, Hiran Kumar Sanyal, stalwart intellectuals. Hirendra Mukhopadhaya, they meant quite a lot for me. But those were working in the front Salil Chowdhury, that great musician, Hemanta Mukherjee, Bijon Bhattacharya. Do you have South Asia Digest numbers issues of Heidelberg University?
KM
We do. We have access.
This is very important, South Asia Digest. I was one of the editors. You must have a copy I think otherwise Hans Harder can help you.. So they're folk songs. They're folk dramas. Folk dramas written by intellectuals like Bijon Bhattacharya. They gave the fillip and impetus, I sang the songs, and this Progressive Writers' Association was a pan-Indian association Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Sajjad Zaheer, all these great figures were there and what happened? I attended those sessions...
KM
Where would you meet for this?
Yes, Chowringhee, in Chowringhee. There was a...
KM
Do you remember the address?
Not.. not, now but it you can find it anytime. It's no longer there because it was meant for the street and I think new Bengal was born espousing a progressive attitude and with an agrarian bias and this was not that all of them were Marxists, no, but working for the folk that was, that was essential, and the greatest product of this movement was Salil Chowdhury who went later on to Bombay and worked for Hindi film.
KM
There was another great artist Sachin Dev Burman, S.D.Burman. So they worked in the fields were peasants, peasants were working where the boat man were riding boats and those songs are still there. Our blood-stained paddies will not give away 'Ar debo na rakth debo na tham.' Stop the terror, 'Hei Samalo, Hei Samalo' and I think you will get also the CD's from here and you, I would request you to interview Raju Raman who is the second director of Max Mueller Bhavan. On this point, this music and all that. So you have very little time to do them but anyhow, I think now you will even find me, if you will have to if you can come to Heidelberg and stayed then easier for me then to communicate to you.
KM
My fax didn't work because the ink was not there and it was.. it was as I am living more or less alone, sometimes when I go to a clinic nobody is there to attend your telephone calls also anyhow
KM
It's an honor, it's an honor
Na.. na please make it a point to contact me on your own
KM
I will, I will
You must and film part of it.
KM
I will pick this up.
He is a man of film I'll talk to him, just a minute I'll talk to him.
KM
Thank you very much for this interview.
Yeah.... Yeah, I think this is.... I think this is a good culmination yes and we will talk later.
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