Calcutta Corner

Recurring imagery in Anjan Dutta’s music

After writing a few really cerebral posts which are so typical of my blog (the last one was particularly dark), I felt like writing something light and fun. So I chose something which is much closer to my heart than my mind- the music of good old Anjan Dutta, somebody who Bengalis both love and hate. His songs like “Mary Ann”, “Bela Bose” and “Mr Hall”  became a mainstay of urban college music scene in Bengal in the early 90-s. In the new millennium, just when people thought his popularity had faded and the themes of his songs- guitar, Darjeeling, cigarette and teenage love- had grown stale, he rekindled the enthusiasm about his music in people by making movies around his songs. Movies like “Madly Bengali”, “Ranjana Ami Ar Ashbo Na”  and “Aami Ashbo Phirey” that released in the 2010s were essentially celebrations of the music he made as a singer- songwriter a couple of decades back.

As I said, along with multitudes of fans, he has plenty of detractors particularly among members of the older generation, who probably cannot relate to his anglophilia, his free flowing hipster lifestyle and his obsession with cigarettes, alcohol and western country and folk music. The fact that his songs are not musically rich and are quite simply glorified poems is another popular allegation against him.  I defended him on numerous occasions in debates with elders, as well as some friends, and went to the length of saying that he is a better songwriter than Rabindranath Tagore. After exploring Tagore’s music much more in the recent years, I don’t think I can make that claim any more but I still see where my argument came from. Tagore’s lyrics is mostly abstract, he seeks some form of divinity in everything that he sees around him – clouds, rivers, flowers, meadows- and finds a sense of tranquility in them. On the other hand, Anjan Dutta’s lyrics is highly grounded in “reality”- he talks about the daily commute in the crowded buses of Calcutta, the lonely saxophone player in a five star hotel, two tiny rooms under the staircase with the plaster fading off the walls- the list goes on. Even when his imagery shifts from the crowded urban landscape to the serenity of the hills, he is still very “real” – the railing overlooking the steep slope, the yellow fingers of the piano teacher moving over the keys of the piano, etc. So in a way the contrast between Anjan Dutta’s lyrics and Tagore’s lyrics perfectly encapsulates the central theme of my blog- the real versus the abstract.

Okay, I again deviated from my promise of not making this post cerebral like my other posts. So let’s get back on track- I am simply gonna describe some of the recurrent imageries in Anjan Dutta’s music over the years and have a lot of fun in the process. I am not describing the most talked about ones here- everyone is well aware of his obsession with Park Street, Darjeeling, Anglo Indians, cigarette, guitar and Bob Dylan.  This post is about the less discussed ones, but strangely these images have repeated in a lot of his songs, starting from the early 90s to the late 2010s.

Buttonless Shirt- Why exactly is he so obsessed with a buttonless shirt? Probably to him it’s symbolic of a free flowing lifestyle, but since he has talked about it in multiple songs, for example. “Ache beporoya botam bihin shirt” from the song “Tobu Jodi Tumi” in the movie “Dutta vs Dutta” or  “Botam bihin shirt ta amar chhoto keno hoy” from the song “Monkharaper Bikele” in “Ami Ashbo Phirey”, one has to wonder what is this fetish with buttonless shirts really about. In fact what exactly is a buttonless shirt? Does a simple round neck T-shirt count as buttonless? For sure it doesn’t have a button. Or does he simply want to the convey the idea of wearing a shirt without buttoning it up? In fact he posed himself like that too often in the movie “Ranjana Ami Ar Ashbona”, so probably that’s what it is.

Poor kids living on the streets of Calcutta, bathing under the roadside municipal taps – “Tobu-o neche uthey abar rashtar kol, Nachte nachte chaan kore jaay, rashtar cheler dool” from the song “Sokal” in his recent movie “Ami Ashbo Phirey” invokes quite similar images in my head as “Tumi dekhechho ki Hatujole 1 Loyd Street-tumi dekhechho ki borshay….sei langta chheletar hashi” from the song “Tumi Dekhechho ki”, composed in the 90s. All jokes apart, this imagery is really touching just like most of his other imagery and speaks volumes about his lyrical genius.

Japan- Anjan Dutta has some weird obsession about Japan. Sure, he considers his music to be international and it indeed is, and he often tries to transcend all political and cultural barriers with his lyrics and music. So he frequently talks about other countries in his songs, but he talks about Japan a bit too often- and the references to Japan are pretty arbitrary and almost have no context whatsoever. For example, he repeats the phrase “Ke Hindu Ke Japani” in the songs – “Que Sara Ra Ra” from the movie “Ganesh Talkies” and “Ami Ashbo Phirey” from the movie with the same name.Then again a couple of decades ago in the song “Aamar Janala” he wrote- “Keu janala khule Alabamay bangla gaan i gay, Keu porchhe Koran boshe tar Japani janalay”. Interestingly, he followed up the imagery of singing Bengali songs in Alabama and reading the Quran in Japan with that of playing guitar in Mexico. Probably back then he didn’t have much access to the internet just like the rest of us and wasn’t aware of the fact that the image of someone playing guitar in Mexico did not really break any cultural stereotype and promote a sense of internationalism unlike the previous two images- in fact playing the guitar was probably a very common thing in Mexico and still is.

 

Getting up early in the morning and watching the sunrise- Along with internationalism, the pain of growing up and missing one’s childhood is a dominant theme of Anjan Dutta’s lyrics. And he depicts it really well through his imagery, thereby making his songs one of the closest things to my heart. And just like he refers to Japan often to promote internationalism, he talks about not getting up early in the morning any more to watch the sun rise whenever he misses his childhood- for example, the lines “Bhorbela ar lukie dekha hoy na, Surjodoy dei je faki”  from the song “Koto ki korar chhilo re” in “Madly Bengali”  or the lines “Bhor bela te bhor bela amar Dekha hoye othey na je aar
Ke jaane ki karone” from the song “Monkharaper Bikele” in “Ami Ashbo Phirey”.

 

There are many other such recurring images in the lyrics of his songs, which together build up the world of Anjan Dutta- a world which I have always relied upon to provide me with support in moments of pain and with excitement in moments of joy. Most importantly in moments when I have got lost in some abstract world and felt detached from this world we live in, only to feel scared subsequently, his music provided me with the perfect “grounding”- something I badly needed. It reminded me of and made me embrace again my roots, my passions and my identity which I had tried to transcend with all the other worldly spiritual stuff, a journey which ended up being scary in the end.

 

Lastly, yes, the themes and images of his songs and also his movies are repetitive, and a lot of people I know have voiced their dislike for him because of that, but this is what I have always said in his defence- he is not a mainstream playback singer who sings songs written by other people like a machine- some being about romance, some about patriotism, some about friendship and so on. Instead, he writes his own lyrics and he writes them from within. As a result, since he is just one individual and has had a limited set of experiences, his songs and movies are bound to be repetitive. And that is probably the case with any original artist of modern times in any domain of art unless the name of the artist is Satyajit Ray.

 

 

 

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