It was when I thought the current Assamese music has lost the charm, with trending meaningless and lousy songs such as ‘Kol Kol’, ‘Washing Powder’, ‘Disco Bhonti’, ‘Bilahi Bilahi’, ‘Heri Heri’ and more, a young promising singer, Shankuraj Konwar, from Mumbai, made me believe that not all is lost. I came across a lovely number titled, ‘Ki Bedonate’ by Shankuraj while I was browsing the web few days back.
With Shankuraj’s ‘Ki Bedonate’, I discovered few more equally mesmerising numbers, for instance, ‘Majuli’ by Nilotpal Bora, ‘Tok Dekhi Mor Gaa’ by Abhishruti Bezbarua, ‘Phule Monumuha’ by Padmanav Bordoloi, and ‘Railgadi Jhumur’ and ‘Kolongini Moi’ by Sunayana Sarkar. I literally had to type, “New meaningful and beautiful Assamese songs” on YouTube after seeing the kind of music now listed under the Assamese music category!
I, being a trained Indian Classical music person [I don’t claim myself to be a singer as I don’t sing professionally anymore], have always understood the effort required to make good music. I have grown up listening to legends such as Bhupen Hazarika, Jayanta Hazarika, Parbati Prasad Barua, Bishnu Prasad Rabha, Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, Pratima Barua Pandey, along with relatively new artists such as Zubeen Garg, Joi Barua, and Angaraag Papon Mahanta. These people not only inspired me to work hard on vocals but also encouraged me to learn few instruments [I used to play the harmonium, khol, taal, tanpura] and write poetry. And suddenly, when I switch on the Assamese entertainment channel today, all I get to see is some odd dancers dancing to hopeless auto-tuned songs with no sensible meaning by some so-called ‘artists’.
I listened to about 16 songs on YouTube before sitting down to write this article, and you can sense my disappointment with the kind of bashing going on here against those who know not to respect art. Call me old-school, but I still believe that if you can sing, like many others, including me, you’re just a singer. But to be called an artist, you need to be someone who transcends basic musical skills to create something significant and beautiful. Every day I see lakhs of young musicians working hard on their skill, and making an effort to get their music heard: playing at clubs, recording covers, etc. I truly support them. What I can’t bear, though, are the scums, who put no hard work but come up with just anything [be it negative publicity], hoping to become overnight stars.
However, after listening to ‘Ki Bedonate’ innumerable times, I felt it was indeed a breath of fresh air. I searched for Shankuraj on Facebook and requested him to share his phone number. On a weekend, assuming him to be free, I called him up, and spoke on length about the Assamese music industry in general and his recently released track. As we conversed, I got to know he is a post-graduate student pursuing media and cultural studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, loves singing and playing the piano, and has been engaged in composing and music arrangement too! As I always say and believe, good deeds need to be encouraged and brought to focus, here I present you my tête-à-tête with the talented musician. He gave me an insight into his life in Jorhat and Mumbai, his ongoing and upcoming projects, people who inspired him to take up music, artists he admires, and shared his thoughts on current music scene and about respecting roots and traditions.
- When did the music stint happen? Were you always into singing since childhood? Any anecdotes to share?
Even though I am not from a musical background, my parents always encouraged me to sing on occasions when I was a child. My father bought me a second hand harmonium when I was in 1st standard, and that was how, I guess, the love and inspiration for music set in. All of my cousins’ families and our family used to live in the same neighbourhood in Jorhat (where we all grew up together). My cousin sister used to take classical singing lessons under a private tutor at her home and I would always sit beside her and listen to her. My two cousin brothers listened to a lot of Western music. Thus, I got a taste of both Indian and Western music from them, for which I would be always indebted to them. My father bought the first tape recorder when I was around four and my sister and I grew up listening to legends such as Bhupen Hazarika, Jayanta Hazarika, Ridip Dutta, Charu Gohain, Dipali Borthakur, Loknath Goswami, Jiten Deka, Jitul Sonowal and Zubeen [Garg].
I have always enjoyed singing since childhood. My parents and my school teachers were supportive enough to set me up in competitions and other programmes. Music has always been around me throughout my journey so far.
I remember a funny incident which took place when I was a 12-year-old kid, super excited on getting the opportunity to sing at a local Bihu concert. On the night of the event, the coordinators kept on postponing my number till it struck 2 in the morning, with just two persons left in the audience. I walked onto the stage, grabbed the microphone and as I was about to sing, one of the people in the audience shouted out, “Bhaity, keita gaan gaba? (Kid, how many songs will you sing?).” I answered back, “4 ta (four songs)”. He yawned widely and replied, “Khor gaan eta gai juage aru, amiu jau, boidyo tuponi dhorise (Just sing a high tempo song and step down, we need to go and sleep).”
I remember myself being so furious at that moment that I replied, “If you are feeling sleepy, you may leave. But I will sing all the songs that I practised.” In the next moment, I was singing in an empty concert! [giggles]
- You’re working on your debut project, ‘Bartalaap’ with Maitrayee Patar, and the first released song, ‘Ki Bedonate’ has already been winning hearts of people across the globe. When, why, and how did you come up with this project? Tell us more about this album – in terms of music, theme, lyrics, visuals, and the struggle you had to undergo while working on it.
‘Baartalaap’ is a project which is very close to my heart as well Maitrayee’s, a very talented poet, lyricist and classically trained singer. She has a book of poetry, ‘Mur Kolmou Dinor Xunali Baat’ under her name. To be honest, it was only last December that we for the first time, at cultural programme, organised in our college on the occasion of “World Disability Day”, where we performed a few songs together. When I read her poetry, I suddenly had this idea of composing a song together — a song about conversation, all the conversations that we have with friends, with nature or even with ourselves in the backdrop of the daily mundaneness of our lives. That was how the song, ‘Baartalaap’, also the title song of our project, was formed.
We had to brainstorm for about 20 days to complete the song. The rest of the songs just flowed in. In the next few months, we found ourselves doing nothing other than sitting down, composing and writing songs together. We then decided to release the songs under the name ‘Baartalaap’. It has been a very fulfilling journey so far.
‘Baartalaap’ is sheer destiny. Though the entire project has not materialised so far, we have recently released the first single ‘Ki Bedonate’. We are pretty happy with the response the song has received. The song is very subjective. It is written in an expressionist style of writing, open to your own way of interpreting it. I guess that is why it appeals to anyone who listens to it. People have found their own meaning to adhere to it and accept it.
All the songs of ‘Baartalaap’ are lyrically based upon intricate forms of human emotions, nostalgia, universal love and attachment, framed within indigenous melodies and with a tough of electronic and ambient sounds. We would also be giving visuals to the songs. Work is under progress, and we hope the project to materialise in the coming few months, in spite of all our struggles. We are working really hard towards it.
- There’s a sense of peacefulness and love in your music. How do you define your style? Are you also open to experiment with different genres of music? Genres you love?
The song ‘Ki Bedonate’ is all about melancholy, appreciating melancholy and celebrating melancholy. It is a song which encourages you to dive deep inside yourself, makes you halt your steps in your daily walk of life and contemplate. If it appeals to you, it can appeal to anyone and in a deeper level, it can make you aware as to where you stand, where humanity stands spiritually. In other words, it is a song about Existentialism.
The style of our songs is entirely original. The songs do not follow any norm in lyrical and compositional level. They are just like reciting poetry with a melody. We experiment with electronic sounds, but keeping an indigenous foundation.
Maitrayee and I have very diverse taste in music. She is more into Hindustani Classical, Indian folk, and Ghazals, while I am more into Western. This diversity, surprisingly has added new flavours to our style. We are extremely happy and relieved not to have any sort of disjuncture so far and have adapted to each other’s style quite well. We have learned a lot from each other. Personally I love old school rock, blues, progressive and jazz. I also like psychedelic, electronic and chill-step.
- Apart from singing, you also pen down lyrics and work on music arrangement. How and when did you find interest doing these, considering you do not come from a family with a background in music?
Music has always been my first love. It was sheer love for music that has driven me and will always continue to do so. Writing lyrics and arranging are the things I enjoy the most apart from singing, though I do them mostly for my own songs. I have penned a few songs for my composer friends. Quite recently I wrote this song ‘Birohore Pokhili’, which would be released in a while. As I mentioned earlier, I do not come from a family with musical background, but music was like another member of our family. Apart from this, the place where I grew up, Jorhat, also had a very big influence on me regarding music. It is needless to say about the cultural richness of this place, and the originality that exists among the artists here.
- You also play the piano. Did you learn it professionally?
I started learning the keyboard and writing poetry after 10th just to impress the girl I had a crush on back then (for which I would always be grateful: both her and my romantic self). I made my first composition ‘Lorali’ when I was in 12th. The song would be included in our upcoming project.
I learned the piano professionally under Abhijit Sarma sir, a very talented keyboardist of Jorhat. I will always be indebted to him for the guidance he gave me.
- You’re also associated with Joi Barua’s The Sunshine Society initiative. Tell us more about it.
Joi da and I are good friends more than anything else. He is one of the finest musicians and composers I have come across so far and I whole heartedly respect him for his uniqueness and originality. Working with him has been a very enriching and fulfilling experience. I have learned a lot from him. He gave me an entirely different perspective of music. I admire him for his deep insight of compositions and musicianship. I can go on and on describing him, and it would never be enough. He is indeed a gem of Assam, and I consider myself to be very fortunate to have known him. I have done a few concerts with him in Guwahati and in Mumbai. My last concert with him was at National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) Mumbai.
My association with Joi Barua started through Sunshine Society, an idea of his, which beautifully manifested into a magnum opus in the last couple of months, in Jorhat. The Sunshine Society is an endeavour by a handful of young music and art lovers from Jorhat to rejuvenate and celebrate the scenario of art and music Jorhat. It is a community of artists, poets, photographers and musicians who promote their original work through gatherings at occasional intervals.
- What’s your opinion on the importance of roots, traditions, respecting originals and sources?
I believe in originality. I believe originality is what makes a society grow. For that knowledge of where we come from, where our roots are, is very important. We would otherwise, never know where we are heading to.
- The music scene in northeast India is diverse. Do you see it evolving?
My knowledge of the music scene in northeast is still limited to consider myself eligible to comment upon it. However, from what I have seen and experienced, it cannot be denied that the music scene in Assam is evolving. No wonder, people are trying to cope up with the changing technology of production and consumption patterns, but the originality in music especially in “mainstream” Assamese music is what I have found to be lacking. Folk music today is interestingly rendered with new forms of production, where it is fused with Western elements to give out a new sound. It feels really good when folk music of northeast is being fused with other genres and is played in front of a global audience; however, it is thereby losing its essence and its originality under such representations. We need to make efforts to represent and globalise folk music in its truest form. Else we would have no roots whatsoever to convey to our future generations. Just imagine, with the current state of affairs how the coming generations would perceive folk music to; an electronically rendered music, or music performed and sung in the backdrop of daily mundaneness, in the backdrop of nature and originality.
- Do you think Assamese music has the potential to draw the attention of the listeners in other parts of India?
Assamese music is one of the richest and most richly coloured music in the world. Assamese music has a rich history and heritage, with contributions of legends such as Jyotiprasad Agarwala, Bishnu Prasad Rabha, Pratima Pande, Parbati Prasad Baruah, Bhupen Hazarika and Jayanta Hazarika. The similarity of these artists’ lies in their honesty, authenticity and love for their work. If we can continue to carry the legacy of originality forward, with our feet back on our roots, we can easily draw attention of a global audience.
- What’s your opinion on the current music scene in Assam?
It feels really inspiring to see the current work of musicians such as Joi Barua, Nilotpal Bora, Rupam Bhuyan, Ibsonlal Baruah in the current music scenario. They have their own style of music which is very appreciable. I think Assamese music has a bright future ahead. I am optimistic.
- What do you think is the biggest threat to the music industry?
The notion among the people that music is for free, that musicians cannot earn a livelihood doing music alone, piracy, lack of originality, lack of promotion, lack of audiences for non-mainstream music and most importantly, inadequate music education. I believe, in Assam, every school should have music as a mandatory subject of education. Every child should have a basic knowledge of music, just like any other subject. This way the child would grow up with better perspectives on music on its wholeness and also on the society. Music can change the world. It is a very powerful tool.
- Message to your readers.
Stay tuned for our debut project ‘Baartalaap’ to be released soon. The ep would consist of five tracks, the first of which (‘Ki Bedonate’) was released on 22nd March with a lyrical video on YouTube. You may like our official page titled ‘Baartalaap’ to keep yourselves updated.
Listen to ‘Ki Bedonate’ here: