Kalika Prasad Bhattacharya, one of the most popular and versatile folk singers of recent times from Bengal, has recently died in a road accident. That day on my way to the crematorium, I found young boys and girls completely absorbed in a premature celebration of Holi on the streets. The incongruity of this riotous celebration of life and colour was stunning my senses: how could such unbridled joy exist on a day of such loss?
It all appeared meaningless and intangible, much like a tune that you can’t really place, put your finger on, but hum on, haunted by its magic.
Kalika Prasad was very much like that: full of joy and laughter and music, and intensely alive. With a kind of breathless vitality, he traversed the intricate pathways of Bengali Folk Music, taking joy at every turn and fork of the road. Now, all that remains is the road, bearing the marks of death, of one who has gone away.
Barak Valley was the centre of The Bengali Language Movement (Twitter)
Kalika Prasad (1971-2017) came to Kolkata from Silchar in 1995 to pursue a Masters in Comparative Literature. A small town on the banks of the Barak River, Silchar is the district head quarter of Kachar, Assam. This region has a unique and complicated history: it was part of the pre-independence province of Greater Bengal and, yet, became part of the state of Assam after the Partition of India. The seeds of conflict were ingrained in this very administrative re-structuring of the region.
Even though 82 per cent of the Hindu-Muslim population of the state spoke Bengali as their mother tongue, the official language of the state was Assamese. Things came to a head on 19th. May 1961, when eleven protesters were brutally killed by the state police as they were demanding for the recognition of their mother tongue, Bengali. This event cast a deep impression on Kalika’s mind.
A procession commemorating the language martyrs of 19th May, 1961, who laid their lives in defense of their rights to their mother tongue. Source: Bangalnama (Others)
Having been a resident of the so-called periphery – linguistically, at least – in his home state, Kalika Prasad always had a strong sense of empathy with the marginalised, which made him embark upon the quest in search of his roots. The Surma-Barak Valley has always been a rich storehouse of traditional folk music, even when it was a part of Greater Bengal. Stalwarts, such as the singer-composer and folk-music theoretician Hemanga Biswas hailed from this region.
It was Hemanga Biswas who was instrumental in creating the notion of Ganasangeet within the domain of the cultural activities of the Communist Party, adapting and embracing liberally from the rich folk music tradition of his native land. It was a heady time, when singers and party workers toured villages and urban shanties alike, trying to infuse their countrymen with political consciousness and awareness. It was deeply influential in shaping our ideas of folk music and its political character. In one of his television shows in remembrance of Hemanga Biswas, Kalika himself acknowledged this debt.
Hemango Biswas was a Bengali singer, composer, author and political activist. (Twitter)
Kalika began his career at a time of great upheaval; the swirls of globalisation were beginning to take India and the world by storm. The official demolition of the Berlin Wall began on 13th June 1990 and ended in 1992 – the year the Babri Masjid was dismantled. It was in these times of unity and dispersion that Kalika began to delve into the music of his native land, in search of meaning.
India is a rich storehouse of community knowledge that now lies half-hidden in intricate layers of tradition, customs, dance, art, music and ways of life: an archive which houses the essential ‘pulse’ of our country. It was this knowledge system that incorporated ways of peaceful co-existence and helped Kalika frame the political perspective of his musical quest. His vision and sense of the political were enhanced by his association with the Department of Comparative Literature of Jadavpur University, which made him into one of the most politically conscious performers of our time.
In the late 1990s, he created the Bengali band Dohar with a few young friends.
An understanding of the musical paradigm he chose for himself would be incomplete without an awareness of the state of Bengali music in the 1990s. Kabir Suman returned to Kolkata in 1989 after the expiry of his contract with German Radio, and his first solo album Tomaakey Chaai was released in 1991. It was a watershed in the history of Bengali music. Suman almost single-handedly changed the course of the Bengali modern song, and new modes of creative expression in lyrics and music arrangement began to emerge.
A whole new generation of singers and musicians and bands – predominantly urban in their consciousness and expression – began to rise, and grow in popularity. This was concurrent with a surge in populist representation of folk music within the urban space of Bengal. In this scenario, Kalika Prasad – with the help of his young friends – tried to create a niche for the marginalised.
What set him apart from many of his contemporaries was that, he constantly endeavoured to engage with the notion of Rabindranath Tagore’s music, which somehow appeared to have been estranged from this new musical movement. More significantly, he attempted to declare the political presence of the marginal before his predominantly urban audience – an attempt that is thrilling in its audacity.
With the passage of time, he reinvented himself as more of a presenter and facilitator than a performer, attempting to showcase lesser-known artists and performers from rural backgrounds
Kalika Prasad came from a family of musicians and collectors, who had long been engaged in the collection of Bengali folk lyrics. One never ceases to wonder at how many such unsung archivists – unofficial historians – have kept alive the stream of knowledge – in whatever form – shared in a community with meagre resources.
Initially, his attempts to create an archive of Bengali Folk Music was not marked by discretion as to the authenticity of the music he collected. Consequently, he created a somewhat curious admixture of ‘authentic’ folk and ‘urban folk’ songs which were sung by bands in the cities. Kalika had arrived from Silchar with a deep sense of the history of his homeland and the importance of archiving, but perhaps it took him some time to realise that within the current economic structure, archives – unless represented by the performative – are little more than a heap of dry facts.
The selection of songs for the albums of his band Dohar reflected his preoccupation with different aspects of a people and their ways of life. The songs sometimes focussed upon people's religion, upon festivity and, in other times, upon the relationship that people shared with the land. But every time, invariably, the focus was on the popular modes of production and how it reflected in the local music. The unfinished work that he left behind, Songs of Workers, is a testament to his deep and abiding fascination with the music of the workers, the rickshaw-pullers, the boat-men and the farmers.
We, who have so long been alienated from our own history, are provided a brief, yet a vivid glimpse into who we really are as a people. It is perhaps the greatest achievement of Kalika Prasad
Kalika Prasad had an almost 20-year career as a musician. With the passage of time, he reinvented himself as more of a presenter and facilitator than a performer, attempting to showcase lesser-known artists and performers from rural backgrounds. In most of his later television shows and performances, he incorporated research material on Indian Folk Music, weaving it into the text of his performances and utterances – an act that is unique within the domain of popular public entertainment shows on television.
While other performers or bands sought to shine the spotlight upon themselves, Kalika used his public profile to shine the light upon others: the forgotten and little-known, yet highly skilled performers of folk music, who are near the earth and water from whence this music springs.
This was not merely self-effacement. Kalika aimed to present before us the diverse narrative of how our country was conceived in music, and how our history can be traced intertwined in the different strands of this music. The popularity of his shows is, perhaps, a testament to the fact that this music and this narrative somehow strikes a chord within us all. We, who have so long been alienated from our own history, are provided a brief, yet a vivid glimpse into who we really are as a people. It is perhaps the greatest achievement of Kalika Prasad.