Kalika Prasad Bhattacharya: Songs from Silchar, with love

Barak river, Silchar: No amount of success in the urban milieu could detach Kalika Prasad from his roots in Silchar Photograph:( WION )

WION Kolkata, West Bengal, India Mar 14, 2017, 09.16 AM (IST) Rongili Biswas


I let Kalika Prasad’s ancestral house in Silchar slowly take over my visual space. Partly, because I want to escape the television channels flooded with uncouth images, but also because that house never stopped haunting me since I visited it in January 2016, and it resurfaces all too intensely now. At the precise moment, someone calls up to say, "this is probably not the best time to tell you this, but would you please write about Kalika Prasad for us?" 

I am too dazed to say anything but realised I just said, "yes". "Whichever aspect you are comfortable with, Rongili di", the voice disappears. The overwhelming green doors and windows in the house in Silchar reclaim their space in my vision.

Back in 1997, I first heard Kalika sing a song from the chorok festival which became phenomenally popular later - "ganjar chirol chirol pat" (the finely diced leaves of the hemp) at our professor Sibaji Bandyopadhyay’s house in Kolkata. While other friends present there were quite taken up by the beautiful tune and fresh style of presentation, something else struck me – Kalika’s Sylheti accent was so genuine and befitting that it resonated in the air for the rest of the evening along with Lalan Fakir’s "ekdin o na dekhilam tare" (I have not seen him, not even once) rendered by another friend, Uttam Das, in a haunting chuadanga fakiri style. Here are two people, I told myself, who have distinguished provenances. 

I have already known Kalika for years by then, but it was only at that point that he told me specifically which house in Silchar he belonged to, "Of course, Rongili di, I am Ananta Bhattacharya’s nephew, you must be knowing how close Hemango Biswas was with our family during his Assam IPTA days."

"You mean with Mukunda Bhattacharya?"

"Yes, with Mukunda -kaka but also with Ananta-Kaka, my youngest uncle, he has four to five thousand songs in his collection and he is trying to make a library of folk music out of those now. Ananta kaka is one of your father’s closest followers along with two of my aunts."

"An archive, a repertoire of five thousand folk songs – a household replete with Silchar’s IPTA history - when will I go to your house?"

"Anytime that suits you."

No time suited me till 20 years after this conversation. Ananta Bhattacharya passed away in 1998, and I remember a visibly distraught Kalika giving me the news with a lot of remorse: "He could not finish what he wanted to – I mean the library in its fullest form, and we could not help him much either staying here in Kolkata."

Kalika called up soon again to say he was going to perform with a newly formed group at Students’ Hall, Kolkata as a tribute to Ananta Bhattacharya and wanted to learn a few north-eastern songs from Hemango Biswas’s personal collection. Among the couple of songs that he quickly picked up from me was a Jayantiya one - Haitu Mmo- that depicts the story of a hunter, who one day targets a fawn and discovering how beautiful it is, fails to throw his arrow, smitten in particular by its ravishing eyes.

It is a well-known story now, how from that one-time tribute-performance, Kalika Prasad’s group ‘Dohar’ evolved to be one of the most popular ones in West Bengal’s contemporary musical scenario over the past nineteen years. 

This is not the space to engage critically with his musical performance or, for that matter, research areas which certainly were vast and varied. What captivated the urban audience was Kalika's combination of background storytelling, elaborate narration on the genres and a certain mode of performance. On rare occasions, when we happened to talk about his performances, I would insist that he sings certain core Sylheti folk forms – other than bhatiyali, bichhedi or dhamail - that were much less known to the people. Sylheti folk songs often border on the gibberish but a theme emerges when one hears them intently, for instance, certain forms within gajir geet focuses on winter harvest. In one of his shows at Gyan manch, Kolkata, a couple of years back, Kalika did sing from one such genre and for me, that was the best part of his performance, again, because of his impeccable Sylheti diction and a certain amount of vivacity that always came with it.

As I mentioned before, it took me 20 years to go to Kalika’s ancestral house in Silchar. I was doing a project on Hemango Biswas's involvement with Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) in Assam. My project was looking into the history of IPTA and, in general, the leftist cultural movement in Assam in the decades from the 1940s through mid-60s.  The focus was on the peasant struggles of Tebhaga and Telangana as well as the days of the language riots in Assam. 

At Kalika’s ancestral home. Anadamayee Bhattacharya, his paternal aunt whom he often talked about, was in tears when she reminisced how deep my father’s connection was with the family. "Niranjan Sen and Hemango-da would often come to Silchar in the formative years of Assam IPTA, stay at our house till very late in the night for rehearsals. Along with Kailka’s uncle Mukunda-da who was one of the most famous dancers as well as organisers of Assam IPTA and later the Founder-Professor of the Department of Folk dance in Bhatkhande Music Institute University, Lucknow, they would talk about organisational things that I was unable to comprehend at that age. It was the late 1940s. They would stay in a small room across the street that has become a cloth merchant’s shop now." 

In that windy, chilly night in Silchar, Anadamayee crooned a few lines from a song that she learned from Hemango Biswas in those years. Her voice is still beautiful, laden with profound emotion for those historic days.

"You know we have a family business and, once or twice, Prasad did try to carry out certain orders about that from the elders, but it was clear he did not like it." She then started talking affectionately about Kalikaprasad: "He came to me at one point and said, 'I do not think I wanted to do this in life. I want to go study literature, do something else.' I saw the conviction on his face. So, I said, yes, do it, and see, did he not do well?" Anandamayee’s face finally beamed up. 

"Do we call him now, would be a nice surprise, I did not tell him I was coming here because it was all so unplanned," I said. "No, he is in Dhaka now, left today morning, we spoke before he left",  Anandamayee stopped me. I began to realise how deep Kalika’s connection was with his family. He made it a point to communicate almost every detail of his complicated itinerary to his aunt and others in Silchar before he left for a place. And certainly, it did not stop there. Relatives from Silchar would constantly come to Kolkata for medical attention or other purposes, and he gave time to them. Explaining his strong attachment, he once said, "Well, Rongili-di, we still have the connection with our roots, you know. My daughter does not even ask her mother if I am gone for two/three days. Good for her. When I kick the bucket, she will not suffer much".

"That is not true. Not even a true lie, a false one",  I said and we laughed.

Today while writing this, it does not escape my memory how he came repeatedly to our house whenever I needed him – for music, for medical attention, even for handling a familial crisis after the death of a beloved person. My heart goes out to his family members, and I know I will go back to the house in Silchar, one with overwhelming green doors and windows, to reconstruct the history of IPTA in the 1940s and 50s. This is the least I could do to honour the memory of Kalika Prasad Bhattacharya and to celebrate his contribution.

Rongili Biswas

Rongili Biswas is a writer, singer and archivist based in Kolkata. She is also the daughter of legendary singer, composer, political activist and writer Hemango Biswas