Songs from a tide-swept land

Songs from a tide-swept land

As rivers change their course, new lands rise and old lands get washed away. Meanwhile, sailors sail off to distant shores, perhaps never to come back. In homes left behind, battles are fought, lands get divided and barbed wires cut through the hearts of songs. Such are the stories I have been trying to tell through my work, both as a singer and as a listener. Such are the songs held in the body of The Travelling Archive.

Moushumi and Chandrabati Mashima. Sylhet, 2006 / Sukanta Majumdar


When I first came to Bangladesh in 1995, I had already written a few songs and there was a cassette from HMV, which had come out a year back. Interestingly, some songs in it seemed to pre-shadow a relationship not yet begun, between a land, its history and a woman.
Let me begin with a song from that album. It was called Chitrakar and it was a song about a picture-maker, a chitrakar, who stays in a room on the terrace of a house somewhere in Kolkata. Above his head, an eagle, a cheel, circles in the sky with its wings spread out. Down below, the streets and lanes and railway lines of the city entwine like contour lines on a map. The chitrakar watches from above with distant eagle-eyes, as this map unfurls. Then, on his canvas, he draws the map, no longer detached from it, but making it his own.

চিত্রকর, তুমি চিলেকোঠায় বসে ছবি আঁকো।
ওপরে ওড়ে চিল, দু'ডানা স্থির রেখে শূন্যে পাক খায়।
নিচে অনেক নিচে, কলকাতার গলি, কলকাতার পথ,
পথের ছোট ছেলে, দুপুর রোদ্দুরে খাচ্ছে ঘুরপাক।
তুমিও চিল হও, দু'ডানা স্থির রেখে শূন্যে পাক খাও।
কলকাতার গলি, কলকাতার পথ, দূরের রেললাইন 
তোমার ক্যানভাসে, তোমার নদী হয়, চিত্রকর--
চিত্রকর, তুমি তোমার নদীজলে মাছ আঁকো।

The song moves on. Now the lines and lanes of this city are becoming the painter’s rivers, in which fishes swim. Kolkata is slowly morphing on his canvas, it is becoming another land, a land the painter sees with his mind’s eye.
In the next verse, the painter is no longer the generic chitrakar, but is given a name; rather, a selection of names to choose from. He can be Habib, or Samir or maybe he is Anwar. He is not of this city, Kolkata, we learn, but has come from elsewhere, being drawn to it, swimming against the tide. We begin to locate the painter in another domain now – his name, the river, and the fish – they become pointers on the map, which is forming before our eyes. Interestingly, this is neither the chitrakar’s map, nor the map of the city where this song began, but a map of several maps. We will come back to this question of the map, but for now, let us carry on with the story of our chitrakar.
Finally, the moment of history has arrived. A reference to an actual historical event is made, an event marked in red, specifically on the calendar of Bangladesh, also of the rest of Bengal; even the world now. February 21st or Ekushey February, Bengali Language Martyr’s Day, commemorates the event in 1952 when students protesting in Dhaka died to protect Bengali as a national language. The date is recognised by the UN now as International Mother Language Day. In our story, it is the dawn of Ekushey and the sun has lit up the painter’s canvas, glistening in the river’s waters.

Arnold Bake went to Naogaon, now in Rajshahi, Bangladesh, in February 1932 and recorded singers who are mentioned as ‘ganja workmen’ on one of the British Library catalogue entires. A woman called Jaura Khatun was also recorded during that session. This photograph from the Special Collection section of the Library of Leiden University – a photo of a photo – has ‘Naogaon 11’ written behind it / Leiden University Library holds the rights to the original photograph and it cannot be further reproduced without their permission.

Now the story is almost told, but not quite. The song becomes one of remembrance, of paying homage to the Language Martyrs. It quotes the famous Ekushey song, Amar Bhaier Rakte Rangano Ekushey February, but with a twist. This song is a kind of anthem of a country whose birth goes back to Ekushey. The original song began with ‘amar’ (my/mine), but in Chitrakar it begins with ‘tomar’ (your/yours). ‘Can I ever forget Ekushey February, reddened by the blood of my brothers?’ That is how the original song was. In my song Chitrakar, that line becomes this: ‘Your brothers’ blood reddened the dawn of the 21st of February’ and it describes things going on our chitrakar’s canvas. The question of ‘Can I ever forget that great day?’ is not asked at all. This of course signifies the separate locations in the history of the main protagonist of this story and that of the storyteller.
Finally, the last line, which comes almost as an utterance, a statement of fact: ‘Baan-bhashano bari’, tide-swept home/homeland.
Whose home and homeland has been swept away by the tide? The protagonist’s, or the storyteller’s, or of both? Where is this bari or home then, if it has been swept away by the tide? Has it landed on some other shore, somewhere, or does it not exist anywhere else other than on the canvas of this song, where many maps have collided and coalesced, forming an imagined map of an imagined land?
I write in such detail about this song, because I see now how, in an almost uncanny way, it touched upon two key questions around which my future work would evolve. First, the question of the ‘baan-bhashano bari’ or tide-swept home/homeland, which in turn is tied to the question of maps and mapping. If Bengal is the home or bari we are singing about or delving into in search of songs, then Bengal is also an impermanent place with unfixed contour lines. Many tides have risen and fallen and unsettled it and changed its shape and form; it was and still is our baan-bhashano bari. Such was my instinctive thinking at the time of writing Chitrakar; such is my conscious realisation now of what I wrote, more than two decades later.

The search and the yield

My life in music took a new turn roughly in the mid-1990s, around the same time when I first went to Bangladesh. That was for me the beginning of my music research, albeit unconsciously, with a random collection of tapes of bichchhed gaan or songs of separation from the music stores of Patuatuli, in Old Dhaka. Prior to that research, I had grown up with music in the way that many other Bengalis, especially girls, who can sing more or less in key from childhood do, learning an assortment of songs, which are part of our common Bengali urban and middle class repertoire. My deviation was that I had also started to write my own songs by the early 1990s. However, the tapes from Patuatuli gave me an entirely new listening experience. Questions and ideas began to form in my head. Eventually, around 2003-2004, in partnership with sound recordist Sukanta Majumdar, those ideas began to shape up as a project in field recording in Bengal, slowly covering various, often disparate, parts of Bangladesh, West Bengal and places bordering these two geopolitical entities, as well as places where Bengali immigrants live. Through a decade’s continuing work, we have now created our own collection of field recordings and field notes, and brought them on to a platform of shared listening called The Travelling Archive ( The Travelling Archive, which is an ongoing project, now holds a rich and varied collection of songs, often sung by previously unrecorded artists, and takes note of our experience of listening to them.
The connection with the chitrakar is at the root of this work. It was Samir, a real-life artist mentioned in that song, who had introduced me to those searing songs of love and separation, bichchhed gaan. He used to be with Dhaka Theatre before coming to Baroda in Gujarat, India, some time in the 80s, for higher studies at the art college there. Later, he made Kolkata his home. In the early nineties, during addas in our homes in Kolkata, Samir used to talk about women with names like Aleya, Saleha and so on, who sang bichchhed at all-night soirees back in his village home. There would be palla gaan sessions, song-debates on serious theoretical issues such as Nari O Purush (woman vs man), or Shariat and Marifat or on Shrishtitattwa (the matter of creation), and then there would be cries from the audience for bichchhed: ‘Ekta bichchhed hok, ekta bichchhed hok!’ Subsequently, those highly emotive songs coming out of equally powerful voices would mirror the pain and pleasure people experience in their everyday lives. Samir had also given me an audiotape of bichchhed to listen to (those days we played music from audiotapes), and I was hooked.
Those songs set something in motion for me. In a sense, the entwining of my own musical practice with my research began right there and then. It began with listening to recordings in the space of my home, and learning some things from those recordings—a very young and fresh Momtaz Begum, her guru Mataal Rajjak, Birohi Kala, Nargis Akhtar. . . an assortment of new sounds filled up my world. They were different from the sounds I was used to hearing when I was younger, the records we had at home of classical and art music and protest songs, and they also opened up new geographies for me. Some names on these recordings later became our destinations when we set out on our journey into listening and recording—names of singers and places, forms and genres, poets and composers. All along I was making notes of them while listening.
There was a set of tapes of Bengal’s ‘roots’ music which had come out in Kolkata in the early 1990s, (I say ‘roots’ because the set was called Shikorer Sandhane/In Search of Roots), and when I was going on my first field trip, in 2003, I wanted to go looking for a particular singer of bhawaiya called Nirmala Roy, who lived somewhere on the western side of North Bengal. When we met in her home, her husband, Chandkishore Roy, also a musician, was talking about his childhood spent in Rangpur in North Bengal, Bangladesh (in its pre-Bangladesh/East Pakistan days, I suppose) and the flow of songs from there to his home now near Siliguri, at the bottom of the Darjeeling Hills; a flow, for which his body was the vessel. In fact, not only Chandkishore Roy, but many like him, who have lived in and between places, have ferried songs in their bodies and minds as they have gone from place to place. What map to draw then for those who have lived thus, in and between homes? Where does the border of childhood end and that of youth begin? In Assam, on another trip, another singer, Putul Sarkar’s brother had said: ‘We are neither Bengali nor Assamese; our songs are of Rangur.’ A whole region seemed to claim allegiance to Rangpur. Yet they also had their own regional particularities, of which they were conscious, even parochial sometimes. I remember how Allauddin Sarkar, a songwriter of this same region where the state boundary of West Bengal dissolves into the borderland of Assam, had once said, ‘Our words form in the wholeness of the mouth; not everyone can utter them like us.’ At that moment he stood guarding the territory of his own song; as if his mouth was a world with a map of its own. Each of hese encounters has shown me a different map of the

Arnold Bake and Cornelia Timmers Bake, Santiniketan (or Kolkata), date unknown / The Special Collections section of the University of Leiden Library holds the rights to the original photograph. This is a photograph of a photograph, taken during study at the library and it cannot be reproduced without permission.

same place; each of these individuals is located differently on their personal maps. On our canvas of The Travelling Archive, we have laid these multiple maps, one over another, creating our own map, which is at once real and imagined, amorphous and forming, forever unfixable, like the chitrakar of my song did all those years ago:

কলকাতার গলি কলকাতার পথ 
দূরের রেললাইন তোমার ক্যানভাসে
তোমার নদী হয়, চিত্রকর,
চিত্রকর তুমি তোমার নদীজলে মাছ আঁকো।

Disparate destinations

Amulya Kumar or Amulya Kaka, as we call him, of Joypur in Purulia, is someone we met in 2005; he is a master of the genre called jhumur. Kaka would have been in his mid-sixties when we first went to him. He was strong and robustly built then, and bursting with songs. Between smoking countless bidis, he sang for us countless songs, explaining their content and context along the way. Purulia is a harsh and rugged land and the people there are poor. Kaka’s voice bears signs of that ruggedness, but the richness of his music covers up for the poverty in which he has lived all his life. Does he care for material comfort? Of course, he does; who does not? Not comfort, per se, because he is old and wise enough to know that ‘comfort’ is essentially subjective. But, if he could meet the basic needs of his large family, he would surely feel comforted. It is always a real struggle; has been and will be. More than ten years on, we still meet him; now he comes to us in our home. And now the conversation is no longer confined to just the music, for he uses songs to talk about the meaning of life as he has seen it.
In our first encounter with him, on a winter morning of 2005, Amulya Kumar was quizzing us all through his singing. He would throw a line at us and say, what do you think this means? And we would not know. It was a song of riddles, which heavily alluded to the Puranas and other traditional systems of knowledge. The idea is simple, Radha is longing for Krishna, who has left her, and she feels such desire for him that she cannot bear it any more. ‘Another week I will see, a fortnight, and then I will kill myself,’ she says.
Purulia is in the western end of West Bengal, touching the states of Jharkhand and Bihar, and it is topographically and linguistically very different from, say, wet and verdant Sylhet. ‘Ami dhoirojo dhorite na’ri hey—I cannot hold my patience any longer,’ Kaka sings. ‘Shuno he Uddhabo/Bine shey Madhabo/Ami dhoirajo dhorite naa’ri hey.’ That is simple enough. Madhab is Krishna, Uddhab is Krishna’s friend. Therefore, Radha is asking Uddhab to carry the message to Krishna that she can no longer hold her patience and that she is dying for him. The song is credited to an obscure composer named Dwarik, who was from a village called Begun Kodar, according to Kaka; he could not give us his dates. The song begins thus:

বায়স অজা রবে তনু ভেল জরজর
কা ভেল পাপ পরান
সখী, বিরাট-তনয় কর দান

‘Ki bujhle?’ Kaka asks. What do you make of it? We shake our heads. He laughs. What is Baayos? Kaak, the crow, right? And what is Oja? Oja is a goat. So, what does the crow do? It caws. Goes, ‘kaa, kaa.’ And what does the goat do? It bleats. Goes, ‘may, may.’ So when you put the two together, what do you get? ‘Kaa+May’, or ‘kaame’, which means what? Again Kaka begins to laugh. Kaam is sexual desire. So, the line means, why is my tonu (or body) so restless with sexual desire? Friend, give me a ‘Birat-tanay’. Now, what is Birat-tanay? It means ‘the son of King Birat’ [of the epic Mahabharata, with whom the Pandavas stayed a year during their exile]. Now, who was the tanay or son of King Birat? Do you remember? His name was Uttar. So, give me Birat-tanay and what does that mean? It means, give me the uttar to my question; give me an answer! Thus goes Kaka’s singing. He sings and explains. There is an archaic quality to the language of the song, and the style of Kaka’s singing. No room for sweetness here, as this land cannot hold sweetness. Here desire must be sweated out.
Had Chandrabati Roy Barman of Sylhet in the far eastern end of Bangladesh ever been to Purulia? Would she know where it was on the map of Bengal if she was told its name? Did her own personal map have any need to find a place for Kaka’s Joypur or for the Begun Kodar village of composer Dwarik?
We called her Mashima, meaning aunt, or khalamma. The two Mashimas who have blessed us with their songs, Sushoma Das and Chandrabati Roy Barman, were in their seventies when we first met them in 2006, during my second trip to Sylhet and Sukanta’s first. Quite like Kaka, in them too we found a richness of knowledge and wisdom, which is rare and un-preservable. We have been recording them through these years and after eight years of work, in 2013, we created an album with our field recordings of their songs and conversation, the first album from our own record label, Travelling Archive Records. Then Chandrabati Mashima passed away in 2014. Sushoma Mashima is frail now and we know we will not be able to hold on to her for long. However, the question is this: with all our recordings and all the archiving that we have done, having deposited their songs to established archives in the UK and India, can we ever hold on to the period of which they were a part? Can we bring it back by singing their songs?

Amulya Kumar in our home in Calcutta, 2015 / Sukanta Majumdar

Chandrabati Mashima also sang a song about Radha not being able to hold on to her patience in the absence of Krishna. She had a girl-like quality about her; for her singing was reminiscent of someone dancing in joy, she swayed with the song. The words of Mashima’s song are identical to Kaka’s ‘Dhoirojo’; but only in part. Mashima’s song is simple; there are no riddles in it. In it desire flows like a river.

‘Dhoirojo na dhorite,/Pari na shohite/Onuraage tonu jhore./Amar Krishna pipashay jaay jaay prano jaay/Dhoro go, amare dhoro.

Translating to:

‘I cannot keep my patience/Cannot bear it any more/My body trembles with love/I thirst for Krishna/I lose myself,/Hold me, come, hold me close.’

This song, its singing, its language, the tone of the voice – they come out of another landscape, another sensibility – it is part of another map of the mind. This is a very different map from Amulya Kaka’s. In it the body melts with desire and it does not burn.

Archive as art practice

Such stories people the space of The Travelling Archive; songs unknowingly echo other songs; faces mirror faces that might not have ever met. I think that this is how an archive can work. It can connect the unconnected. And in so doing, the archivist becomes the artist at work; the teller of tales and the maker of maps.
When we had set out all those years ago to record in the field, it was not with any mission to preserve a lost heritage or revive endangered music—we were driven only by our impulse to listen, learn and record. I personally felt an urge to break out of my boundaries as a musician, and when Sukanta came in, I think he was also drawn to the idea of going beyond what he had been taught as an audiographer in film school. The ‘archive’ we have now formed in the

course of our work. Over the years, as we listened to our own recordings and learned their meanings, we felt the need to share our listening experience with others. The website, our record label, our presentation-performances, collaborations with established archives in other parts of the world, exhibitions, essays, films and installation work—they are all ways for us to address that need to share. It has been a two-way process for us—our artistic impulses have led us to do the research and the research has made us extend our art practice. While it might be that now we know a little bit more than when we started about a certain form of song or a composer, we also now know a little bit more about ourselves. We know what we like to listen to again and again, where we want to return, often to record the same song once more. We also know now how we want to tell our stories to others, and why we think of Chandrabati Roy Barman while listening to Amulya Kumar.
While each researcher and artist is unique, the work that I have been doing, alone, and with Sukanta, as part of The Travelling Archive, also belongs to a practice; a discipline, which has its own rules and methods; how much of them we follow is another question. But consciously or unconsciously, The Travelling Archive has become part of a lineage of field recordists in Bengal. There have been recordists and researchers before us in and around the same field where we work, and many who work in our time and of course, those who will come after us. Hence, in order to understand where we belong, we not only work with our own recordings, but also with recordings made by others, some of which we have found in archives. Sometimes we listen to very old recordings and try to make sense of them and in that act of listening and interpreting, we again return to our subjective selves—to the individual artists and researchers that we are.
More than ninety years ago, in 1925, a Dutch scholar of music, Arnold Bake (1899-1963), had come to study in Santiniketan. He became so attached to Bengal and India in the first four years of his stay that that he kept coming back all through his life, and staying for extended periods of time, often based in Kolkata or Santiniketan. His last trip to India, again centred on Bengal, was in 1956. Bake was a singer himself, drawn to the sounds of languages, chants, rhythms, dances and songs from his special location as a singer and scholar of music and Sanskrit. During the first phase of his stay, he began to learn Indian classical music and Rabindra Sangeet, while travelling extensively around the country, and taking photographs wherever he went. He also made notes of his experiences in letters he wrote back home. On his second visit, in 1930, Bake brought with him a recording machine. Arnold Bake had recorded songs from different places in Bengal (and many other places across the sub-continent), first with his phonograph and later with other equipment, including the Tefifon and reel-to-reel recorders. He also shot silent films with his movie camera. In Bengal, he recorded different kinds of music and a range of artists who came from disparate social, cultural, linguistic and religious locations. Those days Bengal was undivided, but of course it was not one, nor were its people (what place or time is ever so homogeneous?). Hence, the music – as wide-ranging as Santhali songs and baul gaan and kirtan and jhumur and fakiri songs and work songs and Rabindra Sangeet and bhatiyali – which Bake recorded from different parts of Bengal, while being connected through tangled up histories and shared musical structures, could also be socially and politically unconnected, with connections happening only in the listening of someone who had travelled through these songs. Hence, in the case of Arnold Bake, connections between the apparently unconnected happened in the body of his work; rather, in the listener’s perception of his work. Such things happen with our work too. Bake’s recordings and films and photographs and letters and writings are now kept in various archives around the world.
A long time ago, when I had barely conceived the idea of travelling across Bengal and listening to music, I had encountered in the sound archives of the British Library in London, a recording of a baul gaan from Kenduli in Birbhum dated January 1932, sung by ‘Acintadashi, sevadashi of Murali Das’, the recording being credited to Arnold Adriaan Bake. That wax cylinder recording had so aroused my curiosity that once Sukanta and I were settled into our work in field recording, we also began to explore the life and work of Bake. We are still working on him, even now. Our main interest has been in trying to make sense of the sounds contained in Bake’s recordings from Bengal and finding our own connections with those sounds, if there are any.
Over the years we have travelled to some of the places in Bengal where Bake had been, looking for his traces. Here is an unfinished story that comes out of our long and enduring relationship with Arnold Bake. In November 2016, I went to a village called Batoiya in Noakhali, on the trail of a particular recording of Arnold Bake. The story goes like this: in 1934, on a ship named Streefkerk, when Bake and his wife Cornelia were sailing back to Europe, they had met a sailor by the name of Tazal Ahmed, who came from a village by the name of Ghutia in Noakhali Sadar. The man had sung two songs for Bake, which he had recorded on wax cylinders. These details are found in the archives that hold Bake’s recordings and papers. Could it be that some family of Tazal Ahmed still

lived in his village? That is what I wanted to find out. So I went to Noakhali. However, I could not find any village by the name of Ghutia. What I learned instead was the story of a river named Bhulua, which had changed its course in the last forty years, washing away places which would have existed in the 1930s. Sadar now is not how Sadar was then, I was told. Most people said that there was no place called Ghutia or Ghatia, but some mentioned a place by the name of Sholla Ghutia. My local guide and I went to that region and realised that it was a fairly new place, formed with the rise of a char (riverbed), once the river had moved away. Could it then be that the river had submerged Tazal Ahmed’s village while changing its course? There was another possibility. Could it be that Bake had heard the name wrong, or had misspelt the name of the place? Could it be that archivist had wrongly deciphered his handwriting? We went to a local man who was about 90, for his knowledge of olden times; he said he wanted to go on a picnic with us as we went looking for Tazal Ahmed’s village. We will go to the river, cook a duck . . . the man began to dream.
Meanwhile, someone said on the phone, there is no Ghutia or Ghatia but there is a Batoiya! Perhaps it was Batoiya then, an older village, from where it seems that people went to work on ships? Could it be that someone who has worked on ships in the last 50 years or so might have heard the name of Tazal Ahmed?
I found nothing which could conclusively tell me whether or not I was on the right trail. There was another seaman I met in Batoiya, someone who would be far younger than Bake’s Tazal Ahmed. He had his own stories from post-Partition times to tell; about people from his region who went to work on ships, about names of vessels and ports and about the war of 1971. I came home with recordings of all these voices.
Working with Bake has become for us a game in map-making. Playing with changing place-names and landscapes and names of people who might have lived in these places—a game in toponymy.
As rivers change their course, new lands rise and old lands get washed away. Meanwhile, sailors sail off to distant shores, perhaps never to come back. In homes left behind, battles are fought, lands get divided and barbed wires cut through the hearts of songs. Such are the stories I have been trying to tell through my work, both as a singer and as a listener. Such are the songs held in the body of The Travelling Archive.

Moushumi Bhowmik is a Bengali singer, songwriter and music researcher who has been involved in a field recordings-based project, which covers vast parts of ‘Bengal’, including Bangladesh, eastern India and places in and around London where people of the Bengali diaspora live. This project, created with sound recordist Sukanta Majumdar, was started in 2003 and has now grown to become an archive, which challenges established notions of what an archive is. The Travelling Archive: Field Recordings and Field Notes from Bengal ( is a shared space of listening, not fixed but fluid, moving through time and space, both real and virtual. As an independent artist, Moushumi’s work centres on questions of home and the search for home. Her relationship with Bangladesh spans two decades. Currently, she lives in Calcutta .

As rivers change their course, new lands rise and old lands get washed away. Meanwhile, sailors sail off to distant shores, perhaps never to come back. In homes left behind, battles are fought, lands get divided and barbed wires cut through the hearts of songs. Such are the stories I have been trying to tell…

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