‘As solidarity makes us stronger’ read an untidy, red-inked slogan on the union room wall at Presidency University, Kolkata.
Its courtyard served as the venue for a barb-wire themed stage, replete with massive speakers and decorative bulbs hanging from tree branches. A huge poster, reading ‘Beyond the fence that makes us stranger, #Presidency Against NRC’ proclaimed the reason for organising this cultural protest programme on October 31.
“#Presidency Against NRC is an open forum where students, irrespective of political affiliations, come together to protest against National Register of Citizens (NRC) that the government is planning to implement across India,” said organiser Debopam Ganguly, a post-graduate sociology student.
The forum, part of Joint Forum Against NRC, has organised seminars to discuss what NRC actually is, what documentation is required to prove citizenship, and simplify the understanding of the complex process which has rendered over 19 lakh people stateless in Assam. It will also publish a 10-12 pages booklet in English and Bengali for the same.
The nine-member Borno Anonyo ensemble opened the concert on a contemplative note with ‘Ei Shob Proshno Ra Bheshe Jaye’.
A breezy flute flirted with the oud’s (a stringed instrument) simple rhythm as multi-instrumentalist Satyaki Banerjee sang a rhetoric about how many men are left behind after eliminating how many. Dwaipayan Saha’s grazing brush strokes on a cymbal echoed the inherent pathos in Banerjee’s voice.
“To fight against authority, we have to stand united,” said vocalist Nabamita Das, who teaches sociology at the university, to the hundred-odd crowd before delving into a medley of Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Oi Je Jhorer Megher’ and P.B. Shelley’s ‘The Cloud’.
The soundscape, riding on Koustav Dey’s rallying guitar strums and Banerjee’s dotara trills, imitated a raging storm capable of demolishing everything in its path.
The ensemble’s eponymous debut album uses texts, songs and poems from the past to paint a contemporary picture of society which is grappling with polarisation, decadence, displacement and soul-sucking poverty. It also has an undertone of rebellion and hope.
“The students found a spirit of resistance in our songs. We are artistes, not propagandists. We are not directly performing against NRC, but our material has similar context as it talks about thousands of evacuations of the past, and again, a similar threat is looming,” said Banerjee.
The plan to implement NRC in Bengal has caused widespread panic and eleven reported deaths. To call out against this atmosphere of fear, the ensemble and Arko Mukhaerjee performed at another protest concert organised by Theatre Formation Paribartak at Academy of Fine Arts on October 9.
And what a rousing show it was!
The audience clapped, shouted and sang along as the ensemble performed a fervid rendition of Nagar Philomel’s ‘Neel Nirbashon’, calling for picking up arms and marching forward to meet oppressors head on. The brushes pounding the frame drum became a brown blur as Saha kept pace with an incendiary rhythm.
This charged spirit was encapsulated by nearly 5,000 marchers the day after Jadavpur University was vandalised by Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad goons following Bharatiya Janata Party leader Babul Supriyo’s heckling incident on September 19.
Carrying anti-fascist symbols meant to rile saffron supporters, marchers sang the Bengali adaptation of Italian anti-fascist resistance song ‘Bella Ciao’, promising to remove BJP from Bengal. Black flags waved high over the teeming sea of heads and voices grew hoarse screaming revolutionary slogans at the backdrop of protest anthem ‘Jadavpur-er Gaan’ and feather-ruffling political satire ‘Amra Dweshodrohee’.
All the way from university gates to Golpark, a handful of guitars and ukuleles strummed to the thunderous beat of thousand claps as protesters chanted ‘Halla Rajar Shena’ from Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, drawing parallels between futility of war and BJP’s strong-arm tactics.
However, such powerful emotions were absent at the smoke heavy ambience of Presidency, where some had come to see their professor perform. The lack of enthusiasm was so agonisingly noticeable that Das could not help but say, “We don’t get voices to join us. Having people by our side is a faraway thought.”
Even the blazing closer ‘Heiyo Ho’ – which demands furious clapping and synchronised vocal calls – could not provoke the crowd. But Banerjee, who was also present at the march, was a sight! Eyes closed, torso vibrating and hands swinging wild, he roared ominously over the musical cacophony of vocal harmonies, jangling chords and thumping drums, like the captain of an army’s vanguard rolling into war.
Some older students also rued that the new generation isn’t as passionate anymore.
“As a society, we are not bothered enough as NRC has not happened here,” explained Udayan Basak, a research scholar. Aryama Roy, a former student, pointed out that this programme could lead to future rallies just as Timir Biswas took the stage with an acoustic guitar.
“Instead of talking about removing NRC, I want to talk about why it exists in the first place,” he said. “We have become too nuclear, split into small groups based on caste, race, profession, etc. We first need to change ourselves before starting a revolution.”
His songs, including Lalon Fakir’s ‘Emon Manob Jonom’, courted humanitarianism, urging people to build bridges over past turbulences and live harmoniously to survive dark times ahead.
This was in sharp contrast to the aggressive posters plastered on walls calling for outright disobedience, revolution, erasing religious boundaries and fighting to death for the right to remain on one’s motherland.
Only Kabir Suman’s three newly composed songs (uploaded on his Facebook page) seem to reflect these sentiments, albeit humorously. His rumbling baritone questions the ridiculousness of terming humans as refugees, and scoffs at procuring proof of lineage. A lilting harmonica pleads sanity when asking people to leave the land where they have toiled, grown food and lived their entire lives. He rues that he can “only compose songs even though it does not achieve any results”, but will keep on doing so because that is all he can do.
Considering such sentiments echoed by a radical fraction of Kolkata’s population, it seemed fitting when the ensemble advocated building the world anew by reciting the words of Mohiner Ghoraguli’s song ‘Ei Muhurte’:
‘Ei bishwo roop dekhe/
Chup kore thaaki Jodi/
Ami nehati behaya
(Seeing the scenario over the world/
If I remain quiet/
Then I’m utterly shameless)’
Shaswata Kundu Chaudhuri is a features journalist based in Kolkata with an unhealthy interest in music
All images are provided by the author.