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Suman Chatterjee and the Asian Dub Foundation:
New Models of Hybrid Bengali Identity

by Anirvan Chatterjee, July 2000

The Bengali encounter with the West can be traced back for centuries; over the last two hundred fifty years, there has never been a time when urban Bengali culture could be said to have developed without the influence of Western ideas playing a part. Yet today, both in geographic and diasporic Bengal, there exists a perception of a crisis, a problem of "Westernization" driven by rapid globalization. How does Bengali culture grow and adapt in the 1990s and 2000s? How do traditions of Bengali activist progressivism survive in these times of cultural stress? These are difficult questions, but there may be answers to be found in the work of two contemporary musical artists; the work of Suman Chatterjee, a singer-songwriter from Calcutta, and the Asian Dub Foundation, a second generation desi hip-hop group from the UK, offers challenging answers to the question of globalization in modern Bengali culture, actively embracing cultural hybridities to create new socially conscious, culturally progressive conceptions of Bengali identity in the 1990s and beyond.

Suman Chatterjee is a Bengali singer based out of Calcutta, combining 60s/70s American singer-songwriter folk music sensibilities with the Bengali adhunik (contemporary) tradition. His debut in the early 1990s marked a break in the patterns of mainstream Bengali adhunik music, not only in his adoption of Western musical metaphors, but also his willingness to intimately address the realities of modern urban Bengali life with the voice of a grassroots activist. In a time of increasing pulls towards mainstream pan-Indian culture, as well as a seductive Western popular culture, Suman's music was able to negotiate a path that compromised neither his musical roots, nor relevance to his listeners. Born in 1950, Suman Chatterjee grew up deeply aware of both Bengali music and various Western musical styles. His Bengali engagement of the West was literalized from 1975 to 1989, when he worked as a broadcast journalist in West Germany and the United States. His work for the Voice of America placed him in an odd position, his politics, relatively radical in the context of Reagan's America, placing him as a critical observer in the belly of the beast. He was affected by his years abroad; he continued to sing, and learned more about traditions of American, European, and Latin American folk and protest music. When Suman returned to Calcutta after his Ramayanesque fourteen-year exile, he started performing and recording new songs, fusing adhunik with various lyrical and musical styles picked up over a lifetime of contact with traditions outside the Bengali mainstream. From the beginning, Suman's work has been met with great interest both in the Bengali listening audience, and from the press.

Suman's songs of passion, nostalgia, whimsy, and sadness spoke to the urban Bengali middle class experience; his work was drenched with sympathetic social commentary, sans radical posturing or sloganeering. He told stories of the young and old, the poor and displaced, in an urban Calcutta in songs like "Dosh Foot by Dosh Foot" ("Ten Feet by Ten Feet" -- a reference to the size of a slum shanty), and "Petkati Chandial" (told from the perspective of a young rickshaw puller). Alternating between earnest emotion and dark irony, Suman's songs could also directly take on contemporary events, naming names and taking positions very clearly critical of power structures local and global. Calcuttans saw headlines some years ago on the death of Paapri De, a toddler from a poor, medically underserved family, killed by grotesque institutional and medical malpractice after the child accidentally swallowed a pen cap. In a dark song in Paapri's name, he chides the child for her inability to swallow the lifetime of pain afforded to those of her background. In "Bhopal," he excoriates the brown sahibs collaborating with American corporate dollars, unmindful of the genocide of their own creation.

While Suman Chatterjee's musical styles are impacted by his time abroad, his themes sometimes also reflect this period of his life. Suman was involved with the Bengali community during his years in the US. He speaks with some fondness of intimate Bengali gatherings, where he would sometimes be asked to sing. His experiences are recorded in his song "America Prabashi Bangalir Gaan" ("Song for the Bengali Immigrant in America"). He finds himself critical of the materialism around him and the neocolonialist foreign policy of the government whose positions he himself reports on the Voice of America. At the same time, he was fascinated by the fact that thousands of miles from home, he got his first chance to meet and work with Bangladeshis. At home, West Bengal and Bangladesh remained separated by borders, divided by religious communalism, their people more separated sitting right next to each other than when abroad, in a foreign, yet egalitarian space.

Suman's creative engagement with the West is not one-way, a matter of simple imitation of styles or sounds. This attitude is typified by Suman's take on American folk singer Pete Seeger's anti-war standard "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." Fascinated with the song, Suman translated it into Bengali; however, while doing so, he added an additional verse of his own creation -- an act very much in keeping with the American folk music tradition of personalization, contextualization, of music. Chatterjee and Seeger met in 1983, the two eventually developing a friendship, and performing together in Calcutta some years later. Western music in South Asia consists substantially of slickly packaged commodified pop, coupled with the enforcement of Western intellectual property regimes. Many of the South Asian responses, linguistic or stylistic translations, have been relatively uncritical, and either unwilling or unable to collaborate or export themselves back to the West, ensuring a one-sided relationship. It's of some interest that in his work with "Where Have All The Flowers Gone," Suman would neither be cowed by, nor disrespectful of, but willing to take up the challenge of actively personalizing and engaging with a tradition not his own.

While it adopts outside influences, Suman Chatterjee's music does not compromise its Bengali background. Rather, it uses inspiration from singers and songs from folk traditions in the United States, Germany, and Latin America as tools; these new musical metaphors allow Suman's brand of Bengali adhunik to address the realities of an urban Bengal that is itself very much the product of globalization, in a way that more traditional styles may not have been able to. Furthermore, by working to turn his international inspirations into a two-way medium, Suman ensures that the language of the new Bengali adhunik folk music will not be restricted only to geographic Bengal, but accessible to followers of folk music traditions the world over.

The Asian Dub Foundation (ADF) is a British band and sound system, somewhere between hip-hop and punk, performing a unique blend of reggae, dub, ska, and jungle. The core ADF group consists of five guys of South Asian origin, two of them Bengali -- rapper Deeder Zaman (Deedar) and bassist Aniruddha Das (Dr. Das). Since their debut in 1993, their blend of conscious and unapologetic anti-racist politics, searing beats, and disinterest in pandering with the typical "fusion" exotica, have earned them a devoted grassroots audience. They are often compared to American groups like Rage Against the Machine or Public Enemy. While ADF is not a specifically Bengali band, their music draws upon Bengali history and culture, and meaningfully recontextualizes it at the edges of diasporic Bengal. ADF originated out of a series of workshops on music technology in Farringdon, central London, in 1993; the tutors included bassist Dr. Das, the students including then 15-year-old rapper Deedar. They, along with guitarist Steve Chandra Savale (Chandrasonic), and DJs John Pandit (Pandit G) and Sanjay Tailor (Sun-J), released their first recording in 1994, and followed up with three studio albums over the next six years. Their audience (mostly not of South Asian origin) is expanding, with growing mainstream critical approval; after recent tours with popular acts like the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine, British music magazine NME rated their 2000 album Community Music a 10/10 (the first record to earn that rating in seven years).

While their musical creativity and strong live performances are major components of their appeal, the Asian Dub Foundation makes unabashedly (perhaps unfashionably) political music, strongly humanist, anti-racist and anti-colonialist, and deeply critical of ascendant neoliberalism, both at home (in the form of ascendant New Labour) and globally (as manifested by institutions of global capital). Their work publicizing the case of Satpal Ram is the best known of their campaigns. Satpal Ram was attacked by a group of six racists while at an Indian restaurant in 1986; he fought back to save his life, and one of his attackers subsequently died, after refusing medical treatment. Ram was convicted of murder by a racist legal system, and sentenced to life imprisonment, imprisoned since 1986 for an act of self-defense. ADF's anthem "Free Satpal Ram," and an associated letter writing campaign publicized in concerts and among fans, has brought significant new international attention to the case. ADF also calls attention to other British victims of state violence and injustice in their music and performances. Their song "Operation Eagle Lie" blasts police murders, inattention to racist attacks, and the targeting and racial profiling of non-whites. More recent ADF tracks like "Crash" and "Colour Line" have taken on issues like risky neoliberal financial policies, and harsh global intellectual property regimes.

The Asian Dub Foundation's music does not loudly trumpet its South Asian roots; its sound is derived much more from Britain or Jamaica, than from the Subcontinent. Eschewing the tendencies towards fusion in most "hyphenated" desi music, Asian Dub Foundation's is more obviously music of second generation South Asians than music for second generation South Asians; "my favorite Indian instrument is the bass guitar," Dr. Das offers up in an interview. However, this doesn't imply rejection of South Asian culture, but rather, a conscious, critical appreciation, as ADF makes pointed use of South Asian themes in their songwriting. Their song "Naxalite" deals with the revolutionary peasant land movement that originated in 1960s West Bengal, lyrically connecting Bengali Naxalite themes of community self-determination and economic justice to modern day Britain, and to the reggae tradition. The specific history of the Naxalite struggle is universalized, connected to all global movements for justice; in at least one concert, members of ADF have dedicated "Naxalites" to striking British dockworkers. Another ADF song, "Assassin," is told from the point of view of Udam Singh, the Indian assassin who in 1939 snuck into Britain to (successfully) kill General Dyer, the British military leader responsible for the bloody 1919 Amritsar Jalianwalla Bagh Massacre; a strong connection is made between historical British colonialism, and modern structures of internal racism and neocolonialism.

While the use of some South Asian instrumentation and scales is obvious, to the extent that the Asian Dub Foundation's music is Bengali, it is Bengali primarily in meaning, not in sound. Their approach to integrating this cultural background into the musical worldview is exemplified in one of their earliest recordings. "Rebel Warrior," written in 1995, before the release of ADF's first album, is an anti-racist anthem directly inspired by the classic Bengali poem "Bidrohi," by nationalist poet Kazi Nazrul Islam. Nazrul's 1920s poem told of a hero, a rebel warrior, offering up his poetic declaration of independence, an implied call to arms for an oppressed people. Dr. Das' rap/dub translates/transcreates its chorus from the original: "ami bidrohi / I am the rebel warrior / I have risen alone / with my head held high / I will only rest when the cries of the oppressed / no longer reach the sky / when the sound of the sword / of the oppressor / no longer rings in battle / hear my war cry." Over 70 years after "Bidrohi" was written, ADF's "Rebel Warrior" neatly inverts Nazrul's equation, transforming a poetic assault on British colonialism in South Asia, to a sonic assault on the new internal colonialism, barriers against South Asians and others within Britain itself. ADF's "Rebel Warrior" springs from this chorus, moving lyrically from directed rage to coalition building for a new society, wrapped in a sound DJ magazine called "multi-cultural tribal dub hop," and British music magazine Melody Maker hailed as "a mixture of phat beats embellished with syncopated trickles, squeaks and squelches." South Asian crossover music in the West, particularly that produced for a Western audience, tends to exoticize, decontextualize, conveying sampled sounds rather than meaning. With "Rebel Warrior," the Asian Dub Foundation manages the difficult task of drawing deeply upon Bengali cultural roots, while expanding on the original meaning, and conveying that to a diverse Western audience.

The Asian Dub Foundation is clearly not Bengali as traditionally held. Its own composition is only partially of Bengali origin, disconnected from geographic Bengal, further mixed in with members of other desi backgrounds, and performing for an audience largely not South Asian at all. It is perhaps in light of this that it's all the more remarkable that ADF's music does not take Bengali (and more broadly, South Asian) culture for granted, but rather, takes the difficult road of meaningfully recontextualizing history, culture, and progressive values. This work, instead of being hidden within a single community in diaspora, has the capacity to convey unfiltered aspects of Bengali culture to a diverse mass audience.

Having passed through the 1990s, and moving into a new decade, Bengalis in Bengal and in diaspora find the forces of globalization offering ever more difficult challenges to traditional ideas of identity and culture. How does one "be" Bengali in an increasingly confusing time, remaining true to cultural roots, while living in the real world? In their music, Suman Chatterjee and the Asian Dub Foundation answer this question by acting as if Bengali culture mattered, by taking it seriously, leveraging it in new spaces to keep it active, both in geographic and diasporic Bengal. The music of Suman and the ADF may be more relevant to Bengali culture here and now than are slavish rehashes of the past. By embracing opportunities to join up with other cultural traditions, by actively working to contextually incorporate hybridity into their own cultural spaces, and by unflinchingly refusing to allow the Bengali tradition of socially conscious cultural progressivism to become irrelevant, Suman Chatterjee and the Asian Dub Foundation offer up compelling models for living meaningfully Bengali lives in a confusing time.

Related Readings

The best source for critical writing on Suman Chatterjee that I've come across is Sudipto Chatterjee's Suman site. Sudipto has also written and directed Free to Sing, an excellent documentary on Suman and his work.

Online references to ADF, including bios, samples, news, and reviews, are available either on their own website, or on the various fan sites. Two sources that approach ADF from a critical perspective are Dis-Orienting Rhythms: The Politics of the New Asian Dance Music, edited by Sanjay Sharma, John Hutnyk, and Ashwani Sharma (Zed Books, 1996), and the article "Adorno at Womad: South Asian Crossover and the Limits of Hybridity-Talk" by John Hutnyk, in Debating Cultural Hybridity: Multi-Cultural Identities and the Politics of Anti-Racism, edited by Pnina Werbner and Tariq Modood (Zed Books, 1997).

Partial Discographies

Suman Chatterjee

Asian Dub Foundation


Thanks to Sudipto Chatterjee, Indraneel Sircar, and Saurabh Bose for inspiration and advice.

© 2000 Anirvan Chatterjee
Permanent URL: http://www.diasporic.com/articles/suman_adf/