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Five decades focussed on folk forms

The dulcet tunes wafting from the rural landscape had caught Sunil Saha’s fancy when he was a strapping youth. The impression stayed on, grew deeper with time and later became a passion. For more than five long decades, folk music has cast a spell on Saha. The white-haired man, though almost 67, would astonish anyone with his tireless pursuit of learning and promoting the folk forms.

“The Gananatya Andolan in the early Fifties had considerable influence on me. I used to admire Salil Chowdhury. That was the time when I started getting attracted to folk music. Here was something very lucid and free-flowing, yet so rich in its world-view,” says Saha, whose other great influence was folk artiste and activist Hemango Biswas. “Hemangoda had broadened my vision of folk music.”

Saha joined the All India Radio in 1954 and would extensively use folk forms while producing programme for the districts. Manasamangal, a radio drama produced under his supervision, had kept listeners glued to their sets. “But there was much opposition from the higher-ups as I had portrayed Chand saudagar protesting against his condition,” he reminisces. But when the glamorous job started taking its toll on his study of the folk forms, Saha called it quits. Since then, he has been scouring the districts of West Bengal, meeting rural folk artistes and picking up their styles, the minute variations in tone and diction that would differentiate one form from the other. Alongside, Saha has been engaged in digging up and documenting rare and near-extinct folk songs, and researching the artistic vision they contain. His articles on folk life have been published in leading newspapers.

The other focal point in Saha’s life has been Sur Bahar, a centre for promoting art and culture through research, training and presentation.

“I have always been very protective about the improvisations done on folk music by artistes… always been conscious of not diluting its purity by such experiments. But after much deliberation, I decided to work on a dance drama based on the folk format, relating it at the same time to the contemporary scenario,” Saha says. Metho Surer Katha, a collage of forms in a dance drama, for which Saha has scripted the storyline, will debut at Madhusudan Mancha next week. “The piece has been developed over three years and contains 36 songs, some traditional and some with modern lyrics set to traditional tunes,” says Saha. “I have tried to “deconstruct some of the prevalent myths”. Gambhira, bhawaiyya, leto, bhatiali, dhamail, jhumur, shaari gaan, kathakatha, panchali, pala gaan, domni and various other folk forms have been woven into the texture of Saha’s labour of love.

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