We were in awe of the man. He was in his thirties then and, unlike other adults, made generous use of the F-word in front of us. He was idealistic, anti-establishment and irreverent with a Che Guevara-ish aura around him. “God, he’s cute,” I remember a classmate giggling when she saw him in our house.
Kabir Suman lived in the United States then and worked as a radio broadcaster for the Voice of America. Of course, in the Eighties he was not Kabir Suman, but Suman Chattopadhyay or simply Suman Kaku (Uncle Suman) as we kids called him.
Now, all these years later, when I meet the 58-year-old musician in his Calcutta house, he has, by his own admission, gained a potbelly and lost all his hair. But what remains unchanged is his love for invectives. Especially those that express his life’s philosophy — “I don’t give a damn.” If he was allowed just one phrase for the rest of his life, it would be, “F- you” or its variation, “F- off.” That’s what Kabir Suman has to say to all the “dim-wits” who misunderstand him. “They don’t have the brains or the balls to understand me,” he says. “But I don’t give a damn.”
But who are these “they”' On the phone, when I call him to ask for an interview, which I warn him would delve into his personal life, he says, “Are you going to ask me if I still womanise'” “Well, do you'” I ask him somewhat rhetorically. “That’s all they want to know about me,” he chuckles. “How many women I slept with.” He, of course, uses an unprintable version of the phrase and says, helpfully, “You can quote me on that.”
Then he adds gravely, “I don’t see how that is relevant to the context of my music. I don’t see people remarking about my solo performances, in which I have toiled like a manual labourer sometimes for three hours at a stretch.”
Suman, among the first poet-singers of the state, makes news. His path-breaking album of 1992, Tomake Chai, was a collection of self-composed songs on themes existential, mundane, philosophical and critical, which not only won him enormous acclaim, but triggered a trend in contemporary Bengali music. Suman went on to record over 200 songs in more than 15 albums.
Yet, Suman says he is dismayed to find that the focus is less on his work than on his so-called ‘womanising’. “It hurts,” he says, stubbing out the hundredth cigarette and with his fingers dramatically stabbing the area over his heart. It hurts him that the vision behind his poetry — reflected in his lyrics such as “Pagol… shaap-ludo khelchhey bidhataar shongey,” (from Tomake Chai), which evoke the hopelessness of the street madman playing hide-and-seek with god — gets blurred in the myopia of middle-class morality.
He identifies with the madman and his inability to be contained within the boundaries set for him. “The mind craves to be free,” Suman says slowly. “The body craves to be free.” And then after a pause, “But all they want to know is how many times I married. Some say six. Others put the figure at 60. Even 600.”
Suman, for the record, got married five times. But he says that he doesn’t believe in the institution of marriage. “Marriage is another form of bondage. I wish I hadn’t done it so many times. But it’s like a besetting sin. I keep doing it. It is out of deep respect for the woman I love that I marry her. I don’t want her to suffer any indignity. But I am a polygamous man. Maybe I am still searching for love.”
Suman would rather not talk about the women in his life, except to say that he has been “enriched” by each of them. But he brightens up at the mention of his only and adopted child, the daughter of his ex-wife, Maria. “She made me a father,” he grins.
Now married to noted Bangladeshi singer, Sabina Yasmin, Suman explains why he embraced Islam. “I decided to get rid of my Hindu Brahmin identity on the day that Graham Staines and his two boys were burnt alive,” he says, referring to the murder of the Australian missionary and his sons by Hindu fundamentalists in 1999.
After much deliberation, Suman zeroed in on the name, Kabir Suman. “I wanted to keep the name my parents gave me, so I kept Suman. I took the name Kabir after Sheikh Kabir, a Bengali Muslim poet who wrote Baishnab Padabali.”
Suman is a self-confessed agnostic and nihilist-anarchist, though, as he says, “of an academic sort.” He talks about his miniscule existence in a vast universe. But when you ask him whether he doesn’t attribute all this immensity to something or someone, he reflects for a moment. “You mean God' If there was a God, there wouldn’t be cruelty to animals and children,” he replies.
Justice is a prevalent theme in his work. In a recent album he condemns the Nandigram massacre. “Yes, I do have strong opinions on issues,” he says, but he wants to set the record straight about his alleged involvement in the Naxalite movement of the Sixties and Seventies. He wants to dispel the “wilful misconception” that he fled the country in 1975 because he was hounded out by the police for his politics.
“I want to categorically state that I was never a part of either the Naxal Party or any political party. Not just because I did not believe that China’s chairman was our chairman, but because I simply did not have the time to pursue politics.” Clearly, what kept him busy was his music — he was being trained in Hindustani classical music from the age of 12, and doing riyaaz for over six hours every day. He was also a voracious reader, having gone on to study English Literature in Jadavpur University.
Suman says his escape from the country had to do with a love affair gone wrong. “I was involved with a woman, whose parents had connections with a major political party. This was right before the Emergency. They were trying to frame me and I would have been put behind bars. When I got wind of it, I bolted.” He took a plane to Germany , where he initially did odd jobs as a helping hand and fruit picker in cherry orchards. Then he worked as a radio journalist for the Voice of Germany when it started its Bengali language section before going to the US.
He says that it feels like many aeons have passed since then. He has made some mistakes along the way. But his “biggest mistake”, he says, was returning to Calcutta — the city which he had grown to love after moving there from Cuttack with his family at the age of 5.
But you remind him of all the adulation that was showered on him. “That’s because they found me interesting. Here was this middle-aged man with a protruding belly and a bald patch, strumming a guitar and cracking jokes. They had never seen such a spectacle before. But this praise had nothing to do with my music,” Suman shoots back. And what about his huge fan following, evident in the mushrooming of Bengali youth bands that try and emulate his music' The numerous websites dedicated to him, such as the Kabir Suman Forum that claims to be the most authentic provider of news related to him' “I don’t disrespect their efforts,” Suman says, looking a little surprised that so much activity has spawned around him, “but I have nothing to do with these.”
Lately, Suman has had a recurrent vision. “I see a rocky mountain upon which the last rays of the sun are falling. There is a row of people, all of whom are dead. I can see my dead parents, my brother, my gurus, my friends. And at the end of the row there is a place for me. And then there is silence and immense peace,” he says.
“I welcome death,” Suman says, and smiles. “I have lived enough. Today I like to spend a lot of time alone, with my music and my books.” His Bach and his Bibhuti Bhushan, his Russell and his Rabindrasangeet. “And I think I am also gradually becoming monogamous,” he laughs. And then he quotes a couple of lines from St Thomas’s Diary: “ Lord, give me chastity. But not yet.”