When the folk music troupe, Dohar — the musicians prefer not to call themselves a ‘band’ — takes the stage, one expects a stellar musical experience. Since its inception in the year 1999, Dohar has been known for its skill and versatility — it specializes in music from the Northeast, West Bengal and what is now Bangladesh. Its repertoire is vast — the lead vocalist, Kalika Prasad, and his troupe members perform lok sangeet — baulgaan, bhatiali, agomoni-bijoya songs and more — and Rabindrasangeet with equal ease. This was evident when the troupe performed at the ICCR on September 11.
The first thing one notices during a Dohar show is the mind-boggling variety of instruments the troupe plays. Each of the seven members plays a primary instrument; beyond that, in the midst of their performances, they pick up other, lesser-known instruments at will from a laden table. Kalika Prasad began the show with an introduction to Dohar and an ashor bondona — a song of worship that honours the troupe’s audience — from their 2003 album. The piercing sound of the flute melded with the quiet twangs of the dotara. Before long the song took on a life of its own with the help of the heady sound of the dholak. Prasad went on to acquaint his audience with the history behind each of the songs that they performed. He spoke of Hason Raja, a Muslim musician who believed in spreading the message of love instead of spending time reading namaz; Tagore, Prasad said, had once spoken of Hason Raja in one of his lectures. Dohar’s performance of Raja’s “Hason Raja koy, ami kisu noy” was tight and seamless; the musicians dealt deftly with the changing rhythms of the song. When they moved onto S.D. Burman’s “Tak dum tak dum bajai Bangladesh-er dhol”, Prasad said that Dohar’s version of the song was a reworking of the original which was a song of lament. What made Dohar’s interpretation of Burman’s composition stand out was its mischievous, playful dhol solo.
Next on Dohar’s list of experiments was an attempt to show how some of Tagore’s music was inextricably linked with Lalon Fakir. The musicians melded the song, “Dekhechhi rup sagore moner manush” with Tagore’s “Amar praner manush ache prane”, creating what they called a dialogue between Lalon and Tagore. This was followed by a rather vigorous rendition of “Akash bhora surjo tara” that did not do much for me — sometimes, experimenting too much with Tagore is not always the best thing to do. But Dohar soon recovered with their riotous, carnival-like performance of an Abbasuddin jari gaan, “Allah megh de, pani de”. Abbasuddin, a musician from North Bengal, sang songs from both sides of the border.
The most interesting performance of the evening was what Dohar introduced as the song of the displaced Assam tea garden workers. The lyrics of the song, “Phaki diye niye elo re Assam-er bagan-e” echoed the frustration of the Dolu tea garden workers who were lured to Assam with the promise of a better life, but found themselves mired in toil and penury. This was followed by a Sylheti song of love and courtship. But the best was saved for the last — an agomoni that Dohar said embodied the essence of lok sangeet, which does not idolize deities but looks upon them as fallible and human. A song about Shiva giving into Parvati’s demands and letting her return to her parents’ abode was a fitting way to end a concert ahead of Durga Puja. The show was rather long; Dohar tried to play a little bit of everything they knew, and Prasad’s long introductions did test one’s patience. But ending the show with a reminder that the Pujas are around the corner was a clever move. The happy glow it left me with was undeniable.