Eddi Reader, with her 2003 album of the lyrics of Robert Burns, is said to have revived interest in Scotland’s bard. As such, bringing Reader to perform together with a Rabindrasangeet singer (Swagatalakshmi Dasgupta) and a singer and collector of Bengali folk songs (Moushumi Bhowmik) was an excellent idea thought up by the British Council Division. The show took place on February 10 at the Tollygunge Club.
Reader chose some of the best known Burns lyrics, and with a Rabindrasangeet singer and a Calcutta audience around, one of them had to be Ye banks and braes (The Banks o’ Doon), the song which Tagore adapted into his Phule phule dhole dhole. Reader sang the third of the three extant versions of the song. Perhaps Dasgupta too sang the same, since one heard something like “departed joys” in her song, and these words appear only in the third version. It is not an intelligent thing to do, to repeat a song in an alien dialect after a native speaker of the dialect has performed it. If Dasgupta had a reason for doing so, she made no mention of it, and it was most certainly lost on the listeners.
Dasgupta also sang Nancy Lee, the inspiration behind Kali Kali balo re aj from Balmiki-pratibha. While she may have taken lessons in the ‘Western’ style of voice-throwing, her diction is weak and this made Nancy Lee a rather poor cousin of the masterfully performed Kali Kali. Bhowmik tried to look for similarities between themes in Scottish and Bengali folk music, and between the preoccupations of Reader and herself as singer and songwriter. Her Chhelebela, about remembering her Shillong childhood in the heat and dust of Calcutta, was complemented beautifully by Reader’s Wild mountain side. The spiritual allegories of Deha-tori dilam chhariya and Balo pakhi Hare Krishna naam, however, had little match in Burns’s lyrics, ruled as they are by the emotions of love (Leezie Lindsay), longing (Ae waukin-o), friendship (You’re welcome Willie Stewart), companionship (John Anderson, my jo) and parting (Ae fond kiss). Alongside the wealth of Burns’s folk influences, Tagore’s folk connections were not explored as well as one would have wished.
The show owed much of its success to the three brilliant musicians accompanying the ladies — Boo Hewerdine on guitar and Alan Kelly on piano accordion with Reader, and Satyaki Banerjee on the dotara with Bhowmik. Kelly’s interlude in Ae waukin-o gave the song a different dimension. Banerjee can be counted among the finest musicians in town today. In this milieu of ‘natural’ sounds, Dasgupta’s keyboard was a minor irritant.