Siddharth Sivakumar : It is indeed a privilege to have you here in Santiniketan, and thank you for agreeing for the interview in a few hours’ notice. I would try not to ask you questions that you have answered numerous times but seek to discover you as a creative person, and as a representative of your time.
Some say, under the present circumstances, music cannot survive merely as a vocation. Do you agree to this? And as a singer where do you draw the line between ‘vocation’ and ‘profession’, between its expressive qualities and economical promises or prospects?
Arnob: I don’t agree with those who say music can’t be a vocation. Music should never start as a ‘profession’. I have studied visual arts and it was supposed to be my profession. But I am not pursing it. Any kind of art practice is a way of life and shouldn’t really begin as a ‘profession’. At least that is how it works for me. When you think of your artistic abilities as your profession there is a certain pressure involved with it, because then you have to sell it to make a living out of it. That’s when it gets a little off-track, and you tend to think about others than yourself. Any form of art I think is chiefly about what I want to express, what I am going through, what my realities are, the time I represent, or the culture I belong to, and somehow I feel if I am really true to my medium of expression, people will relate to it. Recognition would come; you are going to get enough support to pursue what you want. It is just that our expectations from life is soaring, making us run after a life style which is not ours. After much conditioning, eventually we are depressed with ourselves for not being able to live up to such expectations. If you live simply you don’t need much.
If I have nothing, that wouldn’t matter a penny. It would not stop me from doing things I do. What do you want to do, where your passion lies, are things that matter most. Now whether it’s a profession or a vocation doesn’t matter. I truly believe that people are actually supportive enough if you are really good, if you are really true to yourself and your art. Sooner or later you would be recognised.
Siddharth: You have made India and Bangladesh your home. The number of admirers you have in India might well surpass your Bangladeshi followers in number. But when you sing the same song in Bangladesh and India, do you sense any difference in their respective responses?
Arnob: In West Bengal people loved listening to Rabindra Sangeet. When I went back to Bangladesh, I thought “nobody is going to listen to Tagore’s songs”, but I was wrong. Completely wrong. In Dhaka, people actually encouraged me to sing Tagore songs more than they did in Kolkata. In Kolkata, people still want to hear from me my own songs.
In both the countries, they want from me what they don’t have enough.
Having said that, there exists another kind of audience who want from me what they have in abundance, and their curiosity lies in the subtle differences I create.
The elderly crowd prefer Rabindra Sangeet. They do not welcome my songs with the same warmth with which they embrace my Tagore songs. But the young crowd is always like, “What do you think?”, they are interested in an urban sound, motivated by the urban landscape, and the emotions we go through, negotiate with, and develop in such a life.
I think my biggest achievement would be making those kids like Tagore songs. And fortunately they are actually liking it, and singing it. 14th December I had a show in Kolkata, at the American Center, and I was singing Tagores’s Majhe Majhe. Before me two other bands had performed, and they had tried to engage the crowd, wanted them to sing along. But the crowd was not that responsive. But when I was singing, in between I just stopped suddenly at the chorus, but the crowd took it from there. Everyone was singing. And it is a really tough song to sing! For me this was the first time I got such an overwhelming response in Kolkata.
The Bangladeshi people like to hear more folk songs, old folk songs, Abbasuddin, Bhatiyali, Babaida, Lalon. The Kolkata Bengalis are more into film songs, Mannade, Bhupen Hazarika, and of course Tagore. And there is a sense of elitism in the Kolkata-Bengalis. Tagore perhaps inspires a certain poshness and adds a taste of aristocracy in their appreciation of music. Bangladeshis, in this respect, are down to earth people. They are content with folk and traditional songs, rooted in their native places. So there is a difference. But for me, as someone representing both Bangladesh and West Bengal, it opens up new perspectives and opportunities.
I also feel at home when am in West Bengal. People here, also accept me as their own, probably because I was in Santiniketan for 17 years as a student. Also my presence becomes inconspicuous as my accent merges with the vernacular. I can switch my dialect, and my way of thinking according to the place I am in. I completely change my way of talking. Korchi to korsi, kheyechi to khaisi. So that kind of brings me closer to them. And when I do shows I am lucky that somehow both are flocked together. There is a difference, but the line is getting thinner.
Siddharth: Is there a difference when you go to the western countries and sing?
Arnob: They miss India and Bangladesh so much. All they want to know from a visiting musician is, “how is it going back there?” Atoh atitheyota, they are extremely courteous!
Siddharth: Does that make you suspicious?
Arnob: (Laughs) Why I go if you ask, more than singing actually I really want to experience their way of life, the way they think and act, and respond to things. I try to see how much “bangaliyana” they carry within them. “Bengali” as a race or a culture, is very strong and progressive with all its ceremonies and festivities. In a foreign land, they are determined to trace their traditional and cultural roots. And thus, their sensibilities are amplified, as they become more responsive. My presence marks an occasion, when they can celebrate their selves and through music retrace their roots.
Siddharth: Your formal training was in visual arts, what kind of influence does it have on your music?
Arnob: I think my music owes immensely to my art practice. I have never studied music, so I began without knowing the aesthetics of music. I believe every art form- literature, visual arts or music, all have gone through the same experiences and responded to the same socio-political scene in their own languages. Thus they evolved parallel to each other, maintaining a focus on the same issues. Whenever I do music I place it against my art lessons and the aesthetics I have learned. How much to do? Where to draw the line? Where to drop it? Where not to disturb the content? Where to leave the subject alone?
The balance, the composition and the detailing that goes into my songs, are lessons learned from my visual art training. The trick of shedding away over-ornamentation, the importance of seeing from far, and seeing the whole thing altogether, is also crucial to both mediums of expressions apart from feelings and emotions.
It helps me to judge my works, criticise my own works. Not probably then and there on the spot, because I get emotionally overwhelmed while doing something. I don’t criticise myself too much when I am doing it as it makes me a little stiff. But after a week or two, when I come back to it, I can see it in a different light altogether, with my art-history cap on! (Laughs)
In this manner I check, was I true to myself? Does it reflect my inner world? Does it do justice to the words? Is the melody carrying enough cultural resonances? Or did I simply go overboard? Music should not be too loud, and shouldn’t overpower the melody. All such sensibilities have evolved out of my engagement with visual arts.
Siddharth: Is there a particular trend in the music industry that upsets you?
Arnob: No, not at all. It is only the so called “star search” or “talent hunts” that irritates me. Usually the singers they project and promote on stage do not get proper long-term grooming and education. Paying them a handsome sum for the time being, offering them fifteen minutes of fame and debut album deals are stealing music away from them. Eventually such shows sell them out and leave them with next to nothing. This is a very demoralising and de-motivating act, which spoils them with fame and kills their hunger to learn more. There is so much to learn in music. One life is not good enough. And especially after a year, with the new stars rising and older ones merging and vanishing in the background, it can be really difficult to focus on learning once again, with the fear of being replaced.
Siddharth: Apart from music-making, what keeps you busy?
Arnob: I am completely into digital image-making. In the modern times, it is not always possible, or rather convenient, to sit down with a pen and a paper and create images and designs. Now in all the fancy devices, including iPad, they have papers and pens of various kinds and colours. Everything is there within the device. The medium is a little different. You just need to get used to the finger-iPad relation from the traditional pen-paper habit.
I find this an efficient way of working; you can take photographs, insert videos, do animation or put music to your songs. The palate and medium have changed and I am trying to upgrade myself so that I can use such innovations in my music and art
Nowadays, I am putting my drawings and concepts on my T-shirts, I have learned to reproduce, I have learned silkscreen. And I wanted my things not to be stuck on a wall. Just as I don’t want my music to remain confined within walls. So I am kind of mass-producing it. The T-shirts are not stuck somewhere, they have gone out, everybody is wearing it. Because shirts are being reproduced everybody can have it.
I have also started designing shoes because there is a community in Bangladesh who still make handmade shoes. But unfortunately they are struggling a bit right now. I design canvas shoes for them. I do screen printing on the canvas, and send those away to them, and they stitch in up. It is going good. Apart from the support I provide them, this makes my art go around.
Siddharth: Literally walking around!Many believe that creativity thrives when the artists is isolated from his comforts and company, and endures emotional turbulence. What is your take on this?
Arnob: Living in isolation is not an option for me. I, perhaps, would end up being a sanyasi or a shadhu. I don’t think asanyasi could be as creative as we are. Because you will be consumed by the Nature then. You will be above everything, and you will not have problems, or issues to resolve. You will be happy and content with so much happening in Nature. Living in a society, with all its problems becomes the impetus for change, makes you yearn to see what’s not there.Emotion of emotional turbulence is crucial to a singer or performing artist for that matter.
When I was in the art college, Pinaki-da (Pinaki Barua) asked me, what kind of an artist do you want to be? Do you wish to be like Van Gogh or someone like Monet, who is very academic?
Apparently there is one kind of people who do things without thinking too much. They just do it. They just want to express themselves, and vent emotions and feelings out from their system. Such creative men are acutely sensitive. And there are others who deal with the subject from an objective stand.
The real life out there is not perfect. In general artists are sensitive people, at times we can’t understand why things are happening the way they are, we question them but we can’t change everything. And thus we tend to respond to things with an inner force, and make a statement. It is about making a statement for a change, I think we are always looking for a constant change to initiate some kind of a change. To raise questions, or to evoke concerns, you should be sincere and emotionally inclined.
However I cannot afford to be ultra-sensitive. Whenever I am singing a Rabindra Sangeet, working for a film or producing somebody else, I have to take myself off. In such situations, I need to step out of myself, and see if things are properly being represented or not. It has to be what the filmmaker wants or the character and his or her situation demands, my emotions have little significance. So it actually goes hand in hand.
Once when I was a student at Patha Bhavana, we did Tagore’s “Bisharjan”. And I was chosen to play Jaysingho. When an emotional scene came, I started crying. With all that emotion I kept sobbing. And I was convinced that I did a good job with the role. But when I came down from the stage Supriyo-da (Supriyo Tagore) bawled out. “What do you think you were doing!! You were supposed to act, not become sad.”
Then I figured out, in performing act you have to be really neutral, being aware of your emotions is not good enough, you need to be in control of your emotions. You can’t get completely overwhelmed by it. There are some technical aspects in a creative act, which requires clarity so that the emotions are carried across, and a connection is made between the performer and the audience. Your speech needs to be clear, and if you are crying you would naturally have a messed up face with a confused expression and spoiled make-up. Therefore, you can be inspired by emotions and impulses, but you need to gauge them.
Siddharth: As a musician and a creative person how love and being in love has influenced you and your work over the years?
Arnob: Does this include loving myself? (Laughs)
I think love consumes me a lot. I began loving and responding to love way back when I was in school. Being around with 500 kids, merging with the surroundings and living in harmony, introduced me to the importance of love early in life. And the “special love” you get from the special person, had a big impact on me. There is always a tremendous force in it. But at times you can’t convey feelings with words alone. Words are not good enough for expressing such emotional drives. When you are awakening to the essence of love, when you are overwhelmed by it, or when you are heartbroken, you do not know how to say it. “Expressing” is important, if not to the person, but definitely to someone, or to one’s self.
Love had a dramatic effect on my life, on my works, and specially if you think about my albums they are like my diaries. They are packed with the good things I want to have, they narrate the journeys I have undertaken, they give you a picture of me when I was down, when I was up and happy. While they mirror the dark alleys I have been to, they also bring out the innocent me groping for a way out. Each of them is like a time capsule of two/three years of my life in different phases. And a lot has to do with love. A lot has to do with love. Most of the songs are written for love and by love. I don’t write most of my songs, there are people who have done it for me. However I don’t ask random people to write songs for me. I only take lyrics from people I am really fond of, and am really close to. Toufique with whom I have studied in Kala Bhavana, Rajib with whom I have made films, and Shahana with whom I have spent a significant part of my life, are some such people whose words appear in my songs. When they wrote the songs, I could relate with the words. Because they were my friends, and we responded to each other’s emotions, and their words made sense to me. Actually I never thought I was going to be a singer in the first place, I saw my future in visual arts, working in some ad firm. Music and love got me back to life.
I am slowly opening up to the great realm of love. I now appreciate not merely the love I receive from my friends and my beloved, but the love that is there everywhere. The highest form of love would be loving Nature or God, I guess. Because you are not then dependent on anybody. Loving a person is full of uncertainty. He or she may or may not be there when you need that special someone. Loving Nature, loving God and believing in the Creator and the Creation, is a constant source, you can always derive something out of it. Tagore is an exemplar of such a broad idea of love.
Siddharth: You have always been concerned with environmental issues. Recently you have been vocal about the India-Bangladesh joint venture, the 1320-megawatt Cole Fire Station at Rampal Upazila. Can you elaborate your concerns over this plan, which by 2016, is supposed to become the country’s largest power plant?
Arnob: I think in the history of Bangladesh, this is going to go down as a historical blunder. We have enough money for development, we get enough aid and resources from outside through various NGOs, but we do not know how to use it for good. One section of the society is getting excessively rich at the cost of others. Investments too would suffer eventually if the state fails to utilise the resources and establish a certain equilibrium. Bangladeshi people are living in fear.
If you look at the last 10 years, a lot has changed in Bangladesh.
I knew everyone in my neighbourhood, I used to visit everybody. If one family got a VCD player all the kids would be there watching the TV, and they wouldn’t mind doing it. And there existed a natural bond between the neighbours. Now I don’t know who is living next door!
Satellite channels came in, after that mobile phones came in, followed by Internet and what not, changing the society dramatically and drastically in this ten years. It’s only Me, Me, Me, and What’s Mine, What’s Mine!
We are always drawing lines. And if we are drawing lines, people outside the line would feel insecure. While always trying to push one’s own selfish boundary, one ends up mistreating others. This creates a lot fear and insecurities. The political scene in Bangladesh is volatile. India has been really kind to us for the longest time, very helpful. India has been guiding us, showing us the right course in a state of emergency and the present-day political mess.
But there are days, when I think I am a part of the Third World War. It is happening now, and we are living in it. Buses are burned down with petrol bombs. Everywhere people are fighting each other, social reasons and communal problems to back up such violence. And sadly this has been going on for a long time. This is a different kind of a war going on, the country is at war with itself.
Coming back to Rampal Power Plant, I don’t think in the long run this is the way to develop a country. As a matter of fact the proposed plant is located only 14 kilometres from the Sundarbans, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This violates the Ramsar Convention of 1972 as per the “Environmental impact assessment guidelines” for coal-based thermal power plants. Such projects must be outside a 25-kilometer radius from the outer periphery of an ecologically sensitive area. And it would be ridiculous to pursue such a goal risking our greatest natural habitat. Our pride, the royal Bengal tiger and the Hilsha fish would soon become a myth. One day, today’s young kids will be saying to their children, “You know what, we had Hilsha once”. Are we really ready to give such delicacy away? I don’t know. Actually a lot of protest is going on in Bangladesh. But Bangladeshi government is indebted to India, they can’t probably say ‘No.’
The Rampal Power Plant might become the biggest Power Plant, but it would cost the world it’s largest mangrove, the Sundarbans. Sundarbans has its life in numerous intertwined organic chains. When a chain is broken everything would fall apart, one after the other.
Money has nothing to do with development or happiness; it’s about our attitude to life. According to an UN survey, Bangladesh was the happiest nation once. We didn’t have money, we didn’t have electricity, suddenly I don’t know why, but money became the means to develop our country. What we need is good education, good food and a way of life. In Santiniketan, there wasn’t anything to “entertain” us. Once a week we were allowed to watch TV, that too for half an hour. There were no fancy stuffs. But we were happy singing our lungs out.
If we are damaging nature there is no way back. Once it’s damaged, it’s damaged. You can’t put it back, turn it around. Nature doesn’t work like that. This is one thing we are not paying proper attention to, we are thinking, “let it be, let it be, let it be, at the right time we are going to push back”. There is no right time, if there is, then it is now. These days wherever I go, I talk about this.
Siddharth: What you are suggesting is fascinating as it tries to measure development through happiness rather than Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures. In economic terms, you are vouching for Gross National Hapiness (GNH) over GDP or Per Capita Income. Interestingly enough, GNH cares about preservation and promotion of cultural values, believes in sustainable development, in which good governance plays an important role. And it also takes into consideration the conservation of the natural environment. The so-called four pillars of GNH is erected on sustainable development, cultural integrity, ecosystem conservation, and good governance. Something as you have already suggested, should be Bangladesh’s primary concern for the time being. Till date it has been the Buddhists in Bhutan who have been preaching Happiness as a path leading to development. Perhaps Bangladesh can think of it too!
Is there something you want to end the discussion with?
Arnob: I want to finish this on a positive note. I just want to let you know that I am really hopeful of the youth, I am certain of their credibility; the youngsters who are going to step into the society and assume responsibilities, are going to make some real changes. They have seen how we screwed up everything. We did not know the truth, but they do now. Everything is out there. There is a voice, and lots of enthusiasm. I don’t see pessimism in youth anymore. I met pessimism in my youth, saw it in my generation. But I see in their eyes an emerging Bangladesh without fears and insecurities, brimming with hope and aspirations.