Moushumi Bhowmik is one of the most significant artistes to emerge from the 1990s. A singer-songwriter par excellence, she is known to perform songs from the rich heritage of folk music in Bengal, besides her own compositions. She is also deeply regarded as one of the foremost music researchers in Kolkata and working across Bengal, the eastern Indian states and Bangladesh. Her essays have been published in both English and Bengali in journals, both international as well as regional. She is known for her collaborative work with musicians such as Oliver Weeks, Satyaki Banerjee, etc. and primarily with audiographer Sukanta Majumdar.
A pass-out of SRFTI, Sukanta Majumdar is an award-winning audiographer and sound designer of films and theatre, based in Kolkata. He has over the years, collaborated with several filmmakers and artistes from around the world working in cinema, music and sound installations, etc. He met Moushumi Bhowmik in 2004 when she had just begun her research on expressions and interpretations of Biraho (longing in separation) Bengali folk music. Their journey together took them to various nooks and corners of Bengal, the north-eastern states and Bangladesh where Sukanta Majumdar worked as a field recordist. The result of their work is being put together and disseminated under the title ‘ The Travelling Archive’.
Talking about the ‘The Travelling Archive’ project, Moushumi Bhowmik recalls how it all began with minimal resources and no particular end in sight. It was essentially about getting to meet people and record these sessions and their music. Things changed when she went to St. Andrews University to attend a seminar on ‘Sound and Anthropology’. She particularly remembers the sheer impact made by stalwart ethnomusicologist Steven Feld when he talked about the critical content in sound. This pushed her thinking in a new and critical direction and what was previously a personal record of the journeys began to take the shape of an archive. Sukanta Majumdar adds to this how they finally succeeded in arriving at the current format consisting of a booklet, using Moushumi Bhowmik’s book designing skills, and a CD. This format is meant not only for clarity in communication but also has its own archival value.
In terms of both their respective professions, Moushumi Bhowmik and Sukanta Majumdar talk about shifts in habits with respect to performing as well as recording and their ramifications. She talks about her experience of going to the BBC Proms in Royal Albert Hall and how the very dynamics of the event give rise to a community of audience instead of individual patrons. Even her own experience of performing in London’s small venues, highly intimate spaces which give out a different resonance – similar to how she felt singing in classrooms here – they were more comfortable and ‘homely’ than a usual concert hall such as Kalamandir in Kolkata. Thus, home for her becomes a sense of familiarity of space, a relationship with the space and the way her music is born out of it. For Sukanta Majumdar, this shift is space in terms of recording is symptomatic of how people are deeply conditioned with a certain listening habit only. He shares a couple of stories which again highlight that the general listening habit is far removed from one’s everyday experience of sound in their space. He thus feels it to be very important especially with the advent of new technology, to be able to negotiate with a sound, which is devoid of the gloss, something that can be called ‘home recording’. It also means to be able to negotiate with one’s own expectation of reaching out to people.
However, he also expresses his bitter regret regarding a kind of prevalent indifference when it comes to sound technology and especially its re-production in our country. It is rather disappointing and at times almost humiliating for an artiste when there is no infrastructure, which can do justice to his work or ensure that people can actually listen to nuances of the work he has done. Things have remained the same in terms of approach for more than 50 years despite all sorts of technological changes. He feels that time has come to rethink about the entire notion of high-fidelity-sound through some spectacular technology and alter certain practices accordingly using less expensive non-glamorous audio equipment and accessories.
With all the talks about shifts and changes, Moushumi Bhowmik maintains that even a historical moment, with all its significance, is not disconnected from the past. There is a continuity. So, when it comes to her identity as a singer-songwriter, she refuses to consider it to be anything path-breaking citing examples of canonical figures across the world from Lalon Fakir to Leonard Cohen as instances. However, she mentions the significance of Kabir Suman when he emerged in the Bengali music scene but that is more due to the resonating political content of his songs which immediately established a connect with the audience. She talks about how she took these songs to places even before his first album was released and they were deeply appreciated by a section of people who were going through political disillusionment and thus could immediately identify with Suman’s songs. Other than Suman, the only other artiste of that time who struck a chord with her was Pratul Mukhopadhyay.
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