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Desi Dylan
Urban folk singer and songwriter Susmit Bose speaks about life, music and activism

Music is in my blood. My father Sunil Kumar Bose was a musician who worked with All India Radio. I travelled all over the country with him till we finally settled in Delhi in 1960. Spending most of my 58 years in this city, I am more a Delhiite than a Bengali.


My father sang both classical thumri as well as baul- a style popularised by wandering mystic singers from Bengal, who even in the 12th century sang about social issues like widow remarriage and emancipation of women. Listening to my father, I would note the way he rendered the different musical nuances. Other than my father's influence, I had no formal training in music.


I grew up in the 1970s in a milieu of anti-establishment ideologies and dissident poetry. It was a time when musicians like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger- the pioneer of protest music- captured our imagination. I was fascinated by Bob Dylan's simple style of music, the imagery of his lyrics. I was in my final year of college in Delhi University when I dropped out because I wanted to become a musician, a decision my family did not support. Thrown out of the house, I travelled extensively; learning from life, interacting with all kinds of people, gaining an international perspective. It was the time of hippies and India was the gateway. In a sense, it was a sort of globalisation. Not the market-driven kind, but one that saw interaction between young people.


My passion and dreams belong to the 1970s, the era when I participated in international music festivals in India, Cuba, Germany, US, Canada and Russia. I sang about peace, the destruction wrought by war. Trying to find a footing as a professional musician, I discovered that the only stage on offer was nightclubs or the Bombay film industry. So I decided to take a break for eight or nine years and make documentaries and television films on the socio-cultural aspects of our country. But even during this period, I did an album with 35 artists that ranged from Pandit Jasraj to Sonu Nigam and Alka Yagnik. Called India Unlimited, it was released to celebrate the new millennium.


My music had taken a back seat because my children were young and I wanted to spend as much time as I could with them. After they had grown up and gone out into the world, I returned to my urban folk music. My new album Song of the Eternal Universal was released recently in New Delhi.


In India, folk musicians are expected to sing about harvest or some rural celebration. But my style of music is very different. I sing about the urban world around us. My urban folk music blends a touch of baul when I play the guitar in a style reminiscent of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. Through my music, I comment on contemporary social issues- the Narmada crisis, Nandigram agitation, AIDS awareness, human rights, child labour, the exploitation of the girl child. When I sing, I enjoy interacting with the audience. I write my songs so that people don't merely listen but respond as well. It encourages me when young people react to my songs. Some may disagree with my ideologies and I am always open to their suggestions.


A person can do four things with life- lead a life, live a life, survive a life, or just exist. Life is simple; we are the ones who have made it complex. Life is beautiful; let's not complicate it.


- As told to Nitika Bajpayee