KALI DASGUPTA    (1926 - 2005)
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Kali Dasgupta sings "Chol mini Assam jabo"


Interviewed by Mark Gregory©2001

Late in the year 2000 in Calcutta, I made enquiries about Indian workers songs and trade union songs. My contacts directed me to folk song collector and singer Kali Dasgupta. When we arrived at his little flat we were met by his wife Rosanne. They are in the middle of lunch and I describe my interest in worker's songs, work songs, union songs, agitational songs, songs of the labour movement. I tell them I have web site for this material and am looking for similar material outside the English language. At one point Kali mentioned that his interest had started with a left theatre organisation in Bengal, and I asked whether he had heard of Ewan MacColl, he replied that he had known Ewan and Peggy well and he had sung in various folk clubs including the Singers Club. Small world, I thought.

I start the iBook (computer) to show my Union Songs web site and also play a couple of sound files starting with MacColl's song "Ten Young Women And One Young Man" from the Irish Union Songs CD.

Rosanne finds a tape of Kali singing tea plantation songs, a tape copy of 2 EPs that Kali had made in the 1970's. Kali explains the words to us while we all listen to the cassette.

Kali takes out his Dotara (the name means 2 strings [do - tara] although Kali's has 4) and begins to tune it then shows us how it works. Maree asks if she can take photos and I ask if I might record.

Kali describes his instrument and starts to play and sing. After about 4 songs, we move to another instrument a single string Ektara [ek - tara], a globe shaped gourd with a bamboo fork to stretch the string, the fork ending in a tuning peg. Kali sings a Bengali boatmen's song.

I interview Kali and occasionally he sings a verse or two to illustrate his answers. We also look through a scrapbook of Kali's time in England with leaflets from folk clubs and photos of Kali singing.

Rosanne and Kali express an interest in Aboriginal song so I play Dougie Young's song "The Land Where The Crow Flies Backwards" on the iBook.

Kali and his students, "Lokosaraswati", have published a cassette "Folk Songs of North-East India", a selection from Kali's collection.

The cassette flyer says:
Kali Dasgupta (b 1926) is among the greatest singers and collectors of Eastern Indian folksongs. While a participant in left movements in the 1940s, he started collecting songs that captured the lives and labours of ordinary people. Now, the several thousand songs, many of them extremely rare, in his collection articulate not only a wide range of life experiences, including those of rural women, extinct professions, and rare musical traditions, but also the history of Bengal under British rule. In 1965 he went to England where a meeting with folklorists Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger saw his career as a performer take off. With a reputation in UK and USA behind him, he returned to India in the 1970s, to teach, collect, and more rarely perform. Today he has a large number of students and admirers. The NCPA (National Centre for Performing Arts), Mumbai and Bharat Bhavan, Bopal, have archived parts of his collection. He has produced two disks of songs of Assam plantations, and is the subject of a documentary film.

Tea plantation song

Now I'll give you a tea plantation song. The first verse says that "Mini let's go to Assam, there lies our future, the greener plantation" And its a quatrain, four lines is a complete song. It's a compilation so we can give it continued history. This is probably composed in the Chotanagpur region (an area comprising South Bihar and parts of Bengal, Orissa, and Andra Pradesh). This is a drought prone area and the people are forced to search for jobs in other parts of India. From there they brought these coolies to Calcutta and from Calcutta they were taken by steamer to Assam. "So Mini let's go to assam, there lies our future, the greener plantation", but gradually it is revealed that their dream never comes true.

Chol mini Assam jabo...

| Introduction || Collecting || Baul songs || Elephants || Kali in England || NE India |

| Bengal & Assam || Mass Songs || Songs I Sing || More Songs || Buy CDs || Links |