On 27 August I was at a workshop on copyright and the traditional arts at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS) on our E.M.Bypass. They wanted me to take part both in my capacity as singer and writer with some published work, and as someone who has been involved since 2003, in a field recordings-based project in Bengal, covering parts of eastern India and Bangladesh, called The Travelling Archive, with sound recordist Sukanta Majumdar. There is our non-commercial website based on that project and we are responsible for all the material that we put up on it. Besides, we also have our own record label now, which we call Travelling Archive Records, and which gives us another set of experiences and entrusts us with another set of responsibilities as producer/publisher.
Legal matters are not easy to deal with. Questions of tradition, rights, protocol, cultural expression and cultural expectation, communal (meaning, of the community) ownership, acknowledgment and so on can be extremely complex, and they vary from place to place, and from situation to situation. I told Ruchira Goswami, sociologist and one of the workshop convenors, that I could only talk about my experiences, as I could not always understand legalities, nor did I necessarily live by them. If there was anything which had a more abiding role in my life, then it was a personal politics—my own sense of what is right and what is not. Of course it isn’t something exclusive to me, there are others too who live in their little worlds guided by similar principles. We know and know of some; others we have not yet met. Ruchira said that that was apparently what they were expecting to hear from me.
I was a bit wary of what would happen at this meeting but the night before, I looked through my writings, our field recordings, my field notes, my own albums—the original ones and the bootlegs—our records from Travelling Archive Records, old emails, remembering forgotten details of things which have happened over the past two decades of my active working life. At the workshop the next day, to my pleasant surprise, there was much that we learned from one another, and shared, and I came home feeling quite stimulated.
I had my own stories to tell and some of my most interesting ones are about this song which I wrote a long time ago—a song (in fact, often the only song) by which many people identify me—which is ‘Shopno Dekhbo Bole’, beginning with the line ‘Ami shunechhi shedin’. Or, they do not know me at all, but know the song. My friend and colleague Oliver Weeks had once told me, this song is a bit like Elton’s ‘Candle in the Wind’; just that you haven’t earned as much money from it! And we had laughed. So I told them at this workshop about how I might be calling someone and then I hear my own song playing as the ringtone, and it is a funny feeling. And we laughed again. I said, maybe I could do something about it all, but then I don’t really have the wish or the time. My priorities are different. I could have won a case perhaps, but that would mean I would not be doing all these other things which matter to me. They understood, but then Anirban Mazumder, Intellectual Property Rights specialist at NUJS, said later that maybe we also need to take up some issues in order to create a precedence. Well, to me I think it depends on who is standing on the other side of the battleline. I did confront Tara Muzik once for a telefilm in which Parambrata goes about singing my song, which I do not mind, then he messes up the words, and even that is pardonable. But then there is not any credit given to me. I complained, and the director did respond with grace and humility.
Actually, not every gain can be quantified. Once in 2008, we were waiting for the boat in a small and old river-port called Markuli Bazar, in Habiganj district of the Sylhet region of Bangladesh. In that tiny market by the old ghat, as we sat and sipped sweet tea thickened with condensed milk, we heard ‘Shopno Dekhbo Bole’ playing on the radio in a shop across the road. Did that make me think of my rights as an artist or about unholy transactions? Wasn’t there more to the story than that?
There is another one very dear to me. This was around 2002 or 03, in London. Srikanta Acharya and Arna Seal were visiting, as Srikanta was giving a concert at the Bhavan, which is an important Indian cultural centre of the city. So, I went to listen (I was based in London at the time), as they are very old friends of mine. There was to be a dance by some local talent before the actual concert. So I sat there with my friends—Arna’s mashi, her friend, their daughters and so on. Now, the curtain begins to part in slow motion and there is smoke on the stage. Clouds filling up the space. And I hear the strumming of the guitar. It sounds kind of familiar. The more the curtain parts, the more familiar the music sounds but I just can’t place it. I have heard this music, I tell my friends. What is it? There half-hidden in the clouds, is a girl dressed as an apsara in white, dancing away. Then of course it predictably begins, ‘Aa, aa aa aa. . .’ And one of my elderly friends becomes super excited! Hey, that’s your song! I understand the reason behind the clouds—it is a song about dreams and dreaming after all!
The question indeed is one of who is standing on the other side of the battleline.
By a strange coincidence, only five days after this consultative workshop at NUJS, I had a phone call from one of this city’s leading theatre directors, Debesh Chattopadhyay, who is also a filmmaker now, as his debut film, Natoker Moto is running for the third week in cinemas across the state. I want to write about the circumstances of this phone call.
Debesh’s film is based on the life of the actress Keya Chakraborty, who was the lead actress of Nandikar, married to actor-director Rudraprasad Sengupta, and who died by drowning during a shoot in 1977. The characters of the film have slightly altered names, an ‘h’ added here, a ‘j’ there. Kheya for Keya, Prasad for Rudraprasad, Notokar for Nandikar, Amitesh for Ajitesh, Sabita for Kabita and so on. So, is the film about Keya? Well. . . who knows? Whoever it might be on, the film ends with Kheya drifting away, floating on the waters, and underlining this moment, a song, a familiar one, begins to play. The same one which was playing on the radio in Markuli Bazar—‘Shopno Dekhbo Bole’. A youtube-esque music video unfolds, where neel jol is the blue water of the river, and the body is indeed drifting from bohudur to bohudur. . .
But, I am digressing, This was not to be the point of my writing. We were talking about rights, royalties, credits, authorship, acknowledgement and so on. Did Debesh ask for my permission to use the song? The simple answer is, yes, he did. So, I did give permission? Again, the simple answer is, yes I did. And, what were the circumstances of this asking for and giving of permission? Here the answer becomes more complex.
In West Bengal, ever since the change of government in 2012, people in the world of what we in Bangla call ‘art-culture’ have been rising to great prominence. For that matter, this began in the warm-up to the changeover or paribartan, with actors, directors, visual artists, singers, songwriters, writers and so on occupying centre-stage in on-screen political squabbles. We are a cultured and politically conscious people after all, and so we must live up to our myth. There remained some still loyal to the Left, others who were not interested, and some hope-less ones, who had come to the conviction that Raja ashe jay raja bodlay/ Ei raja ashe oi raja jaay/Jamakaporer rong bodlay/Din bodlay na. (In this context, this could be a workable translation: Monarchs come and monarchs go/Robes change colour from red to indigo/Shifting place and changing names/What does not change are the times.). Anyway, once the new government came in, one of the main activities seemed to be to prove how bad ‘they’ were and how good ‘we’ are. And it was in this climate that we read in the papers that a film was being made by a theatre director, on Keya Chakraborty. Speculations were rife; obviously this would now expose those responsible, for her untimely death; those once in power would now fall from grace, the real story would now come out and so on. Then Sukanta got a call from Debesh, to work as sound designer for this film on Keya.
At home we spent long hours thinking, weighing the pros and cons of the project, debating whether working on it would mean working for the government, or whether you could work as a professional on a project and stay apart from the politics of the director. Our friends all know about Sukanta’s obsession with sound and how he will spend hours fine-tuning the tracks of the most ubiquitous NGO or corporate film, which anyone else would happily ignore. He had his first meeting with Debesh and came home to tell me the stories of Keya which the director had told him; hence, I realized that his weakness for sound had taken the better of him. Sukanta also came back with a piece of news for me. He said, the script had my song, ‘Shopno Dekhbo Bole’ in the last scene and it seemed that Debesh would contact me soon. I am not going to be a part of this, I told him. Sukanta said, you don’t have to. Tell him no when he asks.
That then was my decision. I saw the film taking shape when I went into Sukanta’s room with tea or to talk with him about something. Saw scenes from the film and stood and watched. I also thought of Keya. Long long ago, when I was a child, Nandikar had come with Manjari Aamer Manjari to our small hill-town and I do not remember anything of the play except that at the end of it, Rudraprasad Sengupta was introducing the characters and when he called Keya on stage, he said, incidentally, she is also my wife (shahadharmini, he had said, and it was a new word to me), at which people had laughed and applauded. And I also remembered two celebrity ‘deaths’ by drowning from my childhood: one of Keya and the other of Pinaki Chatterjee, who had sailed to the Andamans in a dighy boat. There was speculation about both in the papers and my parents had raised eyebrows. My parents were interested in the Bangla group theatre scene, it was a part of their youth, and hence they had seen many of Keya’s plays. Ajitesh, Ruraprasad and of course Shambhu Mitra, Tripti Mitra. . . they were familiar names in our home far from Bengal. I believe my parents as a young couple had even done their own production of Putul Khela, in Shillong, in imitation of Bohurupee—I was not yet born then. All of that, memories and melodies, would flash through my mind as I watched Sukanta layering sound upon sound for Natoker Moto. As I watched, I thought of Binodini’s Amar Katha on the one hand, and then about a film like Hilary and Jackie, on the du Pre siblings, and about how the legendary conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, husband of the great British cellist Jacqueline du Pre, had said about the film, that ‘they could have waited for me to die.’ Some things leave a bad taste in the mouth. Despite such complex thoughts, I had no doubt that I would say no to Debesh, but I needed him to personally ask me first. Meanwhile the film was on its way to be finished.
Other directors usually come to the house and sit and work with Sukanta. So, matters of songs and sound and permission etc get decided early in a film. Take Mahanagar@Kolkata, as an example. Suman Mukhopadhyay and I have known each other from university, but he came to me personally, not through my husband, and asked me if we could work together on this song which came out of a play they had done as students ages ago—Sudipto Chatterjee, him, Indrashish Lahiri and others. I believe I too was involved in the play.
In the case of Natoker Moto, I could see the final touches being put to a film, but no one had yet asked me anything. Then one day Sukanta told me that Debesh would be coming to our house the next day to work with him. I was ready with my refusal and went over my justification once again. But when the actual moment of his asking me came, all my reasoning and all my preparation seemed to not make any sense any more. Here was someone with whom Sukanta had been working all afternoon and then they had come out into the living room to have tea and then Debesh said to me, I have something to ask from you. Abdar is the Bangla word he used and I do not know how to translate it in one word. It means a kind of demand which comes with familiarity. Strange word to use, as we were meeting for the first time. I knew what he would ask for. I knew what my answer would be. And yet I could not bring myself to tell him on his face that I would not give him the song. I could not tell him that I would not be part of his project. Instead I said, I know, Sukanta has told me. I need the song, he said. Take it, I said. That was all. It was as brief as that. I did not know what more to say.
Then Debesh asked me: How much should I pay you? Nothing, I replied. That was the least I could do. I had to make him into another of those people whom I do not know and who indiscriminately use my songs–this song in particular. They use it at political campaigns and in TV soaps and at anniversary parties. They post music videos on youtube, then they post links to the videos on facebook. I have little to say to them and it does not matter to me. Let this be another of those instances, I thought. I was not interested in the film or in the filmmaker beyond this point. I knew that, had it not been for these particular circumstances of the film’s sound design and Sukanta’s role in it, Debesh and I would most likely never have met, for we belong to totally separate worlds. I do not frequent any art-culture circle, have never had anything to do with any government, and feel utterly unconnected with most things which happen around me. I realized that there would be some raised eyebrows when people saw my song and my name on this film, I felt my own eyebrows rising after all. But that I would have to ignore. Just as I have had to ignore the sting of singing for Anupam Roy and the discarded song being posted on facebook. I had said yes, so I had to record the song, and there was no way for me to undo it. Similarly. I would have to let this Debesh thing pass.
I did not like myself for my weakness. But now looking back I ask myself, was it my weakness or some other sense of right and wrong that had made me do what I did? I had said no once to Aniruddha Roychowdhury when he wanted to use this song in Antaheen, because I felt put off when he, like a true ad-man, was trying to sell me the project by presenting a list of the celebrities in his film—Rahul Bose, Raima Sen. . . he went on rattling names and I said, I understand, but I really don’t want to get into this. On the contrary, I had said yes to Suman Ghosh’s Padakskhep. simply because I liked Mayukh (the music director) and liked the way he was talking about different musical sensibilities when they came to see me in my house. We found we had shared interests. I also liked something about Suman and Mayukh’s manner—they were not aggressive. It is another thing that when Sukanta and I went to see the film later at Forum, we found ourselves shuffling in our seats, waiting for it to end. When will the song come, we kept saying. But that was a totally innocent reaction, devoid of any malice. If you consider these two instances with ‘Shopno Dekhbo Bole’, then what could have been my considerations for Debesh? Why couldn’t I say no to him? I am not so sure, but I think I did not really want to jeopardize a project which was so near completion. Besides, if I said no now, it would also affect Sukanta in some way. Those must have been my thoughts, as I was neither moved politically nor intellectually by Debesh’ film. Thinking over now, though, I feel I should have had better judgment. And the irony of the situation is that, Sukanta himself opted out of the project’s final mix in Bombay was his dates were clashing with a play he was doing at NSD, and he chose to do the play instead of the film (he is credited as the sound designer though).
Anyway, we were out of the country when posters of Natoker Moto appeared on the walls of the city. We came back to find Paoli Dam looking sadly at us with her kohl-rimmed eyes wherever we went. I did not know when the film would be released and did not also know that it was already out till a friend called and said to me that my name had made it to fine print of Anandabazar. Then this phone call from Debesh on 1 September. Moushumidi, remember you gave me permission to use your song in my film? I said, yes, I did indeed. He said, Times Music has called me to say that it is part of their album and I did not have the right to use it. So I said, well, you should have first looked into the legal aspect of things. I also assured him that I would look into the matter and if there was anything for me to do, then I would do so.
As I probed, the case began to reveal itself to me. I realized that not only had Debesh not got in touch with my publishers, he had also not bothered to mention my song in the credits. As songwriter of the film, he has Srijato’s name, for singers he has Anwesha Dutta Gupta, Rupankar and Paoli Dam. Which is all very well, as I did not write any song for his film nor had I sung for his film. But he was using my song from a released album, a song I recorded in 1999. As for credits, I am mentioned along with two or three others under the heading of Special Thanks (Bishesh Kritoggota). I called Times Music and they were furious. Every protocol had been flouted and the director had not bothered with the very basic courtesies either. Debesh has been calling me ever since. I asked him about credits. What had I been thanked for? I asked. Perhaps it was for the tea I had made on the day he came to our house? At one point he naively said, I will change the credit line. At another, he grumbled that this whole thing has now come upon him. (Shob ekhon amar opor eshe porlo, he said). I could not believe my ears. So, upon whom was it supposed to come? He is the filmmaker, and exactly whose responsibility is it to look into legalities? Forget legalities, where are the niceties that once upon a time people used to show?
Actually, I am widely generalizing, which is a bit unfair. Some people are still capable of being nice. Shankar Debnath is coming out with his film Pakaram in a few weeks. He had asked me for the filmmaker-producer Catherine Masud’s contact details and I had put him in touch with her. He was decent enough to call me to say, may I put your name in the acknowledgements? Also, he added, you must keep such and such date free as we are opening on the day and you must come.
So, then, is there are way out of the Natoker Moto crisis? I do not know what Times Music will say, but to me the answer once again is very simple and it is ‘No’. For this case points to a deeper crisis of our times. Debesh’s case is one of ignorance and arrogance; the assumption that you can make anyone do anything if you think that you are in a position of power. And such people have indeed been placed in positions of power—they are our intellectuals and artists, our filmmakers and thinkers, and they are close to the government and they head institutions. Say, for argument’s sake, Debesh is able to get new digital prints for the film (which he obviously can’t). What will he say in the credit note? That the song is taken from such and such album recorded on such and such date and released on such and such label, with the kind permission of MB and the publishers? But, he never asked the publishers for permission. So, that would now be a lie. Besides, will he say that the song was given to him for free and there was no paperwork involved and it was based on some sort of trust, which he then failed to honour? Or, will he now try the route of offering Times Music and me some money? But we are NOT talking about money here. In our communication of the past five days, Debesh has not for once expressed regret for what has happened, for he surely does not feel that way.
These were private matters and they would have remained private hadn’t it been for the turn things took over the past week, But, now the time to speak out has come. At the NUJS conference Rongili Biswas, scholar, singer and archivist of the Hemanga Biswas Archive, was talking about the use and abuse of her father’s work. Citing a particular example she said, they could have asked us? My brother and I would surely have given them permission. But they did not even bother to ask. Summing up that day’s discussion, one of the young teachers of the university said, there are two kinds of issues we are dealing with. One concerns the commercial value of something and the artist/author/composer’s rightful claim to a share of the profits. The other issue goes beyond profit. It concerns honour and trust.
When Sukanta and I were working on our Shakti Chattopadhyay album, Samayer Shabde Shakti Chattopadhyay, released on our own label. Travelling Archive Records, and we wanted to use an Allen Ginsberg recording of his poem ‘Kaddish’, which we had found on the internet and which was licensed under Creative Commons, for free use in non-commercial projects, I turned to my friend and guide, the copyrights genius Lawrence Liang for advice. And Lawrence assured me that all commercial projects do not make profit. I know your work, he said, and will write a letter for you if ever you need one. Lawrence believes in freely sharing knowledge and he is all for making everything available to everyone. I wish the world was like that. For, free sharing brings with it a sense of equality and responsibility too. We have to be respectful towards what we are taking and who we are taking from. The giver and the taker must stand on the same fair ground. Only then can free sharing become meaningful. Otherwise it will always be a case of some people taking advantage of others.
Kolkata, 5 September 2015
This essay maybe freely copied and distributed, giving due credit to the author.