I FIRST HEARD OF THE SINGER Moushumi Bhowmik at the house of the late Naxalite leader Charu Majumdar. It was 1996, and Charu’s son Abhijit Majumdar, a popular professor at my provincial college in Siliguri, had been coaxed into singing at a farewell party for our batch. Majumdar—who taught A Passage to India in the classroom but also pointed me towards Gramsci, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg outside of it—chose a Jagjit Singh ghazal that likens a girl’s life to a paper boat in a rain puddle. Later, he told me he ought to have sung Moushumi Bhowmik’s ‘Chhele Bela’ (Childhood). The next time I met him, in his austere apartment in Siliguri’s old Mahanandapara neighbourhood, he put on a recording of Bhowmik’s first album, Tumio Cheel Hao (You also become an eagle), released in 1994. Though the album didn’t particularly stand out in terms of craft or originality, Bhowmik’s voice was compelling; it was the kind of voice you might hear at a michhil (political rally), coming from a woman walking beside you, her fist raised to the sky, who becomes your hero for the moment. It was unmistakably the voice of a comrade.
The words of ‘Chhele Bela’, which appears on Tumio Cheel Hao, struck a chord with me immediately. I had lived most of my life near the eastern Himalayas, and Bhowmik’s song of mountains, bamboo groves, cold air and the smell of lime evoked a familiar image of childhood as it turned the everyday into recognisable tropes. In the years after the release of Bhowmik’s album, this idiom came to be used by a whole generation of Bengali artists, fostering a regional tradition of writing songs that fetishised nature almost to the point of making it pornographic. Eventually, the lyrics and imagery of such songs would lose much of their effect; the flowers (palash and shimool, shiuli and kash phool), the fruit (mango and gondhoraj lebu) and much else, would come to convey postcard nostalgia and an acutely anachronistic romanticism. It seemed that as long as such idyllic tropes appeared in the adhunik (modern) song, all was well in Bengal. Bhowmik, who began her career in the early 1990s singing about some of these same things, would eventually go looking for a grittier authenticity in the folk songs of the villages and small towns of Bangladesh, West Bengal and Assam.
When Majumdar asked me that afternoon what I made of Moushumi (he referred to Bhowmik by first name), I distinctly remember calling her a traveller. At the time, aged twenty-one, everyone seemed better travelled than me. In ‘Ananyo’, Bhowmik sang: