Kabir Suman was born in Cuttack, India in 1949 as Suman Chatterjee. In 2000, he changed his name officially to Kabir Suman after converting to Islam. After much deliberation, Suman zeroed in on the name, Kabir Suman. “I wanted to keep the name my parents gave me, so I kept Suman. I took the name Kabir after Sheikh Kabir, a Bengali Muslim poet who wrote Baishnab Padabali . Suman was born into a musical family as both his parents, Sudhindranath Chatterjee and Uma Chatterjee, especially the former, were celebrated and established radio artistes who had quite a few popular gramophone recordings to their credit. He grew up with the music of Rabindranath Tagore, Himangshu Dutta, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Dwijendralal Ray, Pankaj Mullick, Gyanprokash Ghosh, Dillip Kumar Roy, Abbassuddin Ahmed, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Ustad Fayaz Khan, Ustad Ameer Khan, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Begum Akhtar, Ustaad Bismillah Khan, Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Pannalal Ghosh, Vilayet Khan, Sachin Dev Burman, to name a few. Thanks to his father, he was as exposed to Indian classical, light and folk music as he was to Western Music, both classical and light. As a minor, even before any major formal training, he started flourishing in a perpetual celebration of the twelve notes. He started playing the harmonium and the harmonica at a very tender age. At the age of eight he started his musical training under his father, and later at the age of twelve, he started getting regular music lessons in Kheyal, the illustrious North Indian classical vocal tradition under the tutelage of Kalipada Das. In 1966, at the age of 17, he qualified as an AIR artiste singing mainly Tagore songs and Modern Bengali Songs (Adhunik Bangla Gaan). It was at time, at age 17, that he regularly started putting to tune lyrics written by the so-called All India Radio approved lyrists. In 1972 and 1973 he cut two gramophone records of Tagore songs under the banner of Hindustan Records.

In 1966, Suman graduated to the Jadavpur University where he took English Literature as the major subject. As a university undergraduate he suddenly faced a whole new world of literature, both Bengali and non-Indian. At the same time, he opened up to the great youth movement that was then taking place all over the world. In Bengal, the Naxalbari Peasant Uprising had taken place and young minds were being swayed by Mao thoughts and dreams of revolution. It was then that Suman started questioning the music that he had always been involved in. Even as a college student he was training his voice daily as per his ‘Guru’s’ instruction. His father, a very strict man, would give him a thorough dressing down if he found Suman neglecting his ‘riaz’, the daily training. But Suman had already begun to question the form and content of the music he was making. He realized that the music he was learning and making as a regular singer did not in any way reflect his time, its pain, its pleasure, its sorrow, its joy, its dilemma, its problems, its quest, its dreams, its nightmare, its helplessness, its aspirations, its confusion. His frustration was mighty enough to make him decide not to perform Modern Bengali Songs at the AIR any more. He even took leave of his Guru who had trained him in the Kheyal form. As Suman has said in an interview later, his Guru, Kalipada Das, seemed to understand why Suman failed to relate to Indian Classical Music or, for that matter, any form of music any more. That was a very agonizing period in Suman’s life, for what else but music had held him since he was born?

1971 saw the birth of Bangladesh, following a bloody liberation war. The birth of Bangladesh sent signals to the 22 year old Suman who even wished to migrate to Bangladesh if possible and find his own place in the new State whose language was Bangla.

In 1973, he had to go to France on an exchange programme, and it was there that at a friend’s place he heard for the first time the recording of the Concert for Bangladesh that had taken place in New York. Out of that long playing disc came Bob Dylan with his A Hard Rain’s Agonna Fall. Suman had never heard Bob Dylan before, and his song gripped his brain. He also heard other songs by him and he suddenly realized that if he had to pursue music he would have to write his own songs.

In 1975, he went to Germany. Although he went there as a student, he soon joined the Bengali Service of the Voice of Germany as a radio journalist. He worked at the Voice of Germany in two phases: 1975-1979 and 1986-1989. He also worked in USA for Voice of America in the period 1980-85. In all these 14 odd years, he got exposed to the entire spectrum of Western Music - Western Classical, Country, Rock, Jazz, Blues - and he listened to and got thoroughly trained in these diverse genres. During his stay in Germany, he was greatly influenced by the music and presentation of Wolf Biermann and the Cabaret movement. In USA, the New Song movement and the works of Holly Near had an equally telling impact. He learnt Classical Guitar at the age of 37 in USA from an Italian tutor Beltrami, along with the Jazz and Blues guitar styles. While his stay in USA, he also came in close proximity of Pete Seeger, who arranged for his visit to Nicaragua in 1985 to cover the revolution and write a book on it.

In 1996, Suman became the first artiste from the sub-continent with whom Pete Seeger performed in two concerts in Kolkata. Suman also worked closely with Salil Chowdhury during his stay in USA. During these 14 years, apart from writing extensively for premier magazines like Desh and Frontier, Kabir Suman also collected a vast number of musical instruments and taught himself the keyboard and nuances of multi-track recording.

He had finally started writing, composing, arranging and singing his own songs 1979 onwards and had worked initially with the group Nagorik to etch out contemporary songs of urban existence. But he tasted real success with his epochal solo album ‘Tomake Chai’ in 1992 which took Bengali Music by storm. He redefined the concept of a modern Bengali song making it truly global and contemporary, sometimes intensely political. His proficiency in all the departments of song-making - writing, singing, composing, playing, arranging and presenting set him apart as a one-man army, and spawned an entire generation of Bengali singer song-writers, bands and composers. iTomake Chai, was a collection of self-composed songs on themes existential, mundane, philosophical and critical, which not only won him enormous acclaim, but triggered a trend in contemporary Bengali music.

Till date he has 15 solo & 12 collaborative basic albums, 6 Rabindrasangeet albums and hundreds of live concerts to his credit; apart from scoring for films, theatre and television serials. Suman was invited by the Voice of Germany to compose a ballad in Bangla, commemorating the Tenth Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and to perform it before an international audience in Cologne in 1999. He also has to his credit an Internet Opera, Virtuopera, along with the counter tenor Richard Maxwell and Jane Bogart under the direction of the famous German composer, Mr. Eberhard Schoener. He has authored 2 novels, 5 non-fictional books and innumerable essays on music.

Apart from that he has acted in 2 feature films, 2 tele-films, 1 play and 1 mega-soap. He hosted  a number of very popular chat shows, musical reality shows and current affair programmes on Bengali television, as his love affair with journalism continues till today.


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