Remembering Gurudas Pal: The Peoples’ Singer

March 2, 2014

By Sanjay Pathak. [Translated by Koel Das, Source : ShramikShakti, Dec. 2013]

(Written on the 45th death anniversary of the peoples’ singer and worker.)

“Men, women, students rampantly killed
Law and order in the baby state –
I must then declare, loud and amongst all
Many times over I am an insurgent.”

“I clearly remember earning about eight “anas” as a bidi worker in the shop of Badal Ghosh on Badartala market. I got up – I wanted to attend a jatra – Mukunda Das’s Swadeshi Jatra – in Mudiali. Don’t remember when I had reached my destination singing to myself. Suddenly these words of hope, sung in a deep baritone, reached me

What to fear! What to fear! What to fear at all
Dance with pure joy and slow rhythm
Say ode to goddess Kali

The jatra had started. Thousands upon thousands held their breath in silence, listening for the first time to the swadeshi jatra. I too sat in one corner, transported to a fantasy world, where there is no sadness, no disgrace, no poisonous breath of people killing each other.

I think that was the year 1933. A lot of my prejudices were purged clean in the fire of Mukunda Das’s songs. I started singing his songs in the markets, in the fields, in the shops- everywhere.”

Gurudas Pal was a bidi worker in the Metiaburuj region (near Kolkata – Ed.). His father, Manohar Pal, had followed the profession of his caste and was a potter, later becoming a jute mill worker to sustain his family. The man was an extraordinary Tarja singer (Tarja is a form of Bengali folk poetry), a heritage that his son too imbibed.

After his father passed away in childhood, Gurudas’s mother, Kushumkumari, became his partner in singing. She sang to him Dasarathi Roy’s Panchali, the Ramayan and the Mahabharat. Even in the face of brutal poverty, Gurudas was introduced to his cultural lineage from a young age.

“My life started taking a turn. I sing on my own, people stand and listen. That must have been around 1937 – I tried to compose a few songs on my own, pressed by my audience. But my compositions were not up to the mark. Suddenly one day, my neighbour, Nilmani Mala, a factory worker, dragged me to a fishing boat in the Malapara riverside. I saw a meeting being held there. One speaker started his speech with a song,

“Religion, society, race, afterlife
All these are tools of exploitation
You and I die in vain
The rich have all the fun”

I was shocked to hear what he had to say – religion, society, race, the afterlife – was everything false, a lie, a fraud to deprive mankind??? I came to know that the speaker’s name was Nityananda Chowdury. Then I wrote my own song:

“Your life’s power is divine power/ Awaken that power
Let the workers awaken/ Let the world quiver.”

At the end of 1939, I found my place in the communist party. 1942 – the second world war was going on in full swing. The party called on us to protect our country. I was by then a full time party worker, and a cultural worker too. So I wrote a full play, “Muktir Dak”, (Call of Freedom). It was finally enacted at the rathtala ground in Badarpur.

There was a huge gathering of people in Naihati a few days later. I lost my communist self for a few moments right before my name was announced. I succumbed to all the folk superstitions including spitting on my chest, biting my fingernail and others before I got on the stage. People laughed at seeing my thin stature and my village-like comport. Comrade Chowdhury intervened, “Don’t laugh! He is a labour artist, he is your pride, the party’s pride.” The meeting went silent. I started singing

“Wake up oppressed! Wake up the proletariat! Be aware while there is still time!”

There was great applause, huge cries of joy. The entire atmosphere of the meeting was changed. P. C. Joshi, then the general secretary, said on the stage that Gurudas should be included in the IPTA. Accordingly I took a letter from Nityananda Chowdhury and went to the office of IPTA, Kolkata. After waiting outside for three hours, I was able to meet Binoy Roy, who said in a condescending tone, barely glancing at the letter “…We will let you know…”

Why do they hate people so much? Why to they think so lowly of people. There is no point chasing this chimera…

The year was 1946. There was a big cultural festival at Mohammad Ali Park. It was a huge affair, with songs, dance, plays and folksongs. I was deeply moved by the tunes and rhythm of the poet Ramesh Sil, whose music added a new path to my life’s trajectory. I tried to create music by assimilating his tunes, the songs of Mukunda Das and the folk music of Bengal like Mansa Mangal, Shitala.
____

When a laid-off worker finds no avenues to live, he then calls out to all his co-workers:
“If you want to live life as its meant to be lived/ Hold your stick strong
Broken houses will be joined/This is the way your descendant will survive.”
____

November 1948. Coming out of the jail, he saw a reign of terror in the state. Indiscriminate police beatings, firing, tear gas and arrests. Gurudas took the pseudonym of ‘Sanatan Mandal’ and started performing his songs everywhere, fooling the police.

Against fake independence, he wrote :
“We, the free citizens of a free country live freely as we like/ Stuff our stomachs with pillows when the hunger pangs do strike”

To unmask the rulers, he sang:
“I am in the ruling party/ Outside I am a saint, but corrupt on the inside”

Against election, his retort:
“If you can utter lie upon lie/ You can stand in the election without fear”

Against fake socialism:
“Ruler is fake,State is fake, Ruling mechanism is fake/Amazing fake socialism is on the rise.”

—-

“Dotara player Tagar Adhikari has gone mad in penury. Compratiots like Nibaran Pandit, famous Gambhira singer Bishu Pandit, turned down the help the rulers offered out of pity and kept the flag of idealism alive. But what happened after that? I don’t know! Who keeps track any more?”

Gurudas Pal spent his last few onerous days in a paan shop almost without any medical treatment and passed away on 13th December, 1968. Among the numerous songs that he composed, most belong to the “Tarja” and “Panchali” form. He found his creative resource from folk culture. He was fond of saying that banking on this form of art would make it easier to reach out to people in the country. In Gurudas’s songs, one hears Khudiram, Kanailal, Ramprasad, Bidyapati and others, unlike in conventional peoples’ music. But marginal artists like him were disregarded. Most of them joined the Party out of love. They sincerely believed that the party would talk about people like them, stand by people like them. But that did not happen. In his last days, a man who was once “the pride of the Party” was ignored.

The working class must today take up the task of conserving and disseminating the work of artists like Gurudas Pal.