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Barak-Surma Valley’s finest folk musician

  • Published at 03:20 pm October 12th, 2019
Kalikaprasad Bhattacharya

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If he were alive, he would have been 49 on September 11. But a tragic road accident in 2017 cut his life short. Kalikaprasad Bhattacharya was one of the finest musicians to emerge from the region of Barak and Surma valleys in modern times. 

Born in Assam's Silchar in Cachar district on September 11 in 1970, Kalika had a great admiration for the rich musical heritage of greater Sylhet region. Fondly known in the musical fraternity as Kalika da, he introduced traditional Assamese tunes to urban Indian listeners and in the same fashion he picked up tunes from the treasure trove of all the great Sylheti bards—Hason Raja, Syed Shah Noor, Radharaman Dutta, Shitalong Shah Fakir, Arkum Shah and Shah Abdul Karim. He could sing with equal grace songs from different genres—from Tagore to folk, from Assamese Bihu to Sylheti Dhamail.   

Folk songs associated with Rongali Bihu, the Assamese New Year celebration, are called Bihu-geet or Bihu songs. Dhamail is practised in Bangladesh's Sylhet and in areas influenced by the Sylheti culture such as Cachar, parts of Shillong, Karimganj and Hailakandi districts of Assam, and also parts of Tripura in India.

Kalika's legacy would be long cherished for the contributions he made to bring the rich tradition of Bengali folk music along with its mysticism to the fore, popularizing it among new generations, mainstreaming oft-forgotten and long-lost musical forms which are otherwise popular among tea workers, peasants, laborers, indigenous communities and industrial workers. From Lalon to Syed Shah Noor, Dhamail to Bihu, Kalika captured each and every nuance of Bengali folk music in a style and manner that few could do. 

By forming Dohar, a hugely popular Bengali musical band, back in 1999, Kalika initiated a new journey into experimentation. He experimented with a variety of traditional yet less used musical instruments and excelled in their use. He along with his band mates recorded many musical numbers, which are rich in lyrics and tunes but long been neglected as music of yesteryears or as music of economically backward rural communities living in the region of Barak Valley in southern Assam and Surma Valley in northeastern Bangladesh. 

In this age when youths are losing interest in the ancient dance form that comes along with the Dhamail style of musical rendition, it was Kalika and his band Dohar who took it upon themselves to pass on this rich heritage to the next generation.    

Kalika turned Dohar into a platform for cultural activists who consider this world as a musical bonanza and intend to energize its inhabitants with the melodious power of folk tunes. 

There are as many as 35 genres of folk songs Dohar makes use of in their compositions, which include Baul, Bhatiyali, Bhawaiya, Chatka, Jhumur, Saari gaan, Jaari gaan, Gaajan/Charak, Dhamail, Bihu etc. They employ over 25 different kinds of ethnic instruments. Under Kalika’s tutelage Dohar also presented Tagore songs accompanied with various ethnic folk instruments like Dubki, Dotara, Banjo, Flute, Shinga, Mandira, Kashi, Kortal, Sarinda and percussions. 

Bangladesh, more precisely the northeastern part—the greater Sylhet region—had a permanent place in the heart of this great folk legend, Kalika da. He had a yearning for rich culture, heritage and tradition of this part of greater Assam-Bengal (now Bangladesh). 

Kalika had great admiration for all the big names in the Baul and other folk genres in Bangladesh, including those from Sylhet. While reflecting on a song of separation by the legendary Hemanga Biswas, Kalika once expressed a deep sense of void and empathy that the division of geographical Bengal cost the richness of cultural Bengal. He related his experience of becoming uprooted in the song that evokes the pain and isolation of the uprooted in an alien country with the partition of Bengal in 1947. Hemanga Biswas, known for his advocacy for peoples' music, hailed from greater Sylhet. 

Kalika’s father Ram Bhattacharya was a known cultural organizer of Silchar and his uncle Mukundadas Bhattacharya was a famous dancer mostly known for his rendering of Sukanta Bhattacharya’s “Runner”. Ananta Bhattacharya, another uncle, had dedicated his entire life to collecting and preserving the folk music of Barak Valley. Kalika also researched on folk music and archived traditional folk numbers from various parts of Assam, West Bengal and Bangladesh. He made several stage appearances and performed for different TV channels in Bangladesh. He had sung in acclaimed Bangla films like Jaatishwar (2014), Moner Manush (2010) and Bhuban Majhi (2017). Kalika is survived by his wife, a daughter and a host of admirers worldwide.

He met a tragic end in a road accident in West Bengal's Hooghly on March 7, 2017. Kalika's untimely demise created a great void in the cultural circuits of India and Bangladesh.   


Reaz Ahmad is Executive Editor, Dhaka Tribune.