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Red Bag Conversations: Thank You For The Music

In conversation with musicians Bonnie Chakraborty and Usri Banerjee

The charming musician couple chat about music, Bollywood and love

Most of us know Bonnie Chakraborty as the explosive voice behind Emotional Atyachaar (from Dev D) and his stirring rendition of Nikal Pado on the last episode of Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate. But Bonnie’s musical journey began much earlier, in Calcutta in the early 1990s when he was the frontman for the rock band Krosswindz, at a time when the domestic rock movement in India was still in its infancy. The band was a sensational success, reflected in their collaboration with Moheener Ghoraguli (arguably West Bengal’s first independent band).

At the pinnacle of his success in Calcutta, Bonnie decided to move to Chennai where he worked with none other than A.R. Rahman for over six years. Around this time, he also established Oikyotaan, a platform for experimental folk music that has travelled all over the world. All this means that he ends up wearing multiple hats – that of a singer, composer and music producer.

While Bonnie is mostly self taught, his wife Usri Banerjee is a well trained musician – she started playing the harmonium at the age of 3, has been educated in classical music under several renowned gurus and holds a diploma in Rabindrasangeet. Usri made her Bollywood debut with the mellifluous Manmauji from Gangs of Wasseypur (this author confesses to having the song on repeat for over a fortnight!) and was a part of MTV’s Coke Studio Season 3, where she collaborated with Ram Sampath, Sona Mohapatra & Aditi Singh Sharma for the immensely popular Sundari Komola. Not since Rekha Bhardwaj have we heard a female voice so versatile – a delightful blend of melody, folk and that tiny morsel of mischief that makes it so exceptional.

My Big Red Bag in a free wheeling conversation with this charming musical couple on music, Bollywood and love.

Bonnie, from singing rock songs with Crosswindz in Calcutta to working with A R Rehman in Chennnai, launching Oikyotaan as a platform for experimental folk music and then working with Bollywood, it’s been quite a journey for you. What was the one decision without which you as a musician would have been very different from what you are now?

The turning point was leaving Kolkata in 1999 – it wasn’t easy getting out of my comfort zone but it resulted in my performing on the national and international stage. To have left a flourishing and lucrative live performance industry and moving on to explore alternative platforms has made all the difference.

Another equally important decision has been singing in my original voice, not just in my mother tongue (Bengali) but also in other languages (Hindi, Tamil, etc.). For a musician, it is extremely important to have a distinctive voice which reflects your philosophy and your musical journey.

Usri, As a classically trained musician, do you get satisfaction from singing in the film industry, or do you sometimes feel the need to balance it with other forms of musical expression?

Yes, I enjoy singing in Bollywood and the Bengali film industry and I think both the industries are producing some fantastic music. I have been fortunate that my debut song (Manmauji) reflected my sensibilities – a lot of people told me it reminded them of Geeta Dutt, which is a huge compliment! At the same time, I want to make sure that I don’t get stereotyped; I want to experiment with all kinds of music as long as it’s suitable for my voice.

Apart from movies, platforms such as MTV Coke Studio are also a great means of expression for artistes like me – again I was lucky that Ram Sampath gave me the freedom to display my versatility on Sundari Komola.

What are some of the projects that both of you are currently working on? Anything in which you are working together?

Bonnie: I have just completed a Shantanu Moitra song with Shreya Ghoshal for the film Bobby Jasoos and another one for a Bengali film called Buno Haansh for the same music director. I have also performed for an international jazz album called Leave The Door Open with Anupam Shobhakar & Joel Harrison, where I have rendered a Bhatiyali song.

Usri: Apart from the episode on Coke Studio, I have also collaborated with Bonnie & Ustad Rashid Khan on my debut album Tagore Unbound, in which we have tried to showcase the musical genius of Rabindranath Tagore – not too many people know that Tagore has over 2,500 compositions to his credit and that he was heavily influenced by music from all parts of the world.

Both of us have also been working together on some songs that showcase our musical sensibilities and reflect our love for different genres. Bonnie has been driving the composing, arrangement and production, but I also chip in sometimes.

Bonnie: Usri doesn’t admit it but she is an amazing composer herself and also helps out with production. We hope to present these songs to our audience very soon!

Amongst your roles as a singer, composer and now a producer, which do you enjoy the most?

Bonnie: Singing, composing and producing, in that order.

Usri: My first love is singing, closely followed by playing the harmonium. Composing is something that I have started only recently after being encouraged by Bonnie, though it seems I have a flair for it.

What are some of your musical influences? Both of you are a part of Oikyotaan which has a lot of Baul & Bhatiyali influences – are there any other forms of Indian folk or global music that you are experimenting with?

Bonnie: I have been heavily influenced by music from all over the world – be it Indian folk and classical music, (especially Baul & Fakiri), Western rock and pop, Andalusian Fado melodies, Algerian beats and pioneering independent musicians in India such as the legendary Gautam Chattopadhyay. Bollywood has also given us several great composers, from Khayyam and Ravindra Jain to the current crop of music directors. I often find inspiration from everyday sounds of the city like the local train, traffic and even conversations – anything that reverberates is sound for me!

My involvement with Oikyotaan takes me all over the world as part of which we collaborate with several world musicians – we have performed at the World Sacred Music Festival in Berlin, the Borneo Rainforest World Music Festival and Taiwan Folk Music Festival.

Usri: My biggest influence are my parents who encouraged me as a musician – I wouldn’t have been where I am today without their support! The next biggest influence is the man I am married to – I have learnt a lot from Bonnie and it’s wonderful to have someone who understands you as an artiste and gives you space as a person. Apart from that, I am a great admirer of singers such as Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar, Jagjit Singh and Mehdi Hassan and composers such as R. D. Burman, Madan Mohan and A. R. Rahman.

The musical scene in Bollywood has undergone a transformation, with so much more experimentation in voices and composition. As a musician, do you think this is possibly the best era in the history of Bollywood? Do you also believe this augurs well for traditional folk musicians?

Usri: Yes it’s a great time to work in the movies. Having worked with folk musicians for over a decade now with Oikyotaan, we have learnt that they are smarter than we give them credit for! We also firmly believe that folk is the wellspring from which other forms of music have developed and that it provides not just musical but also thematic and visual inspiration to cinema – so there will always be a demand for folk musicians in the movies.

Our folk musicians are also getting global recognition – Bonnie has been invited a number of times to talk about and felicitate Baul musicians – such as TED INKTalks and the Bob Dylan foundation.

Are you still involved with Tollywood and Tamil music? What differences do you see in the music scene there compared to Bollywood?

Bonnie: Yes very much. I have recently sung a couple of Telugu film songs and Usri has sung for the mega-hit Bengali film Rong Melanti. We will continue to sing in as many languages as we can.

We feel there is no difference between these industries – they are all very successful and generate a lot of work. Personally, south Indian music has been very close to my heart since I met A.R. Rahman in Chennai. But all these industries are rocking and I love them all!

One cliche about Bollywood that is true? One cliche that is not true?

True: Where your dreams come true!

Not True: That you need a Godfather to survive here!

You probably get this asked all the time, but do you think it’s easier to be married to a musician? Can you imagine being married to someone who is tone-deaf or not musically inclined at all?

Bonnie: Yes, it’s definitely easier to be married to a musician, I can’t imagine being married to someone who is not musically inclined!

Usri: I feel that it would be very difficult for someone who is not a musician to understand me, my aspirations and my career – I don’t think I would have married if I hadn’t found a musician! Not only do we share a common passion, we also appreciate the practical aspects of our profession, such as odd studio timings!

Finally this is a question we ask all our interviewees – if you could back in time and have dinner with one person from history, who would that be?


Usri: I’d love to have dinner with Kishore Kumar

Tomorrow (Friday), we will carry a special Love playlist curated by Bonnie & Usri – a selection of their favourite love songs and a song that is special to both of them!


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