Badshah; Ratan Kahar

The world is changing, and its changing real fast. Until a week ago, “Genda Phool”, for most of India, was the groovy song from Delhi 6. Now it’s the latest track by the rapper Badshah. The two songs have nothing to do with each other, except the title, but the AR Rahman composition now shows somewhere at the bottom of the search results on YouTube. Sad. What’s sadder, however, is that Badshah’s “Genda Phool” is based on a Bengali folk song, and it doesn’t acknowledge the original artist Ratan Kahar. 

Badshah—who has written his rap portions—is credited as Composer and Lyricist, while the Bengali portion has got an Original Lyrics credit under the broad category of Bengali Folk. The internet is filled with articles and YouTube videos about the controversy, after people (mainly Bengalis who knew about Kahar) responded with allegations of plagiarism targeted at the rapper. A short documentary made on Kahar two years ago has resurfaced; it shows the folk musician, now old, living in penury with his family in a village in West Bengal. 

Written in the local dialect and rich in imagery of the land of red soil, “Boro Loker Biti Lo”… is sung from the point of view of a prostitute… Badshah’s use of the phrase is the worst kind of cultural appropriation, who follows it up with lyrics bordering on the creepy

Badshah’s version completely betrays the spirit of the original. Written in the local dialect and rich in imagery of the land of red soil, Birbum, “Boro Loker Biti Lo” is sung from the point of view of a prostitute. And like a lot of our folk music, it’s simple, and transgressive in an oblique way–the woman wonders if her daughter, whose hair she ties as she sings, could be the child of one of her rich clients. Badshah’s use of this popular Bengali folk refrain is the worst kind of cultural appropriation, who follows it up with lyrics bordering on the creepy: ‘Bum tera gote khaaye…Body teri makkhan jaise, Khaane mein bas tu butter khaye’. But that’s another issue. What we are talking about here is credit. 

Badshah put out a statement on Twitter that said that when they decided to use the Bengali folk song, they checked the information on the internet “and nowhere on any copyright societies or on any of the previous reprises/versions of the song was Mr Ratan Kahar credited as lyricist”

He maybe right about the copyright part. Kahar doesn’t own the copyright to “Boro Loker Biti Lo”, or any of his other songs. As he says in the documentary, he wrote the song in 1972. But when it was first recorded in 1976 by Saregama with singer Swapna Chakraborty, his name was left out (instead Chandrakant Nandi—who probably did the arrangement—got the Composer credit). 

Not that Kahar fought for his rights. He was passive and carefree, too simple-minded for such petty things. In the documentary, Kahar recalls how in the mid 70s, he was once practically threatened to sign a form which had the names of four of his compositions; one of them was ‘Boro Loker Biti Lo’.  

But Badshah’s claim that none of the reprise versions of “Boro loker Biti Lo” on the internet credit Kahar isn’t completely true. Folk Studio Bangla, that did a cover of the song 2 years ago, credits him as the Composer and Lyricist.

The precedent set by the Saregama album in ’76—and first recordings are critical in these cases—was replicated multiple times over the years, from commercial Bengali films to music albums. Badshah’s new single is merely the latest in a series of wrongs. 

But Badshah’s claim that none of the reprise versions of “Boroloker Biti Lo” on the internet give credit to Kahar isn’t completely true. Folk Studio Bangla, that did a cover of the song 2 years ago, credits him as the Composer and Lyricist. The group from Bangladesh specialises in Bengali folk music, so they probably knew about Kahar being the author of the song. Even if they didn’t, they would’ve tried to find out the original composer.

That’s what Bengali singer Shilajit did when he heard a folk song at a friend’s get-together. He wanted to use the song, so he went to look for the original artist, found Kahar, met him, paid him a fee. Kahar’s name will be in the credits when the song is released. This is the practise to follow when you are working with folk songs. It’s a tricky terrain. On the one hand, by virtue of being a largely oral tradition, folk songs become public domain, free for anyone to use it the way they want. On the other, there is the possibility that you may be doing great injustice to the original artist, many of who weren’t savvy enough to get into copyrights and licensing.

As someone who claims that the song is an “honest attempt to put our traditional sounds on the world map and make the world aware of our worth”, Badshah should’ve known better.

“Due diligence could be observed… by making enquiries into whether or not the work being considered for adaptation and re-use is registered with the copyright office or other collecting societies…” wrote Shubha Mudgal, in her piece for Mint Lounge titled ‘Who Owns the Folk Song’ in 2015. In the light of the controversy over the use of the Sambalpuri song “Rangabati” in Coke Studio, by Sona Mahapatra and Ram Sampath, the singer observed that the process of finding out the original author maybe complex and difficult but it is essential “if a climate conducive to music-making is to be nurtured.” 

Maybe we can’t place the blame squarely on Badshah and Sony Music, but it’s obvious that their research on this was half-hearted and superficial. It’s part of the same new commercial music-making culture that’s driven by lazy recreations of existing tracks, and which in the recent past has shown a callous attitude about credits by sometimes leaving out names of lyricists.

With all the bad press this has got them, Badshah and Sony Music have made grand gestures toward Kahar. Badshah offered to help him out financially. Kahar’s first reaction was amazing. He seemed least bothered about the controversy. Not only did he not show any interest in financial help, he didn’t express any bitterness, and went on to thank “Badshah bhai” for making his song famous. He didn’t want anything–except, maybe, for “Badshah bhai” to visit him once. And in a dramatic turn of events over the past week, as if a satire on the music industry was unfolding, the label offered a platform for Kahar to record a song of his choice. (Why they couldn’t offer to give him a credit as the Original Composer and Lyricist in “Genda Phool”, I don’t know). They got in touch with Infinity Waves Production, that made the documentary on Kahar 2 years ago. Despite Kahar’s initial reluctance, the guys from Infinity convinced him to take the financial help, if not for himself, but for his family members. 

The production company has uploaded on their YouTube channel new interviews with Kahar in the past week. In the latest, one of the makers talk about how, as the sole point of contact for Kahar for the outside world, they have been inundated with phone calls: from an advocate who wants to fight the case for the artist, to writers and filmmakers who want to help him, to the media. The forgotten folk singer is a Trending Topic. And the internet, some kind of a great leveller.

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