Think Bob Dylan in a bright red kur ta and white pyjamas as a guest at a Bengali wedding. Too far-fetched?
Not quite. While most of Dylan's life has been an open book, a lesser-known fact is Dylan's hush-hush visit to Kolkata in the winter of January 1990.
The world's most legendary songsmith flew down to the city to attend a marriage in the family of an old friend and music mate, Purna Das Baul. The baul singer, now 83, had introduced Dylan to the sounds of rural Bengal during his tour of the US in the late 60s. When his son Dibyendu was getting married, Dylan turned up for the event.
"He came to our house in Dhakuria and then travelled with me to the venue in Ballygunge," recalls Dibyendu. But his visit did not last long. "An hour into the ceremony , people and media got whiff of Dylan being there and as more and more people started inquiring, he rushed out." Not really in the mood to hand out autographs, "Please, I am here on a private visit... If you don't mind, I need some rest," he pleaded before delivering a firm "no" to a starstruck fan.
Purna Das's association with him began in 1965 when Albert Grossman, Dylan's manager, invited him to sing at a festival in San Francisco. Das toured and performed at several venues before Grossman took him to Bearsville, Dylan's hometown.
"That was when our manager brought Dylan to meet us. He said to me that our singing goals were the same since we both sang about people, life and times. Then he gave himself the title `Baul of America', he showed me his patchwork coat, a lot like guduri, the costume that some bauls wear," reminisced Purna Das who has been hailed as "India's Bob Dylan".
It was the beginning of a long friend ship. "We toured and performed together between 1965 and 1967."
Baul gaan hit a peak when Dylan rather niftily learnt to pluck the khamak and wield the ektara and jammed with the minstrel from Bengal.
Purna Das and his family were invitees to Dylan's birthday party in 1978, for which Das compiled a CD of Bengali songs as a gift. "I'm so happy ," Das said about his Nobel. "He has served people with his songs like no other." It's difficult, if not impossible, to try and pin Bob Dylan down.
Ever since he burst onto the public consciousness almost six decades ago, he has been many , many people at different times, sometimes all at once, depending on whom you asked: poet, protest singer, reluctant star, desultory prophet, unwilling "voice of a generation", elder statesman of rock music.... And, now, Nobel laureate.
Kolkata has, for years, loved -and lived -Dylan's music. Whether it's the casual listener who only knows the refrain of `Blowin' in the Wind' to the serious fan who can sing every verse of `Like A Rolling Stone' without a peek at the lyrics and who can debate, for hours, the snarkiness quotient behind every extended second of "How does it feeeeeeeel", there's one of each variety, and possibly every sort in between in the city .
Which is why , perhaps, it is only natural for Dylan to always set off strong emotion and evoke wildly divergent comment. Purna Das Baul, who appears on the cover of Dylan's 1967 album `John Wesley Harding', is ecstatic with the news. "I am the happiest person in the world now," says the 83-year-old. But he isn't surprised. "I've seen him up close and personal, having stayed with him in the US back in the Sixties. He invi ted me and my brother [Luxman Das Baul, who also appears on the cover] when he opened his studio.And he was so fond of us that he put our photo on the album cover. I couldn't have been happier had I won it myself. But I do feel he deserved it a long, long time ago," he told TOI, voice quivering with emotion.
It's exactly because there' no definitive version of Dylan that he evokes so divergent reactions. To countless critics and fans alike, he has been a genre-changing singer; to others, he's a brilliant poet who (sometimes) sings and (always) drawls unintelligibly . "I know this is heresy, but I have never been a fan of Bob Dylan's voice," says Trinamool MP Derek O'Brien. "His lyrics and poetry are far better than his singing. Getting the Nobel maybe confirms that he is a far better writer than a singer," he feels. But then, Dylan has never "con formed" to a particular genre, even when he was part of a tradition.Back when he was a folk singer, no one had quite heard anything like him. When he shocked everyone by going electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Pete Seeger was so outraged that he said he would have cut the cables if he had an axe. Fans booed him. Coming at that time, when rock music was still in its infancy , those reactions were perhaps understandable, especially with the benefit of hindsight. But look closely, and Dylan was undoubtedly scripting the basic framework of modern rock. And this is something that longtime Dyan fan Anjan Dutt also acknowledges. "The moment Dylan entered the rock 'n' roll world, he was a protest singer, but he didn't stop there," says the singer-songwriter-filmmaker. "He made rock 'n' roll more intelligent. Else we wouldn't have been able to break out of the `I-love-you-you-love-me' mould." "Dylan," Dutt says, "ushered in a new era. His music was not only against war but any sort of inhumanity . The content of `Blowin' in the Wind' encompasses climate concerns and worldwide corruption. No band, even The Beatles, would have changed their sound had it not been for the Dylan effect."
And the Dylan effect is palpable, from The Beatles to Dutt's own music. "Songs like `Tambourine Man' and `Like a Rolling Stone' have had an indirect but distinct impact on my lyrics writing," confessed Dutt, who believes Dylan's Nobel was long-awaited, and that he deserves the award for "both peace and literature".
Dylan belongs to the school of art that's both "intelligent and sub stantial", believes musician Amyt Dutta. "He deserves the award. It's not only his lyrics and thoughts; as a musician, too, he is a legendary , genuine artist," he feels.
(With inputs from Subhro Niyogi, Krishnendu Mukherjee & Shounak Ghosal)