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Eastbound and up: an exploration of some of Odisha’s wildest pop culture exports.
My lockdown mornings always start with me switching on my Sennheisers, and playing something to remove my residual slumber and get ready to finish any pending work. Today was one of those days, where I initially started with “Wat’s Wrong”, by Tennessee export and Top Dawg bigwig Isaiah Rashad. That moved soon to a little Bollywood, specifically music in Anurag Kashyap’s films.
And then, for an hour straight, I listened to what I think is one of the most criminally underrated (and also one of the best ever) Bollywood tracks of all time: Qatl-e-Aam, from Raman Raghav 2.0. The composers that Kashyap has worked with use elements of progressive house and dubstep in such innovative ways that would put Skrillex to shame. And, as in the case of this song, Ram Sampath is no exception (yes, the same man who sang that subtly foul-mouthed youth favorite from Delhi Belly). But Sampath’s bass-heavy production would be lacking in impact without the singer in that track. And it’s one of the times I’ve felt immense pride as an Odia kid, because only an idiot would say Sona Mohapatra is not a tour de force. Someone from my state features as part of my daily pop culture consumption and not necessarily from that state, and that makes me overjoyed.
I was supposed to make a presentation, but I’m stuck here instead writing what I think may be my lame attempt at a love letter to where I’m from. My metric for being a “wild pop culture export” isn’t necessarily only popularity. It’s that the vibe I should get from these people is that they’ve gone beyond what their identity may have limited them to, and possibly take offbeat routes. This is not to downplay the efforts of artists and actors who cater just to mainstream Odia audiences; they’re definitely brilliant in their own right. But I also believe we know enough about them. So, here goes nothing.
As much as I love where I live, I have an issue with how much people here are unwilling to move from older ideas they’re attached to. These ideas aren’t necessarily backward, but they’re anachronistic. Unfortunately, for some reason, that idea trickled down in terms of the pop culture I consume. It took me a while to diversify from American (not even Western in the wider sense of the term) manifestations of music and cinema, and venture into Indian content. With the advent of Spotify and better OTT offerings from India, that thankfully changed considerably while I was in class 12 and college. I admit, I’ve been at fault for not being actively willing to listen to what people from Odisha have to offer, and I should do that. However, something tells me that I may not have to worry much more about being that active anyway.
In Odisha, we have some popular household names that, while not national superstars, are accomplished in their own right. Some of them are in legislation too, like actor Anubhav Mohanty. And of course, we’re a little conventional, so our role models aren’t always actors or singers, but people in law, politics, civil services. This is the same state Subhash Chandra Bose and Biju Patnaik were born in.
But one look at Sona Mohapatra’s portfolio is enough information to confirm that she’s made it, even as a potential role model. More than that, she’s a fierce feminist who’s called out sexual harassment against powerful names like Anu Malik and Kailash Kher, and championed women’s causes in the big bad world that is Bollywood. It’s not like she’s forgotten where she came from, either; in 2015, after enjoying all the fruits of Bollywood fame, she took out a smooth Coke Studio rendition of Odisha’s unofficial state anthem, Rangabati. My state represented in Coke Studio. Tears of joy. And I’m yet to talk about the rest of her discography: Delhi Belly, Fukrey (yep, I’ll link that song here), and Talaash, among others. She has a documentary about herself also (cool quotient stonks), and here’s one special track from there, with art direction inspired by another Odia artist who made a lot of semi-nude sculptures apparently.
I mentioned Spotify being a driver of change in terms of how I consumed music. Last year, some eclectic playlist introduced me to a song called “Your Woman”, by a one-man show based out of the UK named White Town. The vocals of this song will likely make you think about a) some swanky British man in b) his late 20s-early 30s who knows in his veins that c) this pop track will be his breakout hit. So he adds some cool distortion to his otherwise okay singing voice.
But only two of those things are true. White Town is not British. White Town is really a wee Odia lad born in Rourkela, and his real name is Jyoti Mishra. He emigrated to the UK when he was a child. He was 31 when he made “Your Woman”, and Pitchfork (yes, the stingy music magazine everyone loves to hate, as they should) named it the 158th best track of the 1990s. The track reached No 1 on the UK Singles Chart in the year of its release, 1997. This description of Mishra from this Dazed piece says much about what made his breakout hit so significant (it may have something to do with his supposed un-marketability):
“He wasn’t white, he came up through the decidedly un-commercial twee pop scene, he’d been straight edge since he was 16, and he was a radical Marxist.”
Minus being straight-edge and a potential pop star; if you thought hard about it, he likely fit as someone I would know from here. Odia one-hit wonder who made that one hit from his bedroom in Derby. Let that sink in.
Yet another surprise to me was when I found about the lesser-known, but insanely good rapper Sumeet Samos. A graduate from JNU, Samos has been using his voice to speak about caste-based inequality in India and oppression against Dalits. Samos comes from Tentulipadar, a village in Koraput district. He’s been active in the underground scene, and if you think that his supposed lack of mainstream fame means that he may not be all that good, I’m going to post just one bar from his track “Fighter” that should make you rethink your opinion:
“My writings are easy to understand no Japanese Kanji,
Bars be cracking the caste mountains, Dasrath Manjhi”
Any hip-hop fan worth their salt will tell you that that’s a killer metaphor, likely much better than what you hear in the mainstream. Rolling Stone India made sure he’s getting the love he deserves, especially for igniting conversations that society deems unjustified at the dining room. In the same vein, the lockdown saw the rise of Duleshwar Tandi, or Dule Rocker, who started rapping about the struggles of migrant workers. Dule is based out of Kalahandi — one of the most backward districts of Odisha — and was himself a migrant labourer before he ventured into making beats on FL Studio. His raps are raw, but no less hard-hitting. Initially, he became popular because of a researcher from People’s Archive of Rural India who found him out. Now, he’s been covered by Scroll and India Today, amplified by veterans like Vishal Dadlani and DIVINE, and has apparently received a few offers from Ollywood. Here’s him voicing his concern about the plight of farmers in India.
I think I was 15 or 16 when I first watched “I Am Kalam”, a few years after it first came out. But I do remember the buzz around the movie when it released in 2010, because APJ Abdul Kalam is one of the few people in India who have universal respect (yes, even when his presidency didn’t exactly match up to the standards he set as the kind of rocket man Elton John had envisioned). But in Odisha, all attention turned towards director Nila Madhab Panda, for natural reasons of regional pride. Here’s a man who took an inspirational feature film and displayed it at Cannes. It was his third directorial effort. He also made well-received films like “Kadvi Hawa” and “Kaun Kitney Paani Mein”, that featured some hotshots like Ranvir Shorey and Sanjay Mishra in the former, and Radhika Apte and Saurabh Shukla in the latter.
While I’m sure I’ve missed some names, these are the ones that came first in my head. What’s common among all of them is that they’re passionate about advancing concepts of empathy. They try and do it actively through their work. What’s amazing is that we can’t box any of them as imitators of other eminent artists. It’s also fantastic that not only are they gems that Odisha should pay attention to and cherish, but gems that all of India should pay heed to. There are few things better than art that everyone can understand and possibly identify with. These artists have been pushing the envelope to bring Odisha to the forefront, be it by being critical of its shortcomings, or by telling stories of the state that matter. In either case, they want this place to be better that what it has been. It doesn’t get more admirable, or worthy of support than that.
I live in an area that’s seen a lot of physical development, and for the longest time I doubted it doesn’t reflect a change in social attitudes. I worry less now because of these artists, who stop at nothing to change the playing field.