Raj Mohan: singer and poet with a mission

Hans Ramsoedh

Despite his international fame as a ghazal and Sarnámi/Bhojpuri singer, Raj Mohan is still relatively unknown to the large Surinamese-Hindostani audience in Suriname and The Netherlands, except to a small group of fans of his music. This audience is mainly interested in Bollywood songs, baithak gana, chutney music, soca, bubbling and so on. In this contribution, an introduction to this singer and poet who is the interpreter of Sarnámi/Bhojpuri- and kantráki-blues and an international star in the world of modern Bhojpuri music for some time now. Kantráki refers to the indentured laborers from British India who were recruited in the 19th and the first decades of the 20th century to work on plantations in the Caribbean, South Africa, Mauritius, Fiji and so on. I have followed Mohans  music since he released his first cd in 1998. With this contribution, I hope to interest more people in this remarkable artist.

The ghazal is a classical North Indian musical style with Urdu as its language (the language in Pakistan). A ghazal is a sung poem and can best be described as an expression of the pain of losing something. At the same time, it is also the expression of the beauty of life and the love that can be experienced in spite of pain. The ghazal is considered by some to be the highest form of poetry. What is true of poetry in general, is also true of ghazal: it means that understanding it requires some education in the language, which is why in the past (and perhaps still today) this music genre was reserved for the upper classes. Characteristic of the ghazal is that it usually consists of five or more stanzas. The second sentence of each verse usually ends with a repeated refrain consisting of one or more words. The Indian ghazal singer Jagjit Singh is best known to the Surinamese-Hindostani audience.

Ghazal and blues
The ghazal can be compared to the blues, a musical style that originated in the second half of the nineteenth century in the southern United States. For the Afro-American population in the Mississippi delta music was often the only way to express their suffering and pain. Love or lost loves were also an important theme. Because of its melancholic tone and content this music was called the ‘blues’.

Raj Mohan’s special feature is that he uses Sarnámi/Bhojpuri as well as Urdu as the language for his songs that range from the ghazal style to pop and other modern music genres. In doing so, he has become the quintessential interpreter of Sarnámi/Bhojpuri blues and has put Sarnámi on the map in the arts. In the studio in Varanasi (Benares), people were amazed that it was possible to write such lyrical songs in a Bhojpuri language and compose in the ghazal style, Raj says. It earned him a lot of appreciation in India, especially in the provinces of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar where Bhojpuri is the common language, as the following reactions on the internet testify:
Sudhir Kumar: ‘Just amazing… I have seen your contribution in bhojpuri transformation from vulgarity to such a sweet, descent, meaningful, and my own bhojpuri..☺ Its my own language, my mother tongue.. Keep it up Mr Mohan’.
Abhisek Anand: ‘Lots of Thanks and Love for taking UP-Bihar culture 150 years ago and spreading there in Suriname and Holland’.
Vinay Tiwari: ‘You make me cry everytime i listen to your heavenly compositions’.
Ranjit Thakur: ‘Soul touching song!!!!’.

Discovering ghazal
Suriname, situated on the north-east coast of South America between Guyana and French Guiana, was a Dutch colony between 1667 and 1975. Raj Mohan (1962) was born in Paramaribo. After his mother settled in the Netherlands in 1972, her family of seven children followed in 1974. Until he was fifteen, his interest was in Indian and Western music. In the Hindustani record shop in The Netherlands, he inquired about music in Sarnámi. He was laughed out of court by the salesman, however, as Raj recounted in an interview in a Dutch newspaper (de Volkskrant (17/02/2021): ‘Knock it off. Our language is not beautiful enough to be used as a text for that beautiful music from India’. Raj came into contact with the ghazal in this record shop. He did not know this music genre before because in Suriname this music was hardly ever played on Hindustani radio. His first encounter with the ghazal he found terrible, as he says, but he was nevertheless intrigued by this music. At the age of 15, he bought a few records of ghazal singers like Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali, Begum Akhtar (greats of the ghazal world) and later Jagjit Singh. He wanted to discover the beauty of this music: ‘When I started listening to it more and more (hours a day) and also looked up the difficult Urdu words in dictionaries I had bought, I started to like it. It became an obsession and I couldn’t live without it’. His surroundings did not understand at all that he was listening to ‘old people’s music‘: ‘A young hipster who listened to music they neither understood nor liked and that I even had knowledge of its contents. At the same time I also listened to Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Bob Marley and Queen and so on‘.

His obsession with the ghazal led him to take music lessons at Tritantri Indian Music school in Amsterdam between 1983 and 1989. His music teacher, Jamaluddin Bhartiya (a student of Ravi Shankar), initially did not see a great talent in him but because of his tenacity he decided to continue anyway. About this, Raj says: ‘It was strange that it almost didn’t bother me when my teacher said that I didn’t have the talent to become a singer. That it would be a very long road in any case. Actually he was right. But I knew for sure (I don’t know how and why; an indescribable feeling. ) that I would become a singer and that it would be my profession. I would do this all my life! Do they call this a mission…?’

In the period 1983-1989, Raj also went to Bombay regularly to further develop his singing talents. He found it important to be close to the source: ‘In Holland, I was ‘in the land of the blind…’. I was not ungrateful for the success here and the attention paid to me as a ghazal singer but I wanted to measure up to ghazal singers from India. My motto has always been: only when I am appreciated there (India), can I call myself a ‘full-fledged’ singer. First I stayed there for 3 months, then 8 months, those were the longest periods I spent there. Then I went there many times for study, recordings and later concert tours. After 30 times I stopped counting‘.

His own CD’s
His first cd came out in 1998: Kaale Baadal [dark clouds], a cd in the classical ghazal tradition that is to say in Urdu and with Indian accompanying instruments such as sitar, swarlin, bamboo flute (bansuri), santoor, tabla, dholak. The lyrics are written by Indian and Pakistani poets. In India, this cd was received positively especially because it involved a singer from the diaspora. A notable song on this CD is Main ghazal hoon [I am ghazal] with the text: Hosh waloon hi ko maloon hai geemat meri mujhko deewanon ki mehfil men na gaaya jaaye [Only those who have a sense of art appreciate me. Let me not sing among those who have no knowledge of me]. Asked if this was his motto, Raj said, “This is certainly part of my motto. But I think it applies to every artist who distinguishes himself from the mainstream. At a certain point I stopped promoting myself in the Netherlands (and Suriname). I often (and sometimes still) feel like casting pearls before swine. Honesty compels me to say that I no longer do my best to promote my work here. This applies to both Surinamese Hindostani and native Dutch. But I do have a hard core here, however small, of fans of my music. People who follow me closely and understand where I want to go with my art. Social media is the salvation of my work! If I were a Hindu, I would say the four unit: Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh, Facebook.

Three years later (2001) Krishna murari mere was released [my Krishna], a bhajan cd that he released together with the well-known Indian singer Anup Jalota. The contact with Jalota came through Rais Bhartiya, the son of his music teacher in Amsterdam. Raj was no longer unknown in the circuit of ghazal singers. He had earlier performed with Ustad Ghulam Ali during his 1989 Dutch tour. About this co-operation with Anup Jalota Raj says: ‘This co-operation was artistically very important to me. To work with such an experienced singer was an honour‘. Rais Bhartiya tried to interest Raj in recording an album with Asha Bhosle. Raj, however, declined as he felt that he was far from ready. Raj says about this: ‘A wise decision, I still think. I was never only interested in success, but more in quality, as far as I could judge.

Performer of kantráki- and Sarnámi/Bhojpuri-blues
After Krishna murari mere (2001), Raj took a new and thus his own path: he became the ghazal interpreter of kantráki- and Sarnámi/Bhojpuri-blues. In 2006, he released the cd Kantráki, which he considers to be his most important work. This cd has ten tracks in Sarnámi and is an ode to the Hindustani indentured laborers in which their pain, sorrow and hope are sung. With this cd, Raj invented the Sarnámi/Bhojpuri Geet.

Five years later (2011) the cd Daayra [Vicious Circle] was released, a crossover of Indian and Western music (i.e. an integration of well-known Indian musical instruments like the tabla with bass, drums, synthesiser, cello, guitar, flute et cetera) with which the Sarnámi/Bhojpuri pop was born. About Daayra, Raj says the following: ‘I had a very strong feeling about making pop music and writing songs in this genre but didn’t know exactly how and where to look for it. Writing songs and making compositions was ok, but I didn’t know how to arrange music in pop music. I don’t mean music like the Hindi pop bands make, but western pop. I discussed my idea with the Dutch guitarist and producer Lourens van Haaften and together we set to work. We spent an average of 50 hours per song in his studio. I chose this new path because I thought we should also have pop songs in our Sarnámi language. What I had heard before (mostly dubbed into Hindi) was not what I was looking for in Hindustani pop music. It was not easy to connect a western music system with Indian melodic structures. Because the musical philosophies are quite far apart, Lourens and I had to try a lot. Sometimes it was about guitar chords and sometimes about the differences in the structure of the songs, chorus and verses. We had to get used to each other’s culture. But there was never a moment that we didn’t like it. In that respect, we are both patient by nature. It was all about the art. We worked on Daayra for two years’.

The reactions to Daayra were positive. There was a review in the Dutch newspaper Het Parool, a performance on Dutch TV in 2012 and on the Dutch Radio Daayra was cd of the week. On the (Surinamese and Dutch) stages, however, it remained deafeningly quiet: ‘That was a huge blow to me. But of course that was down to me; my expectations were too high. Years later (after 2017) when my music became a success in Inda, it would turn out that people in Surinam and the Netherlands never understood my music. In India, they understood it immediately and gave my music as an example of modern Bhojpuri music. And started sharing it with each other en masse,’ Raj said.

After Daayra, Raj Mohan continued on his chosen path and on the occasion of one hundred and forty years of commemoration of Hindustani Immigration in Suriname in 2013 released the EP Dui Mutthi [Two Fists] with lyrics in Sarnámi/Bhojpuri and a crossover of Indian and Western musical instruments including a string quartet (see at the end of this contribution on Youtube the song Dui Mutthi with the Dutch Metropole Orchestra in 2013). This cd includes a musical translation into Sarnámi of the poem ‘This land I have chosen‘ written in Dutch by the well-known Surinamese poet Shrinivási. Raj says: ‘Shrini stayed with us for a few months and he had a cd (demo) of this poem with versions of his poem translated and sung in different languages. I thought the song and translation into Sarnámi-Hindi was so bad that I didn’t think it was worthy of his wonderful poem. I was even angry about it, that’s how bad I thought it was. A primary reaction! That is what I said to him. Then I asked him if I could translate and compose it in his presence. He was very happy about that. So ‘I des ham chun leli’ [this land I have chosen] was born in the presence of the master‘.

Brand ambassador of diaspora music
Raj has given concerts in many countries such as (apart from the Netherlands) Suriname, India, Nepal, South Africa, Moldavia, Mauritius, French Guiana and Belgium. As mentioned before, Raj got little recognition and appreciation for his music in Suriname and the Netherlands: ‘I don’t think the general public under­stands my music. And I don’t need to, no matter how much I want to. I get enough appreciation from people who understand my music but there is so little knowledge of lyrics among our people. That really disappoints me. In contrast to India, where people can immediately understand the lyrics and feel the emotions in them. People there understand imagery much better. You notice that the people have grown up with poetry. We still have a long way to go. I fear that we are going to lose out in Sarnámi. Before our people get there, the language is already lost‘. On the other hand, Raj calls the recognition and appreciation in India for his music ‘insane’. He received the certificate of ‘Brand ambassador of diaspora music’ from the Mahatma Gandhi Central University Bihar (MGCUB). In 2020, Raj was appointed an adjunct professor of diaspora studies at this university. This appointment is yet to be filled and will be diaspora related activities.

In the meantime, the Dutch quality newspapers are also paying attention to this Sarnámi/Bhojpuri blues singer. The newspaper de Volkskrant had a full-page interview with Raj on 17 February 2021. The NRC (February 19, 2021) in a review paid attention to a livestream concert of him on February 18 in TivoliVredenburg in Utrecht, The Netherlands (This livestream concert can be watched at the end of this article).

Apart from music, Raj also uses poetry as a medium to publicise the immi­gration history of the Surinamese Hin­dostani. He has now published two col­lec­tions of bilin­gual poetry (in Sarnámi and Dutch). In 2008, he made his debut with the poetry col­lec­tion Bapauti / Legacy in which he expresses an active personal relationship to the past and gives words to numerous concrete historical events and persons, customs, memories, considerations relating to migration as they have been handed down through the generations.

Tihá/Solace (2011) is his second col­lec­tion of poems. The first part consists of seven­teen poems and is bilingual. The second part con­tains 22 poems in Dutch. In this col­lec­tion of poems, the triangle formed by the Netherlands, Suriname and India comes to life in his poetry in a highly personal manner; the subjects are closer to home (cultural uprooting, personal identity) and the tone is more melancholy, as in the poem below:

I want

this life I want to live
but how

how to sail on two boats at the same time
how long will I follow others
at a distance from my own opinion
knowingly I walk
in the opposite direction
I walk away from rites and traditions
To a distant field
Where the priest does not preach
mother does not grieve
Family does not criticise

How much longer will I have to wait
before my life
takes root in this country
how do I save my culture
amidst a hundred races
other people’s standards and values
How do I make my own?
How do I break the ties
with rice lentils and chokhá
my ancestors’ traditions
I bind them on my shoulders
and bury them weeping in the sea

Future plans
Corona, as for many, has a negative impact on Raj too. Planned concerts have been cancelled in the past year. He had four tours in India on his programme that were cancelled. During the past corona period, he and artists from the Netherlands, Suriname, India, Guyana and South Africa released the song Sundar Subhumi (Girmitiya song), which has become a great success with more than a million hits on various Facebook groups (this song can be listened to at the end of this contribution).

This year Raj is going to have a busy period with the following projects among others:

  • His debut as a film actor in Ravi Sandberg’s Dutch film ‘Seeds’ will be released.
  • A Dutch documentary ‘Polaroid man’ about Raj’s music will be made.
  • With his hard rock band Daayra and together with rapper Ragga Menno, Raj releases an album with religious texts from Hinduism.
  • In 2021, the Bhojpuri film Papihra (family drama) will be released for which Raj has composed, sung and produced two songs.
  • Raj is also working on an Indian film on Hindu immigration history. He is contributing to the script, is responsible for the music and plays the lead.
  • The programme also includes various concerts in the Netherlands with the Residentie Orkest and Old Roots New Routes.

His mission
Raj Mohan considers the propagation of Sarnámi-Bhojpuri to be his main mission. Music and poetry are his means to that end. With his cd Kantráki, he invented the Sarnámi/Bhojpuri Geet and with Daayra (2011) he is the founder of Sarnámi/Bhojpuri pop. With this, he has put this language on the international map. Given his background, it is a great artistic achievement that Raj Mohan has made to get international recognition and appreciation for his music (samundar pár karáy ke– crossed seas). He has now developed into the great interpreter of Sarnámi/Bhojpuri- and Kantráki-blues. Raj Mohan is a musical gem to cherish and be proud of, at least for those who appreciate his Main ghazal hoon [I am ghazal] on the 1998 cd Kaale Baadal.

Raj Mohan has his own website where video clips can be seen as well as info on his performances: http://www.rajmohan.nl

Dui Mutthi met het Metropole Orkest in 2013

Concert in TivoliVredenburg 18 februari 2021

Sundar Subhumi