When Coke Studio Bangla first aired, it sent shockwaves throughout the music industry, galvanizing conversations about Bangladeshi music. The show’s producer Shayan Chowdhury – Arnob to his friends and legions of fans – is certainly no stranger to pushing the boundaries of what defines Bangladeshi music
By Zareen Nawar
The breakthrough reception of Coke Studio Bangla’s “Shondhatara” track has had the internet thrilled. The gorgeously melodious song not only made it to plenty of social media posts but added more flavor to the contemporary music that is being consumed by generations new and old. MW got in touch with Shayan Chowdhury Arnob recently to talk more about the song and his ongoing take on his life.
We want to start by complimenting you on “Shondhatara.” What a stunningly beautiful song. Could you take us behind the scenes into the process of putting together the different elements of this song?
When I first met Sunidhi, she was studying at Sangit Bhavana and she has the amazing ability to decipher notes from any given melody. She can even identify notes from the sound of a bird. It comes from being trained in classical music for around seven to eight years in Kolkata. Based on her abilities, I felt that she needed to participate in a “bandish” (a word that means “binding together,” it refers to a fixed musical composition in Indian music) involving something classical. We first recorded the original “Main Waari Waari Janugi” as a demo with a guitarist friend of mine from Goa, which led us to explore [the concept of] bandish further in terms of production. I then talked to Adit about properly producing it. The production was, however, in Hindi when he was done with it, and we were going to release it like that because Sunidhi wanted to share it publicly.
We however ended up presenting it to Coke Studio Bangla as I was already involved in other works of the studio. Suman Chattopadhyay was available around that time and the jazz musicians in the team felt that we needed to practice more classical in Bangla as the form is obviously an important asset, so we got to work translating and practicing it. As Coke Studio is a collaborative platform, we needed another artist with something contemporary in the mix of the Raag Emon (Raga Yamana). I then came up with the “Bela Haray” melody.
Adit arranged the whole thing after which all the other artists came in to collaborate further. You’ll notice more than one instrument is present in certain portions of the song, so details like those came about through collaboration with everyone involved. It felt like really good practice to see musicians from different genres coming together and constantly working towards the classical collaboration, be it in terms of composing or practicing. It might not be pure classical, but the whole process felt inclusive, and I do believe that inclusivity is important. Hence “Shondhatara” felt like a very collaborative and dynamic work. Now, I am not sure if people at large are liking it, but Coke Studio on their part strictly asks us to not pay attention to view counts of videos. Initially, I would get confused regarding actually good songs not receiving sufficient attention, but at the end of the day, that is not my job. My work is to enjoy experimenting. I feel lucky that a brand like Coke is inspiring us to proceed with innovation, since that kind of push is rarely found nowadays.
Coke Studio Bangla, since its inception, has electrified the music industry, revived interest in various genres of Bangla and Bangladeshi music. It has also given rise to some debates regarding music. While the reception towards the fusion of various styles and genres has overwhelmingly been positive, there are also a significant number of purists who believe that mixing traditions leads to a loss of integrity. Would you care to tell us a little bit about your views on the subject?
Well, I am currently speaking to you but half of the words that I’m using right now are English. I’m not exactly talking entirely in Bangla. When I’m wearing clothes, I’m wearing jeans with a panjabi, so we are basically living a life where we have adapted to a lot of things that don’t belong to us. That’s what we are, and that’s who I am at least. Having said that, I absolutely respect those who are working on the pure form of a genre, because that is also very necessary and they should be doing that for the necessity of the form’s existence. I have no intention of disrupting them or their forms but if we can learn even a little from them, then why not?
I studied at Santiniketan and we were not allowed to pay attention to any form of contemporary music or trending music no matter how popular. We were told that it’s bad to listen to music like those. I strictly learned pure Indian classical music and Rabindra Sangeet there from classes 6 to 10. But when I would travel back to Dhaka, I would notice my friends playing the guitar and listening to James and Miles. They would also attempt to write their own songs whereas at Santiniketan, it would have been crazy to even think about writing my own thing at the cost of neglecting Rabindra Sangeet. I then again felt the need to adapt to what they were doing in Dhaka too and I learned to play harmonies on instruments like keyboard and guitar. A fact that I personally experienced and figured out is that playing the chords or harmonies amidst the disciplined learning that I was receiving from Santiniketan disturbed the flow of the traditional form. Indian classical music is usually linear in pattern and abides by the structure of any given raag. The collaborative platform of Coke Studio thus asks for genres to be bridged together. There are of course plenty of platforms for pure genres to flourish too.
“We are basically living a life where we have adapted to a lot of things that don’t belong to us”
I in fact even posted the original “Main Waari Waari Janugi” song recording after the release of “Shondhatara” so that people could also go back to it to appreciate and acknowledge its pure form.
I am currently reading a book called Kudrat Rang-Birangi by Kumar Prasad Mukhopadhyay, and that is a must-read for every Bangladeshi musician. It’s about classical music in general. Doing/practicing music is simply a way of life for musicians, and it has been the case historically regardless of the genre.
Even my father asks me to go back to painting. I won’t call myself a good singer, Sunidhi in comparison is a brilliant singer because she learned how to sing. I did learn to sing and Bharatanatyam until class 6, but I properly learned to draw at university under fine arts. Drawing actually genuinely helps me out a lot. The process of it allows me to ask myself crucial “why” based questions, as in why am I drawing whatever it is that I choose to draw and that is a pattern that I can use to make music too. Music production isn’t always random. Music can either stir your soul or your body.
As a music producer, what is some advice you give to newcomers just entering the industry?
I would advise them to be open-minded and be aware of their roots. I believe learning is important, and learning how to sing from someone is even more so. One can learn from YouTube but when you’re getting in-person training, you get to interact with the teacher and you can get important suggestions and instant feedback. I personally feel like our industry got stuck somewhere down the line of progression, because there wasn’t a great school or group of teachers to provide that hands-on instruction, guidance, and mentorship. Most of our musicians are self-taught minus a handful of those who learned from Indian schools. A friend of mine, though, is currently learning from classical music courses provided by the Bengal Foundation, which is a wonderful initiative being conducted by them. More initiatives such as these should be taken, be it in terms of teaching jazz, folk, or what have you. I feel strongly about being taught by someone.
As for music production, I would strongly urge them to write their own stuff or learn to write new stuff even if it means practicing writing just four lines every day. It is very important to our own materials. If someone simply wants to become a singer then they will have a hard time because of there being a lack of new materials to sing. I have seen actually good singers simply waiting and not getting proper treatment or acknowledgment because there just isn’t new material to sing about. Writing and reading poetry and practicing these every day is extremely crucial.
Newcomers might also get the urge to produce and then release whatever they come up with at a given time, but I would advise against this. I personally went for an album after I had created 50 to 60 compositions. I believe that you have to have a really good body of work and then come out with an album instead of a single. An album allows artists to truly showcase what they are all about. Listeners can find a deeper more authentic version of an artist via an album.
How often do you revisit your old work? Do you ever find yourself wishing you’d done something differently vis-à-vis certain songs/albums?
I do end up questioning why I did something the way I had in the past but more importantly, I remember that it expressed the state that I was in, at that time in the past. They hold onto the essences of the past like diaries. Any artist would constantly feel like they can continue bettering a piece of art all the time. There also remains the possibility of the object of art not continuing to remain relevant after a certain period of time and it might start to keep your system from thinking of fresh new ideas too. So, these two factors can push one to release or publish the work whenever one chooses to release them. I kind of wish I worked more on some of my lo-fi work, but the idea that came to me at that time was far more important for me to release. I didn’t even have the luxury of spending long hours working in the studio because back in the day, we could rent out the studio for a limited number of hours and work using tapes as the appropriate computers were nonexistent. I had to play all the necessary instruments myself involving bass, and guitar, on top of singing. We didn’t have a system of copy-pasting long materials either, and I had to play the whole thing myself.
The rush was fun to pursue though. When I was in class 10, I would save my eidi and spend that money to book a studio in secret. I wouldn’t share the material with anyone since I used to do it for myself and I thoroughly enjoyed the entire process of layering music. Once the computers came, I figured I could produce songs at home. Then I had to again figure out the different types of software all by myself. Habib had gone to London to study music further at that point, and there wasn’t any school around me so I ended up producing “Chaina” at home using scotch tape and microphones that I could attach to the back of my CPU. I might have composed several compositions while I was painting at Santiniketan, but I could execute them only when I was at home after getting the necessary gadgets and computers. I have actually produced a new album in the last month on top of working alongside Coke studio. I produced it in the comfort of my home because that is how I prefer to treat it. I don’t want some big production or studio behind it. It is intimate with lo-fi sounds and it simply represents myself.
What is your go-to platform for discovering and venturing new music?
Spotify is quite useful. My father also holds a good collection of Indian classical music, so I borrow a lot from him to find inspiration sometimes. Tiny Desk by NPR Music on YouTube is a good platform too. I listen to Billie Eilish and am a big fan of Jacob Collier. I would listen to the radio a lot at a time and I began listening to music with Bob Dylan while I was getting my training on Indian classical music and Rabindra Sangeet. Drawing, of course, also helped me create music. Shows like “Thundercats,” “Knight Rider,” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and Sukumar Ray’s writing would inspire and motivate me. I was born at such a time that I was able to completely experience the before and after of the year 2000s advancements. So, looking back, I get amused by the aspects of life altered due to advances.
It is the perfect time to get into the next discussion then. You’ve been making music for decades now, and have seen many changes in the industry. How do you think digital platforms have affected the scene?
First of all, I had a very hard time thinking about how to reach people after I was done with secretly producing my album. Contemporary artists like us at that time were also concerned about working with old labels because we weren’t sure they would relate to us since they just had a very different type of market to cater to. Cassettes were still a thing then, but we mostly made our work more urban comparatively. Even after printing our music, we then had to navigate distributing the albums. I had a difficult time distributing albums throughout the country. Now the game has completely changed. If you are good and if you are doing something good then people will find you from anywhere in the world. You will be inevitably discovered. This ability to be able to connect to the world is truly amazing because there aren’t doors that you need to break down or knock to reach a certain audience anymore.
Have your goals and preferences changed over the years?
Given a choice, I mostly want to make music for myself but gradually I am most likely to shift toward drawing and painting. That is where I find the most peace that I need considering the fact that I am an anxious person and I do find myself struggling with myself and my sobriety. Music might give me a rush which is also great at times but in order to keep myself grounded; drawing helps me a lot. I am practicing drawing regularly too. My father still draws every day for five to six hours, and that is the amount of time I still can’t reach, because I get erratic. I have started practicing drawing for at least an hour or two now. The process also helps me think even.
In terms of music, my preference for collaborations is something that I have been waiting for. When I was in Bengal music, I collaborated with people a lot too with Monpura’s album among others. I even worked on my own produce and personal development. My new album will be dialogue with myself and I tried to write a lot by reading a huge amount of poetry books. The new work might not feel very fancy, but it was overwhelming and humble for me to work on, and I did try to make the most of writing in particular.
There are artists, like Buno, for example, with whom you have been performing and collaborating for years. Does this long acquaintance add any dimensions to your music?
Buno is probably my oldest friend musically speaking. He always keeps me in check by telling me the truth. To be honest, all of my friends help to keep me in check which is why the community at the Coke Studio was so important for all of us to keep everything in order. Our job is to basically figure out how to make someone else shine better and when that someone is given that respect and space then they will also understand the significance of it. Providing appropriate space for anything or anyone is a very impactful thing to do for their development or growth. From that aspect, Buno and even my other friends have been very important to me. He is also a great sound engineer. It would have been extremely difficult for me to pay attention to the technical elements that he is so effectively good with. He is a huge pillar of support for me when it comes to sound engineering. He is also inspiring because he is into the genres that I do not always deal with. I am also very glad that the productive side of our friendship and my other collaborators could add to Coke Studio’s initiative after it made its way to Bangladesh following Pakistan and India.
Tell us a little bit about Adhkhana Bhalo Chele Adha Mostaan. How was the experience of collaborating with Abrar Athar on the project?
That was a fun and exciting project. Personally, I have always wanted to work in a musical and make documentaries on musicians or music while at it. During Covid, I was stuck in Santiniketan and I was talking to Abrar when he suggested that we make something. After Arnob & Friends Live, much had changed and we thought it would be good to do something new with the new members under the title of Arnob & Friends 2. Abrar was the one who suggested we make a film on top of that so the film was basically done using songs from Arnob & Friends 2. The process also helped me figure out the details of filming. Filming in a group has always been a learning process where all of us involved are constantly in the process of learning.
You’ve gone on tours, and performed at venues large and small here in Bangladesh, and in India. Do you have a favorite?
I don’t have anything particular like that, but I have also always just appreciated and admired performing at college campuses in general over ticketed shows.
Studio vs stage. Do you have a preference?
This is difficult as they are both very distinct spaces. I think I would prefer the stage. The spirit that is created when performing on a stage truly binds a team together. It might not be possible for a group of people to speak effectively but it is very much possible for them to be able to sing effectively on stage. I would say there is nothing quite like that.
What is currently on your playlist?
Currently, I have been listening to Western classical and Indian classical. I have also been paying attention to contemporary artists, and I ended up mentioning most of them in a previous question but the book I mentioned earlier (Kudrat Rang-Birangi by Kumar Prasad Mukhopadhyay) is beautiful and highly informative when it comes to suggestions on musicians and their respective stories.
What is next for Shayan Chowdhury Arnob other than the upcoming album that you mentioned?
I am attempting to do a bunch of things and I haven’t sorted them out yet, but right now I am building a team for my line of shoes and t-shirts so that I can streamline them. I am also working on a musical. My painting will also have to continue. There will be a big interesting surprise in the near future where we will be working with Pakistan and India and I am very excited about it.
Fashion Direction & Styling: Mahmudul Hasan Mukul
Photographer: Adnan Rahman
Make-up & Hair: Aura Beauty Lounge
Assistant Stylist: Arbin Topu