Devdas Chhotray is a leading cultural personality in Odisha. Although widely known for his popular lyrics, Chhotray’s contribution to the cultural sphere is not restricted to songwriting. He is a filmmaker, poet, storyteller and theatre and radio play artiste as well. As an administrator—IAS 1971 batch—he has served as the secretary of the Department of Official Languages under the Ministry of Home Affairs, where he helped create the language archive and initiated large-scale language digitisation in India. As the first vice-chancellor of Ravenshaw University, Odisha, he founded the Akshaya Mohanty Centre for Contemporary Music, the state's first serious academic exercise in the study of popular culture.
Apart from his own achievements, Chhotray is known to be the creative alter-ego of Akshaya Mohanty, arguably the most important cultural icon of post-Independence Odisha. Mohanty was a singer, composer, and lyricist; but above all, a creative genius. The two worked closely even while maintaining their respective identities and cultural personae. Chhotray was Mohanty’s go-to person for romantic songs. Chhotray was different from other film lyricists, who wrote all kinds of situational songs. So, when Akshaya Mohanty started pursuing ghazals seriously, Chhotray was the obvious collaborator. The two laid the foundation for the ghazal genre in Odia. While Mohanty is no more, Chhotray is still active and continues to experiment with singers and composers of the present generation.
In this interview, Chhotray talks about what he considers the defining characteristics of Odia ghazals, tells the story of their initial ghazal journey, and also shares some personal anecdotes. The interview is divided into three sections—the first is about Odia ghazals in general, the second about Akshaya Mohanty, and the third about his own ghazal writing.
Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted in two phases, email and telephone conversation, in September 2018.
Part I: On Odia Ghazals
Shyamanuja Das: Would you consider the Odia ghazal a genre in itself?
Devdas Chhotray: The Odia musical tradition, in my mind, doesn’t have anything that even remotely resembles either the form or the mode of rendition of Urdu ghazals. I don't know why, but they seem to be products of different cultural mores, indigenous to regions and languages they have developed in. It’s like the difference between sarees and salwars, if I were to use apparel as a metaphor.
S.D.: In terms of style, we see that some Odia ghazals do not have a kafiya, the rhyming part of the first, second and subsequent second lines of each sher (an Urdu couplet), that precedes the radif (the common ending word of the lines in the first sher, and the second line of each subsequent sher). The Odia ghazal often has a rhyming radif in the couplet, whereas the Urdu ghazal has one common radif. Of course, many Odia ghazals follow the Urdu pattern of common radif and rhyming qafiya (the word preceding the radif). How did you define ghazals?
D.C.: We considered ghazals as songs that consist essentially of couplets. Instead of the arrangement of ghosha (the first stanza or mukhda in Odia music, sung repeatedly through the song) and then antara (the following stanzas), in ghazals, every pair of lines is self-sustaining and rhyming, as in the Urdu ghazal.
S.D.: Why is the Odia ghazal so uncelebrated despite the popularity of songs like ‘Kalankita ei Nayaka’?
D.C.: It is because of its paucity. Akshaya Mohanty is probably the only one who has succeeded in integrating the ghazal into the modern ethos of Odia music. With the virtual demise of All India Radio (AIR), as a purveyor of songs with new idioms, ghazals of any significance have lost out to the mass market, and are, at the most, used as expressions of nautch girls in theatrical films. Even ‘Kalankita ei Nayaka’ has a clientele; it is limited to the elite. To appreciate ‘Kalankita ei Nayaka’, you need a kind of sensitivity that is lacking in many. The reason some do look out for ‘Kalankita ei Nayaka’ is because it resembles, to some extent, the market persona of Akshaya Mohanty.
S.D.: How close to reality was the persona? After all, a persona is a mask.
D.C.: Yes, and Akshaya Mohanty has said that many times. He said, ‘We do not have grief or sorrow. We make it, and we sell it.’ It is often tragi-comic. Your dominant theme is grief, but you have finer amusement within the usage of words and metaphors… You need a poetic sensitivity to be able to appreciate that. That is why I said that a song like 'Kalankita ei Nayaka' has a limited elite following.
S.D.: There are quite a few Odia albums/songs released as ghazals that are not really ghazals. What is the motivation behind calling them ghazals?
D.C.: Laughs. It started with Akshaya Mohanty, especially after Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh’s ghazals became popular among the masses. The lyrics that they used were easier to understand. Take, for instance, Sudarshan Faakir’s ‘Yeh Daulat Bhi Lelo’. It became immensely popular. Many tried to write and record ghazals. Most of these were not well executed. So there was very little impact.
S.D.: How far does the Urdu ghazal influence the Odia ghazal—as poetry and as music?
D.C.: Urdu poetry, except for some common cinematic words, is not a living source of inspiration for Odia lyricists. However, words like ishq (passion), mohabbat (love), taqdeer (fate), maula (God), khuda (God), mushkil (difficult), etc., do find their way into Odia doggerel, often paraded as lyrics for underrated Odia albums.
S.D.: Odia speakers usually pronounce the last vowel, but you once told me that people in and around Cuttack use halant (a diacritic used in many Brahmi scripts that signify the lack of the last inherent vowel) in many words. This makes them more natural ghazal writers and indicates a symbiotic relationship with Urdu. What do you think?
D.C.: Under the Mughals and Marathas, Odia vocabulary received many words from Urdu and Marathi; in common parlance, these words are referred to as kholti. It does seep into Odia writing—for instance, the Japanese word ‘rickshaw’ and the Persian ‘takia’ (pillow). The best expression of their musical blending is in the lyrical narration used in the worship practices of Satya Pir during Satyanarayan Puja. It is also true of the short-lived Moghul Tamsha (a play written in a mix of Odia, Bengali and Persian, often enacted in the Bhadrakh region of Odisha; the performing art is lost though a copy of the play is available), but it has not managed to generate any tangible academic tradition. It is much more manifest in the spoken word than in lyrics, unless they are imitations of lines from Hindi film songs.
Part II: On Akshaya Mohanty
S.D.: Akshaya Mohanty is undoubtedly the most iconic personality in the Odia music scene. Why was he so fascinated with ghazals?
D.C.: He valued words, their meanings and their use as subterfuges for wit and repartee. That is how he was able to give today’s Odia youth the language they needed to express their different states of emotion.
S.D.: It is said that Diwan-e-Ghalib was always at Akshaya Mohanty’s bedside. Is this true? How much did that influence his ghazal writing?
D.C.: Yes, it is true. I am a living witness. I, too, acquired my own copy of the book from the Wheelers stall at Cuttack Railway Station and put it on my bedside table.
S.D.: You have worked extensively with Mohanty. Which shayars (Urdu poets) inspired you—and him?
D.C.: Ghalib and Mir, and a host of recent ones like Qateel Shifai, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and several others who wrote for Mehdi Hassan, and the renderings of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
S.D.: When both of you discussed a ghazal, where did you usually start—from an Urdu ghazal, any other song that inspired you, an idea, some words that rhyme (say, paapa, gapa, and dipa), or something else?
D.C.: We both shared innovations and ideas, but writing was a private act, exclusive to our respective personae. My habit has been either to start with a word, expression or image; sometimes, I steal from what I have heard and read—I might lift a line from literature—and give it a makeover so it acquires an Odia identity of its own.
S.D.: Do you remember any discussions you had about popular ghazals that either of you wrote?
D.C.: There was no discussion except my envy for what he wrote. We would often boast to each other about the original sources from which we have lifted.
S.D.: Some of the ghazals Akshaya Mohanty sang first on AIR, sound very different on stage. On the radio, each ghazal sounded like any other Odia song, while on stage, the same song seemed akin to Urdu ghazal gayaki (the tradition of singing practised by singers of a particular musical genre, or a particular school of singing) style. Was this done consciously?
D.C.: This could have been the result of many factors. In AIR recordings, there is no audience. On stage, there is an immediate response. So, you emphasise something, repeat something, and end up having a conversation while singing. That does not happen on the radio. Also, later, there were several different instruments on stage, whereas on the radio, there were just the tabla, sarangi and harmonium.
Part III: On His Own Ghazal Writing
S.D.: How were you drawn to ghazals?
D.C.: Their startling quality, both in the meaning of their words and the fervour with which they were rendered, became familiar to me through Vividh Bharti radio, which played film songs. I could name, for instance, films like Pyaasa (1957), Adalat (1958), Jahan Ara (1964), and the like. My mentor, Akshaya Mohanty, however, ingrained their soul and craft in me through regular renderings of both classic and new ghazals, particularly of northern and north-western origin.
S.D.: When did you start writing ghazals? What was the first ghazal you wrote?
D.C.: I cannot recall my first ghazal. I never wrote any perfect ghazals that would correspond with the grammar of Hindi or Urdu ghazal writing. I only write ghazal-like pieces—I am drawn to them sometimes by their saltiness, and more often by their sombre morphology.
However, I do remember the first ghazal I recorded—it was ‘Sneha Ta Bahuta Milila Jeevane, Prema Rahigala Baki’ (One Has Got Lots of Affection in Life, But Love is Still Pending), which was composed and rendered by Akshaya Mohanty for AIR Cuttack. He seemed to have been impressed by the fine but tangible distinction between two Odia words, sneha and prema, which roughly correspond to agape and eros in Latin.
S.D.: Were these compositions tagged as ghazals?
D.C.: No. They were called adhunika (modern). There are three categories: palli gita (rural folk songs), adhunika gita (modern songs), and bhajan (devotional songs). In both AIR programmes and records, ghazals were considered part of the adhunika category.
S.D.: Your ghazal, ‘Umrao Jaan’, was used in a movie with slight modifications, but when you were writing it, what inspired you?
D.C.: A song in Adalat. Can you guess which one? . . . ‘Unko Yeh Shikayat Hai’ (He Has This Complaint). While publishing it, I titled it ‘Umrao Jaan’, as I thought this captured the essence of the character.
S.D.: When it comes to style, which ghazal writer has inspired you the most and why?
D.C.: Akshaya Mohanty. He was very fast and quick-witted.
S.D.: What made you re-record some ghazals in the last few years with Susmita Das and Omprakash Mohanty?
D.C.: I was attempting to create some music in the Akshaya Mohanty genre, but without him. He used to say that I bring poetry to my lyrics while he does the reverse. It was an experiment in that approach. Susmita Das and Omprakash Mohanty were willing partners. So we recorded Nua Luha Puruna Luha,(New Tears, Old Tears), a ghazal album. Our earlier album, Hati Saja Kara (Arrange the Elephant), also had a couple of ghazals.
S.D.: You have often said that for you ghazals once meant songs with some difficult-to-understand words and the sarangi. Do you still hold that opinion?
D.C.: I associate two instruments with the ghazal—the harmonium and the sarangi. In Madan Mohan’s music, for example, the sarangi plays a very important role. There were some sarangi players during the AIR days, but slowly that too faded away.
When we were recording Nua Luha Puruna Luha, Omprakash got a sarangi player from Kolkata. For some reason, it did not work out. Then we hired one from Banaras, who ultimately played for the album. There’s some beautiful sarangi pieces in Nua Luha Puruna Luha.
S.D.: Which, according to you, is your best ghazal, and why?
D.C.: I have not written it yet.
S.D.: Do you have any favourites among the ghazals you have already recorded?
D.C.: Well, it is not easy to say. But one song I particularly like is ‘Chahin’ni Magini Janini Kemiti Asigali Duniaku’ or ‘Duniya’.