How an Assamese singer made Dubai sing his love ballad

Shankuraj Konwar draws inspiration from K-pop to take Assamese music to the global stage


Rituraj Borkakoty

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Top Stories

Assamese singer Shankuraj Konwar. — Facebook
Assamese singer Shankuraj Konwar. — Facebook

Published: Fri 14 Jun 2024, 1:03 AM

Burj Khalifa was not the only gleaming icon on his mind when Shankuraj Konwar, the versatile singer, songwriter and composer from India’s north-eastern state of Assam, was preparing to take off for a spring festival in Dubai.

Of course, the giant structure always had Konwar's attention as he landed here for the first time. But his canvas was also sprinkled with memories of Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible: The Ghost Protocol, in which the American icon jumps off a window to climb up several floors of the world’s tallest skyscraper in a jaw-dropping action scene.

“Dubai always reminds me of Tom Cruise and that unbelievable stunt in Burj Khalifa,” he told City Times.

No wonder Konwar, who draws a lot of inspiration from Prince’s Purple Rain, is still fascinated by the Mission Impossible writers’ imagination, which gave birth to that iconic scene.

Konwar is not the average young visitor who would keep Dubai’s most famous places on his bucket list for Insta reels.

He has always been different. For a man who quit his job in 2016 as a mechanical engineer to chase his musical dreams, Konwar now has the young generation in his state drooling over his symphony of melodies.

Supplied photo
Supplied photo

There are no attention-grabbing videos on YouTube where his tools are mostly creative artworks, reflecting the mood of his style of music based on EDM-influenced rhythms, and a heady mix of lyrical allegories and a deep, soulful voice.

In an age where people’s attention span is as short as 30-second Insta reels, Konwar's sincerity towards good music is leaving a lasting impression on youth.

Conversations through music

All of his songs on YouTube had been released under Project Baartalaap (conversation in Assamese), a concept created by him and a few of his friends.

“After quitting my job, I went to Mumbai to do my Masters at Tata Institute of Social Sciences where, apart from studies, there were a lot of jam sessions with friends,” he recalled.

But what really set the wheels in motion was an event hosted for people with disabilities in December 2016.

“We met a lot of people who can only communicate in sign languages in that event,” he said. “That day the word disability inspired us to look into ourselves and realise where we actually stand. Yes, many of us can speak many a language, but we still can be lost for words when it comes to expressing ourselves. Sometimes we don’t find the right words to express our love.

“So that inspired us to express our thoughts musically. That’s how the concept of Project Baartalaap was born. It was about having conversations through music, through poetry and art.”

Supplied photo
Supplied photo

The beauty of art

Their music based on a one-of-a-kind concept has garnered millions of views on YouTube. But Shankuraj, who is deeply indebted to Maitrayee Patar, a celebrated Assamese author, singer and songwriter for adding her creative spark to his work, says he had no idea that Project Baartalaap would make such an impact in Assam.

“We didn’t have any ambition to change any trend. Even when we started releasing our songs on YouTube, trying to build a music career was never our aim. We only wanted to reach an audience on YouTube,” he said.

“We never wrote songs to appeal to the masses. But people have accepted us and loved our music. Maybe, that’s the beauty of art.”

K-pop inspirations

Spurred on by Project Baartalaap's success, Konwar's greatest desire now is to take the contemporary regional music of Assam to a bigger stage. And the 33-year-old singer has turned to K-pop for inspiration.

“I love Korean music, their melodies. The most remarkable thing about them is how they have managed to reach a global audience despite being such a small country,” he said.

“We don’t understand their language, but we have accepted it because of the melody in their music.

“They have inspired me to dream and take Assamese music to pan-India level at least. I would love to see the day when music lovers across India would be listening to our music.”

Photo courtesy Robin Mazumdar
Photo courtesy Robin Mazumdar

Love for ‘non-film music’

Konwar, whose vocals have also featured in Panchayat, the hugely popular web series, then reveals what makes Assamese music unique in India.

“The musical landscape in Assam has never been dominated by film music because our non-film music has been so rich. Unlike most other states in India, the average music lover has never been obsessed with film music or Bollywood music in Assam,” he said.

“I think the biggest reason for the rich Assamese non-film musical heritage is the iconic Bhupen Hazarika. He travelled around the world in the 1950s and learned about different cultures and people of diverse backgrounds. It reflected in his music, the sheer depth of his songwriting echoed the spirit of humanity and that’s why he became such a big national icon.

Bhupen Hazarika (right) at the Berlin Festival of Political Songs in 1972. — X
Bhupen Hazarika (right) at the Berlin Festival of Political Songs in 1972. — X

“Also, his younger brother, Jayanta Hazarika (who died at 33), continues to inspire Assamese musicians. Not many people outside of Assam know him, but he created new kinds of sounds and melodies back in the 1960s and 1970s. That was so rich that even if you listen to his music now, it feels fresh and new.”

Love anthem

It was in 2020, just a month before Covid-19 brought the world to a screeching halt, that Konwar arrived in Majuli, a quaint freshwater island in Assam, to perform at a music festival.

Already the most sought-after young Assamese singer, Konwar had no idea that this trip was going to change his life and add the greatest spark to his creative domain.

“It was at that festival that I met her,” Konwar smiled as he opened up about Alakananda, the love of his life. “She was on the organising committee of the festival and I was there to perform. We became friends instantly.”

Then he returned to Mumbai, and the lockdown started. But what even the might of that pandemic could not stop was the feeling of love that was beginning to take root in two young hearts.

“The lockdown for me was tough in Mumbai, but she kept motivating me on the phone (from Assam). She kept supporting me, and inspiring me. I felt a very strong connection with her,” he recalled.

Photo courtesy Robin Mazumdar
Photo courtesy Robin Mazumdar

Konwar was so moved that he turned to his friend Maitrayee to write a new song. It’s a song, Alakananda, that has now become the love anthem in Assam.

“She was in Assam, and she had no idea that I was creating something for her in the middle of a lockdown in Mumbai. I even sneaked out of my apartment in the middle of the night to go to the studio in Mumbai. I just wanted to give her a surprise,” he said.

Alakananda could not hold back the tears when the song came out as millions of music lovers in Assam fell in love with the track instantly.

“It feels like I am living a dream. I never thought that this song would be showered with so much love by people,” he said.

A little over 24 hours after our conversation, Konwar unleashed Alakananda, which is also the name of a river in India, on the stage in what was a surreal Dubai night, making the crowd wave their hands in the air and sing along to every line of his love ballad.


More news from Entertainment