DVDylan ID: D814
Recording type: ProShot
City/Venue: Shillong, India
Date: Wednesday, 21st May 2008

Bob Dylan’s Indian Birthday: Imitation is the highest form of flattery

BBC Four Documentary
Storyville: Bob Dylan’s Indian Birthday
Broadcast: BBC Four, May 21st 2008, 10pm
PAL 16x9, Running Time 38:54
Menu with Chapters at Key points
Captured from Broadcast, transferred and authored by JTT, May 2008

Bob Dylan’s birthday on May 24 is celebrated in many different ways around the globe but perhaps the most unlikely and idiosyncratic of these celebrations is an annual festival held in the North-Eastern Indian town of Shillong – the “rock music capital of India.” Organized by a local musician and lifelong Dylan fan, Lou Majaw, known as “the Bob Dylan of Shillong”, the celebrations include prizes for people who share the same birthday as Dylan, a Bob Dylan look-alike contest, and most importantly, performances of Dylan material by Majaw and his band at local schools and clubs.

Lou Majaw heard his first Bob Dylan song in 1966 and it changed his life. “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he says, “was magic”, and it made him a Dylan disciple. “I definitely want that magic which happened to me, you know, it should happen to other people as well. People must get to hear him, to know him.” With this in mind, Majaw helped inaugurate an evening of Bob Dylan’s music in Shillong in 1972 and over 30 years later he is still touring with his Dylan show and throwing an annual birthday party in Shillong for his idol. “This” says Majaw, “is my way of saying thank you to him [Dylan] for what he has given to the world.”

This documentary features interviews with Majaw and covers several years of the festival and the tour – organization, band rehearsals, traveling, appearances at local schools and club performances, culminating in the very special series of shows he put on for Dylan’s 60th birthday. It also documents the effects of a rock & roll lifestyle on Majaw’s private life. Majaw performs Dylan songs with passion; what he lacks in musical technique he makes up with dedication and seemingly boundless enthusiasm.

As a day-job, Majaw also teaches children about Bob Dylan’s music in Shillong’s public schools. Indeed, two of the most endearing and enjoyable segments of the film are in the schools – Majaw leading a sing-a-long of Forever Young with a hall full of schoolgirls wishing Bob Dylan a happy birthday and a lunchtime playground concert to celebrate the end of exams with Majaw and band in full flight, roaring Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35 to a yard full of screaming girls all shouting the chorus whilst a smiling principal claps along!

Comment: Majaw comments that in the beginning only a few people were interested but over the years people have become more and more interested in Dylan’s music. Commentators in Indian newspapers echo this observation and equate the interest in more serious Western popular music like Dylan’s with the rise of a subset of Westernized Indians who feel alienated from the essentially commercial pop music culture and turn to the music of the sixties for “authenticity and meaning and something that speaks to their deeper impulses.”

Interestingly, some Dylan fans in India, equate Dylan’s work with an ancient tradition of Bengali mystics and troubadours that is still active today, called Bauls. The poet Rabindranath Tagore was greatly influenced by the Baul tradition and based some of his poems on Baul structures and themes. The religious pluralism of the Bauls resists easy classification but basically their songs celebrate divine love in very earthy terms and champion the individual quest for God/love/truth/beauty through music, dance, and poetry.

According to writer Hitesh Hathi, for some in India the Bauls have the same lyrical ethos as Dylan:

They sing songs, kind of existential songs about the condition of man. But also songs that protest the basic hypocrisy of human life and its political and sociological arrangements, and ask you to look for a world beyond that kind of hypocrisy. And especially in eastern India in the area around Calcutta where these Bauls are particularly popular, that connection has always been powerful for Indians. You know people always say, “Oh Dylan he’s so influenced by the Bauls.

Thanks: Massimo

Stars: This is a difficult disk to rate. It’s certainly not for everybody but if you have an interest in both India and Dylan obsession then it is an enjoyable watch. It is in some ways comparable to D642 A Visit to the Dylan Shrine, in terms of the documentary being more about the devotee than the object of devotion. Two stars sells Dylan’s Indian Birthday too short; four stars grants it too much weight, so bearing all this in mind, three stars.

Reviewed by Leesa on 31st July 2008