The Rise And Fall of Non-Film Music in Kolkata

This entry was originally posted at anuranon

For a few years when I was in my preadolescence, my favourite (Bengali) band was Cactus (ক্যাকটাস). I loved its early 00s mellow aesthetics; I loved the blues, pop-rock and psychedelic flux, bedded with the furor over creative and pioneering ideas. It was an odd thing. Especially for someone of that tender age who didn’t understand a single word singing along with the guitars and drums. It’s difficult to articulate now exactly what I liked about the band at that time beyond that the music resonated with my general preadolescent angst, but I do remember headbanging with the guitar riffs and drums every time I listened to them.

I continued to follow Cactus along with other bands and solo acts like Fossils, Krosswindz, Chandrabindoo, Anjan Dutta, Nachiketa Chakraborty, Bhoomi, Lakhhichhara, Srikanto Acharya, Lopamudra Mitra and the trailblazer Moheener Ghoraguli for several more years til the late 2009 or early 2010. The enthusiasm, however, gradually waned. The more time passed, the less likely it seemed that I would ever retake interest in listening to my once favourite musical acts from the early to mid to late 00s, let alone their less “popular” albums released in 10s or later that were not doing any good with numbers.

I was not the only one who lost interest in bands and artists who had been releasing music outside the film realm. TV and radios, too, were not as attentive in playing their tracks as they were before. Album sales and streams plunged and some bands even disbanded and came back with new members. Cactus took its heavy upshot when one of the primary vocalists Abhijit Barman (Pota) left. In an interview with Calcutta Times Pota alluded, “Sidhu was insecure having me around. He wouldn’t allow me to do my kind of music. To carry on without me was the band’s decision, not mine. Cactus has hit rock bottom now. It was a different band altogether even a few years back. My parting shot to them is that ‘Manusher theke gaan kere niona, manush k gaan dao’. ” (‘Don’t take away music from people, give them the music’.) In the same interview Sanjay, the former guitarist of the band, said, “You really want to know why I left the band? It’s because the musical incapabilities of the other band members, particularly their frontman, Sidhu (Front Vocalist).”

Although Cactus never left the public eye, they did not either accrue many new listeners after the late 2000s for their new releases. Instead, most fans, including me, retrospectively cite the self-titled debut album: Cactus, Nil Nirjane (Film), and Rajar Raja, as the band’s cornerstone outputs.

Fossils, on the other hand, kept on retaining its eminent status for its founder and vocalist Rupam Islam’s craftsmanship, lyricism and fame. There was a slow burning path to success. Formed when Rupam performed a stage show on 9th January, 1999 at Najrul Mancha as Rupam Islam and Group. In which he announced that henceforth he will perform as FOSSILS. The initial audience reaction to the band’s music was not encouraging. Thus, Fossils has had a (once) failed album (self-titled album: Fossils) under their belt that is now considered one of the classics and a ‘cult’ album. With 8 releases to their credit, the band sits on top as one of the most influential bands in West Bengal.

Rupam Islam’s solo performances, however, have been on the verge of its repute lately, even though we are yet to get used to seeing him alone on the stage with a guitar, a synthesizer, a ukulele and a mouth organ performing anything but Fossils most famous tracks. His Chandni te Unmad Ekjon and Daniken from the album Notun Niyom (solo) went nationally trending #3 and trending #5 on YouTube in 2017. Singing for multiple films, both in West Bengal and nationally has made him one of the most prominent musical acts in India. While Fossils shines brighter with a veil of psychedelia in its lyricism and song writings, their latest project; Fossils 6 hasn’t done much in terms of numbers. The relatively short project has yet to leave its mark upon the audiences that gave its predecessors a classic status.

If commercial sensibility is the key factor of greatness and success, there is Krosswindz who, among many others, helped urbanize and popularize the folk music of West Bengal and were played, probably the most numbers of times on TV and radios. There is more depth to Krosswindz’s early to mid 00s releases than mere effects like distortion, wah wah and flanger. And one of them is surely Chandrani Banerjee’s voice, a former member of the band Bhoomi. They had a soulful vibe in their songwriting, too, that mere copycats could not replicate; a soulful vibe that cannot be copied or learned from a sheet of music. That is probably a reason there has not been another band like Krosswindz in later years.

Talking about urbanizing the folk music tradition of Bengal, Bhoomi’s music can be defined as urban folk. With a fusion of modern and urban lyrics with rural folk tunes (mostly baul) the band had reinvented a whole new genre of music with its two front-man Soumitra Ray and Surojit Chatterjee. But more than a decade after the band shot to fame with their debut album Jatra Shuru, Surojit Chatterjee called it a day for an internal fight between him and Soumitra started around 2011.

Other solo acts like Rupankar, Lopamudra Mitra and Srikanto Acharya took the path of adhunik gaan (modern music) and Rabindra Sangeet while artists like Kabir Suman, Nachiketa and Anjan Dutta were hugely influenced by Gautam Chattopadhyay’s Jibonmukhi Gaan and took it to a new level of popularity. Anjan Dutta had his music widely swayed by blues, bluegrass and country music. His debut album Shunte Ki Chao? made it a truly nostalgic and melancholic entry to his discography with tracks like 2441139 (Bela Bose) and Ranjana. Additionally, he contributed to movie soundtracks, directed and acted in multifarious movies and theaters. His first film Chalachitra has brought him the prize for the best newcomer actor at the Venice Film Festival as well. Meanwhile, Nachiketa Chakraborty’s early releases immensely resonated with the regular folks and their ways of living and struggling in the city and its suburbs. His first 14 albums from 1993 to 2008 were among the massive hits played on radio and television. But what has made Anjan Dutta, Kabir Suman, and Naachiketa’s music so extraordinarily special is, I think, that they resonated with a general sense of societal dissatisfaction, the simultaneous excitement and anxiety GenX listeners felt towards the new era of society and technology and a feeling of entrapment in capitalism.

The Starting Point

In 1970 the stagnation of Bengali music was mostly songs from the movies. They were the dominant market force pushed forward for both the commercial and artistic successes. Kolkata’s streets, once crowded with horse-drawn carts, taxis, tana rickshaw, bicycles, and cows were drawn to music from Hemanta Mukherjee, Salil Choudhury, Manna Dey, Sandhya Mukherjee, Lata Mangeshkar, Shyamal Mitra, R.D Barman, Aarati Mukherjee, Geeta Dutta, Kishore Kumar and various others. People wanted music that resonated with what they were wishing to be rather than what they really were. At that time, in 1975, the establishment of Moheener Ghoraguli was radically new and unknown to the people of Kolkata. Originally the group called themselves Saptarshi until the name Moheener Ghoraguli was proposed by Ranjon Ghosal; which was borrowed from a poem by Jibanananda Das, titled Ghora .

In a short and confounding career, Moheener Ghoraguli introduced the notion of what rock, jazz and folk music was capable of in Bengal. The band challenged the preconception in every way possible and influenced others to inaugurate something novel and fresh. In such bigoted and prejudiced aura of soothing melody, Moheener Ghoraguli, with its unorthodox and nonconformist song writings and lyrics about politics, poverty, injustice, revolution, love, loneliness, even begging and prostitution, could not fetch much of the people’s attention. With Gautam Chattopadhyay’s strong political belief in socialist and communist (to the extent of naxalite movement) ideology during the 1960 and 1970, the band reflected their outlook on politics in their musical output and seeded the conjecture of Jibanmukhi Gaan (Songs of ordinary life) that was later blossomed and popularized by Nachiketa, Kabir Suman and Anjan Dutta. The Band played together til 1981 and then dissolved until a Presidency student Subrata Ghosh, an ardent lover of music fell in love with a song bhalo lagay jotsnay kash boney chhut tay and became acquainted with Gautam Chattopadhyay (Moni Da) music. It was around this time when youths, who wanted to break the traditional tide of Bengali music, stared hanging out in Gautam Chattopadhyay’s apartment in Naktala. Gautam Chattopadhyay with the immense support from Subrata and other fans and followers wrote the most revolutionary compositions like prithibi, telephone, bangalee Korechoo which were markedly different in style than what had been going on with the music of Kolkata.

Kabir Suman, on the other hand, was another pioneer of alternative Bengali music in Kolkata. He advocated a new trend in Bengali music with songs that were written, composed and sung, all by a single individual and was probably the first ‘known’ multi-instrumentalist in Kolkata. His contemporary urban, socially conscious songwriting and lyrics which were primarily influenced by artists like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs and genres like Fado and Russian chanson drew on both Bengali adhunik (modern) and protest music and hugely inspired artists like Anjan Dutta, Nachiketa and Rupam Islam in later years.

The Breaking Point

Is rock music dead? Or is the era of Bengali adhunik sangeet (modern songs) gone? Except they are played every now and then at the puja pandels or at the parties. People get drunk and people get nostalgic and people play songs like “Amar sarata din meghla akash brishty tomake dilam” by Srikanto Acharya or “Tomay chute chawoar muhurtora” by Anindya Bose and “Hasnuhana” by Fossils.

I know some of these guys with acoustic guitars who love to play and preach Holud Pakhi and Cholo Amra ki soby bondhu hote parina anywhere they get a chance at. People like to sing along with them too. These songs are the Wonderwall of Kolkata. People love them despite mainstream media’s death knell sound towards rock music: “Rock is dead”. After all, you can only do so much with the combo of guitars, bass, and drums. And anything outside this realm is not real “ROCK” music. In the late 60s, rock critics like Richard Meltzer and Nic Cohn believed that rock’s evolution from the wild-eyed innocence of early rock ‘n’ roll in the 50s to the druggy self-indulgence of the late ’60s killed the music’s original outlaw spirit. In 1971, folk singer Don McLean echoed these sentiments in an FM radio staple “American Pie,” in which he coined the phrase “the day the music died” to signify the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper. Well, rock music is dying ever since it was born! That’s true. In the late ’80s, rock died because of the preponderance of hair-metal bands on MTV. A few years later, rock died because white suburban kids had finally embraced hip-hop. After that, rock died because Kurt Cobain committed suicide. And then rock died again because Rolling Stone decided in the mid-’90s to put The Prodigy on their cover. The story goes on. The riots at Woodstock in 1999, the rise of boy bands, and on and on and on. What differed was all those years it somehow dominated the charts.

But, In all sorts of domain, aughts need to evolve in order to stay viable. Many of the think-pieces that advocate for rock music always fall into those same clutch of predictable tropes written by some guy reminiscing on the bygone heyday of the niche genre. But the truth is; it did, indeed, fade out over times or so it seems, and that is, not only in Kolkata, but all over the world. Even if there have never been as many rock bands in as many different subgenres making as many good to great records as there are at this very moment. Even if someone augments the genre and adds elements from blues, jazz and folk virtuosity over again (because all these strategies have been tried and done by mid 00s). If you have been to festivals in recent years, you know rock bands don’t move the needle at all anymore when it comes to that festival. These events would be crazy not to book Arijit Singh or Anupam Roy or any big electronic musician off oversea if they had the chance, both for the influence and incomparable hype they have been able to create by scoring and signing in movies or in general.

I know, it’s a hard fact to swallow, especially for the people who don’t look outside the genre. How is rock dead when Fossils just rocked the Maharaja Manindra Chandra College at Nazrul Mancha or act like Imagine Dragons became the first band in chart history to occupy the top four spots on Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart? These may sound promising but these aren’t all that transcendent or magical; at all. From an industry standpoint, rock has been swallowed in all measures of vogue and profitability by baul, hip-hop, especially trap and mumble rap, R&B, pop, EDM and overall, music made for movies. And there’s no denying in that. Even albums like One More Light from rock giant Linkin park, released back in 2017, whose sound, seemed to materialize out of thin air that only came from years of subservient devotion to craft, barely made any hype among the rock heads and critics.

Male dominating bands, too, or avowedly, sexism has played a bigger role in rock’s or Bengali adhunik sangeet‘s downright unpopularity in Kolkata. The pathological thrust on albums like Cactus Cactus, Fossils Fossils or anything that influenced the fans the most and made the genre popular are the instances of how, mostly men, especially in their early to mid-adulthood, for the most part, were given the space to think, emote or be bored or present their opinion and perspectives by men who vocalized their words through music. If you’re thinking of this as anecdotal, think of the bands came out of Canada where female singers featured prominently in the output. They became the heart of the indie rock scene. They became the difference-maker. Neko Case and Kathryn Calder in the New Pornographers; Emily Haines in Metric; Régine Chassagne in Arcade Fire; Haines, Leslie Feist, Amy Millan, and Lisa Lobsinger in Broken Social Scene are some of the prime examples in a decade of indie and rock when, in Kolkata, male voices seemed to be regaining prominence, frigidity and boredom and the leading women artist band like Krosswindz went silent and bad.

If you take a closer look at the most popular rock bands of our time, regardless of their nationality, you’ll find that today’s best emerging bands often feature women and people of color, as well as lesbian, gay, and transgender musicians. Rock shows, once associated with guys, have increasingly become denominated as a safe space for all kinds of people to gather. While on the other hand, film’s music, in Kolkata, are being hugely dominated by female artists and helping women to resonate more with an overall emotion of the songs. shreya Ghosal, Somlata Acharya, Iman Chakraborty, Lagnajita Chakraborty, Monali Thakur, Trisha Chatterjee are among some of the most prominent vocalists currently working in Kolkata along with actresses as a protagonist in a film to help resonate even more. One of the many reasons why film music has gained so much exposure in the 10s. Meanwhile, Moheener Ghoraguli’s co-founder and one of the city’s prominent music personalities, Ranjon Ghoshal, has been accused of sexual harassment by two women who took to social media to state their ordeal. In a Facebook post, a woman accused Ghoshal of paedophilia, writing, “I was 16 when Ghoshal solicited a sexual relationship with me.” On which, in an interview with Calcutta Times, Gautam Chattopadhyay’s son, Gaurab, stated, “He was a founder member and was involved in designing the covers of the EPs and made lyrical contributions to the band. The group would always write songs collectively under the name ‘Moheener Ghoraguli’. Ghoshal was not a musician per se; he used to compare the shows. The band that he was part of was disbanded in the early 80s. My father, Gautam Chattopadhyay, worked on the Moheener Ghoraguli Sampadito Bangla gaan er album in the ’90s with new artistes and musicians.”

While the male dominating Bangla bands was among the reasons of immersing band and non-film music culture in the city, there’s no denying in that film-industry’s influence upon TV and radio slots that made film music a runaway hits and reduced the stream of independent artists’ music. Especially, after Neel Dutt entered in the scene with Bong Connection, a lot started to happen in terms of new age music of Bengali movies. Neel Dutt, jeet Gannguli, Shantanu Moitra and Anupam Roy added a lot of value to films’ music. In a Calcutta Times interview Cactus front-man said, “There’s no dedicated slot either on FM stations or on TV. After 2010, non-film songs on these mediums have become less than 1% of all the music aired. On the other hand, film songs are getting played constantly, making them runaway hits, as producers are buying all the slots. Also, album sales have gone down and music companies are not benefiting a great deal from digital sales. The YouTube viewership of our last album, Blah, Blah, Blah was moderate. One has to keep the inquisitiveness alive.” Cactus has lost out on 30% shows since December 2014. “Anupam (Roy) is a popular singer-songwriter, but his film albums are bigger hits than his nonfilm albums,“ Sidhu (Cactus front-man) rued. In the same interview Chandrabindoo front-man Anindya Chattopadhyay said, “Every year, in December-January, we do around 20 shows. It’s been the same since 1998. But over time, we have moulded our songs to make them more acceptable. Earlier, there was tremendous excitement about band music. It started drying down after 2005. But then, singers like Anupam, Somlata and several others have come up who do original music.”

Back in 2013, on the same day when the death of telegram had been confirmed, I heard the news of Music World closing down its last store on Park Street. “Hundreds of musicians, technicians and artists from West Bengal are set to participate in a protest against piracy, digitisation and indiscriminate Internet music download (on) June 20 here in the wake of Music World deciding to shut its landmark store in the hep and stylish Park Street.” reported News18 on June 14, 2013. The closing act showed us a lot about the time we live in where the time frame for obsolescence is getting even shorter every day. Music World, the shimmering retail store, coloured purple like Barney the dinosaur, at where the five words would always meet: “meet me at music world”, once witnessed hundreds of people standing in the queue to get their copy of albums from Cactus or Fossils, was a serious landmark for music released by bands or individual artist outside the film realm. In 2007, on the day of the release of Fossils’ fourth album; Aupodartho in that Park Street retail, the throng turnout was so unexpectedly huge that fans had to be turned out and the outlet’s premises closed. The police had a tough time controlling the crowd. The release eventually happened on the same day, with Rupam Islam placing himself atop a stool outside the outlet and addressing the fans without a microphone. These were authentic times gone with the store and the music it prospered. Meanwhile, the city is left with a ferment feeling of having its own romantic notion of nostalgia for a time left in 2013. In a city like Kolkata and a state like West Bengal, nostalgia is a serious business inasmuch as it’s always on its verge of change and dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction towards mangoes that never test as good as the mangoes in the orchards in the east. Dissatisfaction towards the hilsa fish of West Bengal’s Hooghly River that is a poor cousin of the great hilsa cruising down the mighty Padma in the east. Dissatisfaction towards music that does not sound as good as they would in a city that was once also called Calcutta. Time made this dissatisfaction even sharper. So we dropped the “West” from Bengal and renamed Calcutta to only Kolkata to wipe away the whole history and pretended that the dissatisfaction never took place. But in a city like Kolkata, where nostalgia is probably the only serious business, does anything ever truly die?

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