Rock music in Bengal is centred mostly in Kolkata. There are two strands to it – the immensely popular rock music scene in Bengali, called Bangla rock, born in Kolkata in the mid-1970s with the formation of Moheener Ghoraguli, and rock music in English, which has had comparatively fewer well-known and versatile acts.
Moheener Ghoraguli was inspired by Bob Dylan and many other western artistes. Their music was a mixture of a wide variety of influences, including folk traditions of Bengal like Baul. It played at sold-out concerts in and around Kolkata was very popular especially among the youth. However the traditional streams of Bengali music were still very popular and Bangla rock did not really cut much ice among the masses.
After Moheener, there was not much Bangla rock to speak about in West Bengal. On the other hand, inspired by Moheener, Bangla bands began to form in Bangladesh in the 1980s. As a concept, Bangla rock hit the mark almost immediately there. It achieved a level of popular appeal which was till then only wished-for here.
The scene in West Bengal changed with the arrival Suman Chattopadhyay and his brand of jibonmukhi gaan. Among his prime influencers was Bob Dylan, but his music was not Bangla rock. It was more the protest songs of Dylan, Pete Seeger and others which influenced him. Of course Suman branched out to other topics other than protest as well – about the various aspects of life. He was soon followed by Nachiketa in his own inimitable style. He also gained a huge fan following. Suman and Nachiketa, and later Anjan Dutta, achieved a level of mass adulation especially among the youth not seen before. And it was not just the young ones; their popularity seeped to a much deeper level.
Suman and Nachiketa popularised the concept of a person singing solo on stage with a guitar slung around his neck, with the songs written (mostly) by the singers. This was markedly different from the way Bengali music had been traditionally sung. A new form of music had taken root.
This helped bring Bangla rock back to the fore – the only difference was that with Bangla rock it was mostly a group on stage rather than an individual. Now Bengal began to give competition to Bangladeshi bands as well, and this has continued over the years, with rock artistes of each region gaining immense following and respect in the other’s.
The 1990s were therefore the time when Bangla rock was reborn, and when it really gained the kind of following aspired for earlier by Mohiner Ghoraguli. And there has been no looking back.
It could not achieve the fame it really wanted in the 1970s. After a few years of honest hard work, the band broke up seeing little of what it had aspired for. The revival and re-evaluation came in the early 1990s. Gautam Chattopadhyay, called Moni da by near and dear ones, with the help of some of the old band mates and some new ones, revived old numbers and created new ones, and compiled them into the album, Abar Bochhor Kuri Poray. The songs became a huge hit and influenced a lot of others to take up Bangla rock. Bangla rock created a genre for itself. Gautam's death in 1999 was sudden. An entire generation of budding musicians who had been popularised by Gautam in Kolkata mourned his untimely death and a tribute album Moni Chhara Shunyo Laage was released. The influence of Gautam and Moheener Ghoraguli continues to be felt in Bangla rock and they have left an immortal legacy in Bengali music, in fact, arguably, in music in India.
The name ‘Moheener Ghoraguli’ was taken from a poem called 'Ghora' by the modern poet Jibananda Das, whose new and different take on poetry inspired the band to create their then unique brand of music. It must be noted that herein also, apart from the music itself, is a similarity with their idol, Bob Dylan. Dylan was also very much influenced by a poet, by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s modern English poetry, and took up the poet’s name as part of his pseudonym (original name was Robert Allen Zimmerman).
Krosswindz have played all over India and abroad, and have helped urbanise the folk music of Bengal and have tried to make it popular. Krosswindz is one of the few Bangla rock bands who have female singers in their lead vocals. The band was formed in 1990, and started out playing at college festivals. They have toured all over India and have played at all major college festivals and stadium concerts. The band has performed and collaborated with internationally reputed names like Herbie Hancock (USA), Sky High (Sweden), Tizian Jost (Germany), Pandit Ramesh Mishra (sarangi player) and The Jazz Ambassadors (USA). The band's music has been featured in numerous documentary films and commercials.
Krosswindz are the first band from the eastern region to release an album of English originals way back in 1993 called Singles. Another album of English originals, called One World, was released in 2002 .They have nine albums in Bengali. Krosswindz toured the US in 2007, when they also played for Sandusky Radio in Seattle. Lead guitarist and the band’s lynchpin, Vikramjit 'Tuki' Banerjee is also a brand ambassador of the well-known USA-based guitar manufacturer, Schecter Guitars. BBC Radio London has done a full live interview and unplugged concert with Krosswindz.
According to the band, Cactus derived their name from the fact that the music scene was then (early 90s) devoid of life as in a desert. And as they say, despite the odds, like a cactus, they have survived. Cactus was formed way back in 1992, inspired by the likes of Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden and others. Their journey started with the purpose of doing rock’n'roll in a language closer to the soil, that is, Bengali, thereby expanding their vistas and erasing existing limitations. Cactus went on to become the first ever professional Bangla rock band.
The professional debut of the band took place on March 6, 1993 at Aban Mahal, Kolkata. The first self-titled album, released in 1999 from HMV, became a rage with a touch of blues and psychedelic rock. In 2002, for the first time in the history of Bangla music, a Bangla rock band was associated with a Bengali film, Nil Nirjone. Cactus composed and performed all the songs along with a bit of acting thrown in. Their latest album, an experimental one, is titled Blah Blah Blah. They have toured all major cities of India and extensively toured the US as well.
Hip Pocket is a classic rock band. Their formation happened in a casual manner. One fine day in 1996, drummer Nondon Bagchi called up other musicians, which led to the formation of this band. Nondon is now the only existing original member of the band. They started as a pop band but later turned to classic rock. They also play hard rock in concerts. The band has been able to attract audiences and became famous after performing at Someplace Else in Park Hotel regularly. They now perform there every Wednesday and Friday night. Their early influences were Rolling Stones, Beatles, Pink Floyd and The Doors. Though they began playing Pink Floyd much later, they realised that it works best for them. All the members have had varied influences over a period of time.
Hip Pocket as a policy plays only covers. While Hip Pocket play only covers, they ensure that every song they play has their signature style to it, making the end product worth it. The band that has played for over two decades has undergone several changes in their line-up; however, as a tribute to their style, the changes have not compromised their fan base.
Fossils is considered one of the pioneering acts in Kolkata's Bangla rock music scene. Fossils came to be at a time when Bangla rock was taking baby steps. Rupam Islam, after his debut solo album in 1998, went on to form Fossils a year later. They were a handful of musical colleagues who shared Rupam’s vision of a band that would push the envelope in contemporary Bangla rock. Within a short span of four years, Fossils went from strength-to-strength to become the most popular Bangla band in India, largely due to its explosive live shows and introspective and cathartic lyrics with melodic aggression, pushed forth further by the release of their second album Fossils 2 in 2004. Fossils 2 was the first album from Bengal to get a corporate sponsorship.
Their music is flavoured by a blend of blues, rock and psychedelia, along with Rupam Islam's vocal renditions of his characteristic psychoanalytical lyrics. They are noted for their social commentary and advocation of causes such as the welfare of HIV positive people. In fact, Fossils was the first Bangla band to compose a special song for those living with HIV (the music music video of which also had Usha Uthup and HIP positive people). The Fossils official fan club – Fossils Force – regularly organises special programmes in aid of the less privileged.
It is near-impossible to be unaware of Skinny Alley if you’re a music fan in Kolkata. Each member of the original lineup of the band played in professional bands since the late ‘70s, years before Skinny Alley was formed in 1996. Their inception was, as vocalist Jayashree Singh put it, just a reinvention of all those bands. The city had a definite scene going, but at the time, it was heavily cover-song driven. Starting off as a cover band themselves, with virtuoso guitarist Amyt Datta, Jayashree’s late husband Gyan Singh on bass, Jeffrey Menezes on keys and Jeffery Rikh on drums, from the mid-1990s Skinny Alley shifted to writing their own music. The ‘90s saw the Kolkata music scene divided between English bands and the growing, more accessible Bangla rock movement. According to Nondon Bagchi, “Skinny Alley is a band for music intellectuals. They have made a nice statement and charted a distinct individual path of their own.”
The band’s debut album, Escape the Roar, released in 2003, has a mature pop-rock sound. It was the first English Indian indie album to be distributed by EMI Records (then Virgin). Escape the Roar is an impeccably clean record, composed of short, poignant narratives, focusing heavily on Jayashree Singh’s versatile voice. Their second full-length studio album, Songs from the Moony Boom, released in 2007, featured a much more unbridled sound, and was recorded entirely live. Skinny Alley has left a definite mark on Kolkata in the 20 years of their existence, a very large part of which has to do with the people involved in the band, and their impact on almost every musician in the city.
Members of Skinny Alley. Gyanwant Singh (2nd from right) died a few years back
The rock band Lakkhichhara was formed in 1999. Initially they played professionally in college fests, hotels and pubs. Year 2001 saw Lakkhichhara's debut album Megha Malhar. The album was not commercially successful but had some major hits like ‘Care Corina’ and ‘Shudhu Chai Tomay’ courtesy radio play on FM channels in Kolkata. In 2003 they recorded their second studio album – Jibon Chaichhe Aro Besi. Their 2005 album, named Eka, was a huge success. They have now become one of the most sought after and highest paid Bangla bands of Kolkata. There has been a lot of chopping and changing of the band members over the years but that has not affected their popularity. They started playing as a soft rock band but gradually changed to rock and hard rock.
The band has anchored a popular weekend game show Chhakka Noile Fakka on Akash Bangla, which was a big success. The members have also appeared as judges on Hau Mau Khau, a game show on Zee Bangla TV, Band-E-Mataram (I & II), and Rock Idols and numerous other college fests. They are currently busy recording for their next album, which promises to be very interesting venture because that would contain some of the old but memorable songs that would be arranged and performed quite differently. They have recorded four studio albums and released many singles. They have also composed the anthem song for the Indian Cricket League (now defunct) team Royal Bengal Tigers.
Writing about rock music in Kolkata (and Bengal) cannot be complete without Amyt Datta, the virtuoso guitarist. He is also a session musician, teacher and mentor. Datta, who commands a sort of demigod status with guitar fans across the country, is widely acknowledged to be one of the most innovative guitarists around today. He toured extensively with the rock band Shiva from mid-1980s to the early 1990s. He now plays and composes for experimental band Pinknoise, pop/rock band Skinny Alley, and his own solo work, often in collaboration with Jivraj Singh.
In the late 70s Amyt met Jayashree and Gyan Singh at Beatstock, the La Martiniere band competition. They soon became friends and longtime collaborators. By the age of 20 he was playing all over India, primarily with one of the most notable rock acts of that era called Shiva. Amyt along with his brother Monojit performed under the moniker D for Brother. The duo composed over a hundred songs and performed concerts filled with intricate stage and lighting design, real time sound design and subtle theatrics.
Among his collaborators have been famous musicians like Trilok Gurtu, Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Louiz Banks, George Brooks, Pete Lockett, Carl Clements, Ranjit Barot, Nicolas Fiszman, Amit Heri, Pam Crain, Bickram Ghosh et al. He has performed at, among others, SAARC South Asian Bands Festival, Festival of Thinkers (Abu Dhabi), Rock Garden (London), Digidesign Eleven Guitar Processor Workshop, At Home Festival, Eastwind Festival and Congo Square JazzFest, and has had numerous appearances as a performer and clinician at venues such as The Blue Frog, Max Mueller Bhavan, and college festivals across the country.
Written by Anushtup Haldar for M3.tv