Rock-n-roll in India

Before the Christian missionaries from Europe came in with their hymns and violins from the turn of the 20th century, folk music was the dominant form in the Northeastern states.

CHILDHOOD MEMORIES

When I was about eight years old — that would be 33 years ago — I held something intriguing in my hands. It was the cover of a music album in cassette format. By the mid-1980s, our family in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India, had transitioned successfully from records and record players to cassettes and cassette players. Thus, the novelty wasn’t in the cassette, but in the album’s cover art — a white wall, with fractures and cracks in places when the cover was unfolded. Through one such crack in the wall, a pair of giant human legs with buttocks exposed could be seen. My young mind was a little ashamed by the display alright, but more amused and attracted. 

The owner of the cassette was a cousin brother, about ten years my senior. Bubaas he is known in the family, was an acknowledged radical in our middle-class family — in those days of neatly-ironed terrycotton trousers, Buba would wear ripped, distressed jeans; in those days of well-oiled, side-partitioned styles, he would wear his hair long and unruly. In our family where classical Indian dance and music practices were almost religiously practiced, Buba had, on a drunken New Year’s Eve street party, moon-walked and break danced his way down the city’s sin and pleasure strip, Park Street. And in those days of forced teenage celibacy when marriages would be ‘arranged’ by parents; Buba would lock himself up in his room with his girlfriend. Hell, Buba would also nod to the beat of this strange beast, rock music. Of course, I loved him.

In his room while I gaped at the cassette cover of white-washed walls and oversized human bums, Buba played the album, The Wall by a band colourfully called Pink Floyd. Maybe because the chorus had kids of my age singing, or maybe because of what they sang about and laid out on an infectious guitar-bass groove, I remembered these lines playing around my ears, softly imprinting their contents on my young, impressionable mind:

 ‘We don’t need no education / We don’t need no thought control / No dark sarcasm in the classroom / Teachers leave them kids alone…

Could this be for real? Can this be true? Is it even possible that kids my age would be singing about not needing no education, demanding teachers to leave them — us, goddammit, us; that’s how I heard it — alone? Many years before I could understand the full political import of Roger Waters’ lyrics, Buba and Pink Floyd had well and truly taken charge of the imagination, taken the eight-year-old down the golden road to being a rock-n-roll renegade.

TEENAGER

Rock music to me was a shift, a crank up of the decibels from bland modern Indian music; cheap, commercial Bollywood film music emerging out of Mumbai; and bubblegum pop coming in tidal waves from the USA. I was born in 1977 and by the time me and my elder sister by four years had grown an ear for music, it was the mid-80s, a period that one could say was at the trough of the radio age and the emerging crest of the age of television in India. For a while, we had both worlds. On lazy Sunday afternoons, the All India Radio station would air Musical Bandbox, an hour-long Western music show where the likes of Kenny Rogers and Kenny Loggins would exchange their surnames every alternate Sunday and hit songs would be repeated. The programming wouldn’t even be mildly exciting, but in the early ‘80s of India, it was addictive enough.

The coming of television with its single government-owned channel, Doordarshan, wooed us away from the radio. The programming on Doordarshan, catering to an audience base as diverse as the rural farmer and the south Mumbai industrialist, would often be a big yawn. But if elders had their long-running Hindu mythological serial, Ramayana, the younger lot had Pop Time — a weekly show of cheaply produced Indian pop-rock videos by the likes of Alisha Chenoy, Usha Uthup, Gary Lawyer, 13 AD and Shiva — all stars in their own right within the Indian pop and rock firmament. If Pop Time was our weekly fix, the telecast of the Grammy Awards from the US was the annual shot of drug, a show for which we would wait in eager anticipation for one full year for the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Tina Turner and Paul Simon to grace our humble living rooms in distant India.

The sudden proliferation of cheap blank cassettes and cassette recorders-cum-players played its part. One could curate ones’ own mixtape by buying an inexpensive 90-minute spinning blank tape and handing it over to the neighbourhood music retailer with a handwritten list of desired songs. The music shop owner would rummage through his collection and charge us per song recorded on to the blank magnetic tape — about 30 favourite tracks packed in and played back on loop in the little corner darkened room of my childhood.

In those days in India, where only about half-a-dozen models of cars could be seen on the roads; only a single domestic airline would fly the Indian skies; and asinine and formulaic Bollywood music would be the only music entertainment option on the only television channel available, our curated rock music mixtape would be the difference between the mundane and the extraordinary, the conformist and the radical.

ROCK MUSIC

Rock music became our niche as distinct from the guys who jived to Bollywood’s overwhelmingly popular music; we felt posh, and often insecure, as cultural minorities. In later years, I have realized that our mutinous teenage dalliance with rock music and being part of a micro subculture in ‘80s India, would eventually, as adults, sensitize us and lead us away from our middleclass comfort zones towards the issues of minorities and the fringe of Indian society. I have personally Met People with similar musical tastes in remote corners during high-attitude Himalayan treks or at the forefront of mass movements fighting against injustices perpetuated by governments. Rock music made us passionate and it made us political too. In that darkened room, and surely like thousands of other teenagers across India, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and John Lennon were permanently shaping my mind. 

The port cities of Calcutta and Bombay, before they became Kolkata and Mumbai, were also the first ports of call for every other Western cultural influence and trend in India, including rock music. This followed the arrival of jazz back in the 1940s, a genre of music patronized and introduced by the erstwhile British rulers of India and handheld further by the American and European soldiers who passed through or were stationed in the cities during World War II. 

After India gained Independence from the British following a long struggle in 1947, the country went through a long period of consolidation. While dams, power plants, space research agencies, engineering, management and financial institutes, universities and colleges, came up in a massive show of Nehruvian (so called after Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister) exuberance of a young country, India, in its bid to strengthen its own resources and capabilities, remained mostly insular, largely beyond the sway of widespread foreign exports and cultural influences and firmly within the control of an all-encompassing State, exercising not only tight bureaucratic and legal authority but often moral.

For a city like Kolkata, used as it was to being the capital city of imperial India till 1911 and being the first port of call of Western education and a subsequent internationalism and cosmopolitanism in India, this was fertile ground for the insidiously culturally-defiant form of rock music to take off and fertilize. Similarly for Bombay — India’s largest city with the country’s largest port, and a hub of cosmopolitan values.

One of the biggest transmitters of the rock-n-roll culture to India happened with the Simla Beat Contest. Held over five years from 1968 and sponsored by the Kolkata-headquartered Imperial Tobacco Company (now ITC) who pushed their new brand Simla through the hip event, the high-profile contest saw bands from all over India participating, even from faraway non-metro cities like The Fentones (Shillong), Eruptions (Cuttack) and Purple Flower (Ahmedabad).

INDIAN ROCK MUSIC

With a popular youth-centric publication like Junior Statesman, brought out by The Statesman newspaper based in Kolkata, and foreign radio channels like Radio Ceylon and Voice of America backing the emerging youth rock-n-roll culture, bands started mushrooming across India. High-profile India visits by the Beatles, The Police and Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page further galvanized the nascent scene. Yet, rock music remained as a niche, even elitist, English-speaking subculture in India for the next few decades, its strains only occasionally making it to mainstream Bollywood music with the experimental composer, RD Burman. For a long time, bands too would only belt out popular covers of Western acts and original Indian rock music was unheard of.

That changed with a man named Goutam Chatterjee and his Bengali language band, Mohiner Ghoraguli — arguably the first Indian band to use vernacular language, in this case Bengali, to come out with original music that blended rock with folk and jazz. This was in the 1970s, a tumultuous time in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal and its capital city Kolkata where the band was based.

Moheener Ghoraguli performing at Rabindra Sadan, 1979.

Kolkata, since the mid-19th century, was a city that drove social and religious reforms in India. Home of the Bengali ethnic community who are native to the Bengal region, Bengali reformers during the British period initiated moves to ban the heinous Hindu practice of sati, whereby a widow would sacrifice her life in the burning pyre of her deceased husband; they also encouraged girls’ education and the remarriage of widows — issues still unresolved in some parts of India even 150 years later. It was again an upsurge in Indian nationalism led by Bengalis and against the British that was cited as one of the reason for the British shifting their capital city from Calcutta to much safer Delhi in 1911.

Not new to either socio-religious reforms or the lure of revolution, Bengal and Kolkata became one of the main hubs of the Indian communist movement from the early 1950s. In 1977, a democratically-elected communist government came to power in Bengal and was eventually dislodged after a record-making uninterrupted rule of 34 years in 2011. In between, from the late 1960s, there erupted the Naxalite Movement — an ultra left-wing armed insurrection against the government based on the ideology of China’s Mao Zedong. What initially started as a peasants’ uprising against landlords in the north Bengal village of Naxalbari in 1967, soon spread to the cities and the educated youth in colleges and universities of Kolkata were aflame with the dreams of an armed revolution. Many joined the Naxalite Movement, fought pitched battles against policemen and class enemies on roads and in forests, before a government crackdown, amidst allegations of gross human rights abuse by state forces, led to the killing of many young student revolutionaries and the fettering of the nascent movement.

Within the turmoil of the 1970s in Kolkata, the band Mohiner Ghoraguli sang. Led by frontman, Gautam Chatterjee, who was deeply influenced by the Naxalite Movement since his student days, Mohiner Ghoraguli sang original songs in Bengali about the toiling masses, the exploitative gentry, the brutal administration and the birth, anguish and loss of a revolutionary dream. Not used to their experimental presentation and innocent to the concept of Bengali bands (Bengali music, like other regional music, was all about a singer backed by a handful of musicians on stage), audiences rejected the band when they performed in the 1970s. Twenty years later, from the mid-1990s when Chatterjee started re-releasing the band’s music audience were ready.

The stupendous audience reception to the first four albums reissued by Mohiner Ghoraguli also became the Springboard for the emergence of Bengali rock bands in Kolkata, a discernible shift away from bands performing popular covers of English rock bands from the West. From the mid-90s on, Bengali bands like Parash Pathar, Cactus, Abhilasha, Chandrabindoo, Bhoomi, Lakkhichara, and Fossils brought the mother-tongue, racial identity and local sentiments and sensibilities to the middle and centre of the stage, their albums, in turn, plugging into a nascent market and selling in hundreds of thousands of copies.

Kolkata’s Bangla (Bengali) Rock Movement, as it is grandiosely referred to sometimes, laid the foundations for similar appropriation of rock music into other Indian languages like Punjabi, Malayalam and Hindi, with musicians and bands like Rabbi Shergill, Avial, Euphoria and Silk Route achieving both fame and fortune with their fusion of rock and roots. Finally, rock music found its Indian tongue. 

ADULT LIFE

Having spent much of my college and university years as a musician in rock bands in Kolkata, in 2000, I joined the Hindustan Times, one of India’s largest circulated English language newspapers, as a journalist-writer. Continuing with a two-year stint as assistant editor in the Indian edition of the international music magazine, Rolling Stone, a major chunk of my work has been to do with rock music — its reporting, reviewing and the interconnections made between the musical cultures of the East and the West. It is while researching on the stated interconnectedness that I discovered how deep the roots run and how the East and the West have fed off each other. 

Over the years, I have reported and written about Chinmoy, the Bengali guru of guitar legend Santana and the calming role that he played on the guitar player. Then there’s of course, Mahesh Yogi, the Rishikesh-based guru whose influence is credited for the Beatles finding a new sound and voice for their later albums before guru and the band had a fallout; sitarist Ravi Shankar expanding the horizons of rock music through his student, the Beatle, George Harrison; and the Baul folk singers of Bengal, Purna Das and Laxman Das’ collaboration with The Band and Bob Dylan; among many other examples. Along with Ravi Shankar, other Indian classical musicians like Alla Rakha, Ali Akbar Khan, Zakir Hussain, L. Shankar, U. Shrinivas and L. Subramaniam, among others, have left their indelible footprint on the map of western rock and jazz music.

I’ve been mesmerized by the story of Sanjay Mishra, a guitarist from Kolkata, to ended up collaborating as a duo with the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia on the latter’s last recorded album, the poignant and mystical, Blue Incantation. Mishra’s bandmate in Mahamaya, a Kolkata band back in the 70s, was Miti Adhikari, who went on to be the chief sound engineer for the iconic Maida Vale Studios of BBC radio for over three decades during which he got recording credits for the likes of The White Stripes, Radiohead, Coldplay, Neil Young, the Strokes, Oasis, Beyonce, Madonna, REM, and many others. On the other hand, there is Bhaskar Menon, the former Indian head of Capitol Records in the US, who was closely associated in setting up the furthering the careers of the Rolling Stones, Queen, Duran Duran, Iron Maiden and Tina Turner. Menon would be credited by Nick Mason, drummer of Pink Floyd, for having helped the band’s seminal album, The Dark Side of the Moon, attain its iconic status in music history.

In 2009, journalistic research work took me back to the Northeast of India. This is a cluster of seven states among the 29 states that make up the federal union of India. On the country’s map, the Northeast comes across as a fluttering wing pinned lightly to the mainland and fringed on three sides by China, Bangladesh and Myanmar.

If India with 22 major languages, countless smaller languages and dialects; and dress, customs and food habits varying from state to state, is seen as representative of the idea of ‘unity in diversity’, the Northeastern states is as diverse as imaginable, without always being bound by one unifying glue other than the region’s geographical and cultural remoteness from the Indian mainland. With over 200 ethnic groups inhabiting the seven states, each with their own distinct language and culture and often opposed to each other, the Northeast of India is also a deeply fractured land, its faultlines occasionally erupting through fratricidal hatred. Dozens of armed militant groups, the undergrounds (UGs) in common parlance and mostly representing their own tribal and ethnic shades, lead the violent charge.

Despite the background, there’s the ubiquitousness of music in the Northeast. Before the Christian missionaries from Europe came in with their hymns and violins from the turn of the 20th century, folk music was the dominant form in the Northeastern states. Much of these oral folk songs and traditions were lost and forgotten with the active presence of the Christian missionaries from the early 20th century. In came the Lord; out went the superstitions, animism, rituals and traditional culture, including folk music. While gospel held sway initially over a rapidly Christianising population, in the following decades, western rock music would make decisive inroads among the youth, who would father even younger generations down the path of the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Pink Floyd. 

Against this backdrop, my personal favourite cultural representation comes from a documentary footage filmmaker-cinematographer friend showed me during the one-off Northeast Music Festival in Guwahati around 2009. As the gifted Mizoram band Boomarang sang Who Do You Wanna Be from the festival stage, the footage had the camera following militants of one of the Northeast insurgent groups raiding a village of an opposing faction. The militants enter the desolate village, possibly emptied on intimation of the impending raid and proceed to ransack some huts. Till in one hut a militant finds an acoustic guitar in one corner. On seeing it, the rebel lays down his rifle, picks up the guitar and starts strumming a Gun ‘N Roses number. 

Over the years since India’s liberalization in 1991, like many other things, rock music too has gone through a corporate appropriation. From those single television channel days of our childhood, India now has an estimated 800 television channels to chose from, many of their featuring non-stop music. Top-notch international rock musicians and acts (though the current A-listers are still missing) have been brought down for live concerts in India organized by upstart event management companies and propped by sponsorship of international motorbike and cola brands. Every year, between autumn and spring, about a dozen homegrown western music festivals take place in exotic venues, to which youngsters in thousands travel from all over India to soak in the camp-and-chill vibe of these outdoors music festivals.

Credits

Photo: Moheener Ghoraguli: wikimedia.org

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