Birth of Bangla Rock

Way back in the 70s, still in school, I was humming the latest hits from Hindi films on the way out of classes, screaming them aloud in the bathroom. Of course I caught snatches of Cliff Richard, Englebert Humperdinck and even Elvis Presley but was largely unmoved by them, except for of some of the more up-tempo, danceable numbers. Then I discovered The Beatles. And all hell broke loose. It was like discovering a new continent. Or a new religion. With new gods, a new world-view.

I realized that until then I was singing a song or listening to it without making a real connection. The melody made one feel good but that was about it. Who was this girl who comes ‘kajra lagake’ and ‘gajra sajake’?I know these were poetic metaphors, but theyhad become clichés.

Imagine my relief then to hear someone sing “I want to hold your hand”. Or it could be “cause there’s really nothing I would rather do /‘cause I’m happy just to dance with you.”.. But it wasn’t all puppy love. Moving on to the ‘Rubber Soul’ album there were songs like ‘Nowhere man please listen. Or ‘There are places I’ll remember/All my life though some have changed…”

There was less description of physical features and more references to attitude. As I moved into IIT, I got to hear the more mature works of The Beatles from albums like ‘Revolver’, ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and ‘Abbey Road’ and a whole pantheon of rock auteurs: Dylan, Hendrix, Simon & Garfunkel, Rolling Stones, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and many more.

Rich and complex art

Rock was revealing itself to be a complete art form. By now I knew most of the time it wasn’t about the lyrics even. More often than not it was the music which was the message. And more than anything else it was the attitude and the individual voice that made all the difference. Of course all this while I never stopped listening to Hindi film songs. But these could not give me what rock music did, a personal communication squeezed out of one’s soul. But my grouse with rock was, it wasn’t Indian.

Vocal harmony

Then I heard Mohiner Ghoraguli. It was a band formed in 1976 in Kolkata. Under the leadership of Gautam Chattopadhyay. The band’s name, taken from a poem by Jibanananda Das can be translated to mean ‘Mohin’s Horses’. My friend Ranjon Ghoshal, who had been a lyricist and a sort of publicist for the group, played a couple of EP vinyl records to me sometime in the eighties. There was a song called ‘Shongbigno Pakhikul’ which had this haunting image in its opening lines “No one there, only desolation stretched across the runway / Clouds motionless in the sky…”

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The songs were unlike the modern songs prevalent in Bengal. The imagery and themes were more original and personal, and a tad more sophisticated. Though the melodies were Indian, the musical arrangements were Western with violin, guitar, piano and drums, and a plenty of vocal harmonizing. The lyrics used English words like ‘runway’ and ‘antenna’ whenever required, and there were references to Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Kahn as well as Beethoven, Picasso and Dante. Clearly they were ahead of their times and the average Bengali listener rejected them. And I did not hear of Mohiner Ghoraguli again…until 10 years later.

That happened with the group’s second coming sometime in the mid-nineties, when the appearance of singer–songwriters like Suman Chattopadhyay and Anjan Dutta had made the record buying public more open to this new genre of music, popularly referred to as Jeebanmukhi Gaan or “Songs of Everyday Life”. Gautam Chattopadhyay had now resurrected Mohiner Ghoraguli with a new, younger crop of musicians.

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Four original albums were released before Gautam Chattopadhyay died. Some of the songs on these new albums succeeded in creating a more original musical and lyrical template, building strongly on the Baul roots. Just as the black rock n’ rollers like Chuck Berry and Little Richard had given early albums of The Beatles their energy and break from effete pop tradition, it is Baul music that gave these songs a throbbing vitality and earthiness.

Blues-struck

The lyrics of these songs are neither literal nor overtly literary. Social concern here is masked under folk imagery and abstraction, bringing the songs closer to the blues tradition. The pick among them would be the immensely popular “Telephone”, a kind of Baul Blues number that Gautam renders to plaintive perfection. The song has Radha expressing to Krishna her preference for the telephone as their mode of midnight conversation, rather than face-to-face meetings which could provide fodder to scandal-mongering neighbours. Funny, absurd and a bit of a parody at one level, it is also steeped with genuine Sufi fervour and a yearning for divine love that is impossible to miss. “Katha Diya Bandhu” and “Kaampe” are slightly more up-tempo compositions in the similar genre. Then there is “Bangali Korechho Bhagaban Re” a mischievous reworking of a Baul standard called “Shaonthal Korechho Bhagabana Re”.

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There are many other gems in these compilations representing diverse lyrical styles and musical genres. But the one stand-out track from among these is “ Prthibita Naki” written by Gautam Chattopadhyay and performed by Krosswindz, a significant band in its own right.

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I have listened to a succession of singer-songwriters of Bangla Rock. The music is not even technically “rock” half the time, the musicianship may not always be virtuoso-class, and the lyrics have their fair share of amateurish verbiage. But what each of them has is a distinct stamp of individuality, the urge to break new ground. That is the freedom that defines rock music for me. And that is the freedom that Mohiner Ghoraguli unleashed some 30 years back, sowing the seeds of a new musical genre called Bangla Rock.

The piece was originally published in Deccan Herald of February 18, 2007 under the title ‘ Rock ahead of times’. 

One thought on “Birth of Bangla Rock

  1. Shaibal Mitra

    I have been listening to this group for past several years and havent gotten bored yet.There is lot of originality in their music which draws heavily from Baul music as well as Dylan,S&G etc.Recently got to talking with one of the group members Chandrima Mitra as well.Good music,good lyrics,excellent company when you are alone.

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