Bengali country-western music exists, but you probably won't find it at the lobby level of the Park Hotel in Calcutta. What you will find instead is a small bar called Someplace Else. Every night, local rock bands come here to play live. Whenever I am in Calcutta, I try to go once, because Someplace Else summarizes everything that is right, and all that is completely absurd, about rock and roll in India in particular and South Asia in general. On the one hand, there is a vibrant willingness to derive, adapt and experiment. On the other, there is the irony of working-class posturing by insulated upper-middle-class boys who associate the music entirely with first-world privileges and their own cosmopolitan aspirations, who consume it entirely from their positions of class entitlement, and whose creative and performative scope is accordingly limited to small bars in five-star hotels.
The Indian engagement with rock and roll can be traced back to Mohammad Rafi doing a pretty good impression of the Beatles while Shammi Kapoor lip-synched. It’s significant that this engagement began within the framework of Bombay cinema, which – as the democratic colossus of Indian popular culture, including music – has either absorbed, suffocated or marginalized anything that might carve out an autonomous niche. Mohammad Rafi and Shammi Kapoor doing the Beatles was a novelty act in the three-hour circus of Indian commercial cinema; it was never about the music. In the seventies, Asha Bhonsle and a few others in the film industry maintained a tenuous connection with American pop, giving us Chura Liya and Dum Maro Dum, a process that continued into the early 1980s with Nazia Hassan, Biddu, Usha Uthup and the bizarre phenomenon that was Bappi Lahiri, who plagiarized everything (including the Fat Elvis look) without so much as a nudge and a wink. (In one of those satisfying accidents of corporate capitalism and refugee movements, Bappi Lahiri's music has finally washed up on American shores. Sometimes the backwater has its revenge.) In each case, the cinematic context ensured a reassuring distance between the music and the listener/viewer: this was the imported, imitative and fundamentally unreal silliness of a fantasy world of gangsters and ‘disco dancers,’ and as such, half a joke and half irrelevant. At the same time, it gave the middle-class – which was otherwise reduced by the pre-liberalization imports regime to a diet of Abba and Boney M - a highly diluted whiff of Western decadence.
As was usual in those years, the decadence arrived a little past its expiration date: we got disco in India after punk had already crushed it in Britain and America. Disco was in any case a better fit with the quintessential kitschiness of Indian popular culture than punk could have been. Its reliance on squeaking violins rather than throbbing bass and crunching guitars was pre-configured for Hindi film music. It asked no questions and made no nihilistic suggestions beyond the vaguely titillating. Even in the throes of teenage desire, Nazia Hassan declared her very respectable intention to marry to the culprit: Aap jaisa koi meri zindagi mein aye, toh baat ban jaye. The synthesizer was about the most scandalous part of the song. (As children hitting puberty, we misheard the word "baat" as "baap" and stubbornly persisted with the mistake, trying to squeeze a little disrepute from the unobjectionable lyrics.) The accompanying film clip is fascinating in its own way: a plane-hits-bus cultural disaster, or what Indians call a "we are like that only" moment.
This was not, however, the whole picture. Like any system of moral austerity, Nehruvian consumer culture – an umbrella I would extend to cover the 1970s and ‘80s – had its delinquent underworld filled with bootleg pleasures. Radio Ceylon played music that All India Radio refused to touch. Relatives went abroad and brought back records – the Doors, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple – some of which ended up in that extraordinary bazaar of second-hand LPs that used to line Free School Street in Calcutta. Free School Street’s sidewalks were an archive: they provided middle-class Indians with roots in a music that had come from over the horizon, and bands like Jethro Tull with a cult status in India that they never had at home. But there remained a distance between the listener and the location of the music. I remember siesta-less summer afternoons in Calcutta with Mr. Tambourine Man drifting across the street – in the early 1980s, after the usual Indian time-lag. The immediate listener was a mostly invisible man who was reputed to be insane, and sure enough, eventually committed suicide. His madness and subsequent death gave that whitewashed house an air of fairy-tale menace and melancholy that was indistinguishable from the experience of listening to Dylan in India. The music was a mélange of placeless, timeless fragments: there was no ‘there’ there, other than a generic sense of ‘West.’
Beyond that, there were tentative developments, like the emergence of the Calcutta band Moheen’er Ghoraguli (Moheen’s Horses). Whimsically named after a stray line in a poem by Jibanananda Das, Moheen’er Ghoraguli is an enigma. On the one hand, their ‘heyday’ in the 1970s was remarkably quiet. They were never famous, they did not sell many records, the pre-liberalization Indian market could not have supported them, and frankly, much of their music was underwhelming. On the other hand, Moheen'er has recently been rediscovered by more conventionally successful Bengali rock musicians and gone through a revival of sorts, including the release of new music. They were not so much forerunners as a foreshadow, a sign of something subcutaneous that could be liberated by the post-1991 economy and media environment, with its excesses of money, marketing and MTV.
Listening now to some of Moheen’er Ghoraguli’s work, such as the much-admired Prithibi-ta Naki Chhoto Hote Hote (‘Shrinking World’), it isn’t hard to hear the influence of American folk and country, and of Bengali folk-music traditions that would become central to the ‘Bangla-band’ phenomenon of the 1990s. Other aspects are anticipated as well: a cloying softness and gentility, i.e., a reluctance to venture into the territory of anger, iconoclasm and above all indecorousness. It is, in that sense, a curious attempt to create rock music without breaching the bounds of Tagorean bhadrata, or respectability founded on restraint and bourgeois decorum. Significantly, this oxymoronic bhadra-rock emerged more or less simultaneously with the Naxalite movement and Satyajit Ray’s Calcutta trilogy (Pratidwandi, Seemabaddha and Jana Aranya), indicating how very respectable the middle class remained even in its sharpest moments of disillusionment. It had no serious intention of being anything other than bhadra.
The successful Bangla bands that have emerged in Calcutta since the 1990s fall into a couple categories. There are groups like Chandrabindu and Bhoomi, which are the direct successors of Moheen’er Ghoraguli: softly bohemian folk music rather than rock and roll. They evoke images of slightly scruffy men in khadi kurta-pyjamas waxing rustic over tea and Charminars. There are also bands like Krosswindz and Cactus, which attempt something a bit harder but usually fail. Krosswindz, ironically, is an outstanding and highly versatile live cover band; the musicianship is invariably superb and lead singer Tuki can go from anthemic Billie Joe Armstrong to screeching Angus Young in the blink of an eye. Many of these bands are grossly overmanned, six or seven members being common. This is a curious extension of the wider Indian tendency towards what used to be called disguised unemployment. Even in this era of overdeveloped consumerism, a customer walking into a store is likely to face a man who takes his order, then shouts out the order to a second man, who fetches the desired item from the back of the shop, hands it to a third man who wraps it and passes it to a fourth man who takes the customer’s money, while a fifth employee stands by looking on. A restaurant is likely to have nearly as many waiters as customers. (Not that it ensures fast service.) Similarly, Bangla bands seem to have more musicians than instruments, and yet manage to produce considerably less sound than any self-respecting three-man band.
Then there is Fossils, which is easily the most interesting and polished rock group to come out of India. Their music frequently shows the influence of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, as in Manab Boma ('Human Bomb'). Much of the time, the lyrics are clever, grounded in the idiomatic Bengali of middle-class schoolyards but disdainful of bhadralok affectations. 'Bhadra chhele / kanna pele / bhadrata'r / tar pathabo,' ('Bourgeois boy / when I need to cry / I'll send a bourgeois telegram' - which is now called a Tweet), Fossils sneer in Chhaal ('Skin'), and it is difficult to suppress a smile at ‘Bashpo jomey chashmai / hoye parastree kator.’ (‘Glasses fogged up / with lust for somebody else’s woman.’ It doesn’t translate well.) Not many bands can reference Salvador Dali in a song without sounding fraudulent but Fossils can, and the lyric ‘Tar bikkhipto baje bakwas / majhe majhe jazz hoye jai’ (‘The garbage he spouts / sometimes turns into jazz’) in Shasti De (‘Punish Me’) summarizes them perfectly.
The whiff of garbage in the jazz is a derivativeness that can infect even a brilliant song like Bicycle Chor (‘Bicycle Thief’). With guitars reminiscent of Janes’s Addiction and lyrics worthy of Quentin Tarantino in their garrulous urbanity, Bicycle Chor is a walk on cultural thin ice, and not because of the echoes of Jane’s and Tarantino. The song’s attempt to identify with lumpen-proletariat types is entirely an act. It is not just a matter of appropriation, as gangsta rap is with middle-class hip-hop enthusiasts. It is also that the music that Fossils makes is entirely alien to the world of bicycle thieves, who have their own music. What we have, therefore, is a double pretence: not only that the middle-class Indian rocker is a bicycle thief, but also that the Indian bicycle thief is a rocker. Rupam Islam of Fossils singing ‘Boyesh tero theke unish / choice chor hobi na khuni / ke moRa ke shakuni / phaltu chiruni'r tolai / ma-bon hoyechhe beshya / ami bicycle chor’ (‘Ages thirteen through nineteen / a choice between being a thief and a killer / who's the corpse and who's the vulture / under the cheap comb? / mother and sister have become whores and / I’m a bicycle thief’) is no less ludicrous than Geddy Lee singing about By-Tor and Snow Dog battling it out in a galaxy far, far away. It indicates a juvenile fantasy of being, well, someplace else: someplace more glamorous as well as dirtier, more first-world as well as less cocooned, more authentically rock and roll. Ultimately, this is the pretence that India is America – that Indian petty criminals, like American petty criminals, represent a pop culture that the affluent can share. So it is not surprising that every once in a while, in the middle of a song, Rupam Islam breaks into embarrassing ‘woah-woahs’ and ‘yeah yeahs’, switches to English to drawl ‘Ah wanna steal yo’ bawdy, kee-yul yo’ dah-dee’ in the aptly titled Tritiyo Bishwa (‘Third World’), or develops odd lapses of Bengali pronunciation, such as discovering an invisible umlaut over the second vowel in ‘bolo.’ The photographs on their CD jackets show the band frozen in clichéd rock-star poses that were already laughable when David Lee Roth began striking them, and Van Halen at least had a sense of humor about that sort of thing.
To be fair to Rupam Islam, Fossils is not nearly as unintentionally funny as its immediate predecessors in India, such as the sophomorically named Rock Machine (later Indus Creed), which recorded the anthem Chains and Black Leather. Presumably the band members were Hell’s Angels in their day jobs. (According to recent news reports, there are now – finally – biker gangs on the streets of Patna and Ranchi, but they tear around on 150 cc scooters and are usually unencumbered by chains or leather.) And it must be conceded that Mick Jagger also used foreign accents to affiliate himself culturally. But American-accented Bengali is a bigger stretch than the affectation of a Mississippi drawl by an English singer engaged in recreating blues-rock. Like all South Asian rockers, Fossils have the misfortune of being locked out of the global West, wanting in. When such bands work in the vernacular, they become even more peripheral. This is a bigger problem for South Asian bands than for, say, a German band like Die Toten Hosen, which also periodically uses English, but records primarily in German. (On German rock, see this brilliant article by my colleague Julia Sneeringer.) In Calcutta and Delhi, singing about chains and black leather, and simultaneously affecting American accents and underclass identities, are understandable attempts to deal with a disadvantageous location in geography, history and the market. The Rolling Stones were stepping out into a wider world of musical influences, whereas bands like Fossils must actually shrink their world, creating their own distorted pseudo-West in the bubble of Someplace Else.
Nobody who looks like a bicycle thief would be allowed into Someplace Else. It is a roomful of well-heeled young men drinking outrageously overpriced drinks served by uniformed and uniformly snooty waiters. Women are not absent but are relatively few; there is, as such, very little in the way of (hetero)sexual frisson. It’s a safely padded space within bhadrata, unruffled by irony. The bands are familiar, the repertoire is unsurprising. Every night, without fail, the crowd will demand the Cranberries’ Zombie, and the band will duly oblige. At some point in the evening the band will play Boulevard of Broken Dreams; the crowd will pump its collective fist and nod rhythmically. There is a self-important, ritualistic quality about the whole affair: everybody – the bands, the audience, the waiters, the doormen – is going through the motions of being fundamentally incompatible things: democratic and subversive as mandated by the codes of the musical genre, but exclusive and reactionary as mandated by the preservation of class privilege.
It could be worse. In Delhi in the late 1990s, I used to spend late nights in the bar on the top floor of Moet’s in Defence Colony. A three-man band called Split Image would play exhilaratingly good covers of Hendrix and Santana. The band members were from the fringes of the empire of Hindi cinema: two shy young Mizos and a flamboyant drummer (named Cozy after Cozy Powell) from Goa. They were unassuming and friendly, with none of the faux-edginess that is common at Someplace Else. (I recall once requesting Smoke On the Water at Someplace Else; the response was ‘We don’t play that shit anymore.’ Free School Street has, indeed, disappeared.) But the Delhi audience was unhappy: there were frequent demands that the band not play rock, requests for Barbie Girl, and so on. Eventually Split Image was fired, and replaced by a morose father-daughter duo who sang the Carpenters, to general approval. Younger customers were redirected to a new section of Moet’s, where a DJ played techno-pop and straight boys danced with each other. Delhi is simultaneously homophobic and homoerotic; it’s part of the charm of the place.
But it could also be better. The best examples of the possibilities of rock music in South Asia come from either side of India: Junoon in Pakistan and James in Bangladesh, markets in which Hindi film music is not automatically dominant, but where the issues of class and cultural identification are much the same as in India. The strategies adopted by Junoon and James are similar in several ways: both have both kept the lost-American attitude to a minimum, sought to create roots in local societies and musical histories, and shown an astonishing willingness and ability to innovate. For Junoon, with its roots in the New York area (where the members went to school), playing American would not have been unreasonable. They began in that mode, and the results – the early albums, the power-ballads in English – were not so much bad as entirely forgettable. What came next, however, was dazzling: the plunge into Sufi poetry, the supple use of Punjabi folk music and literature, the near-replacement of the drum kit by the tabla, the sacrilegious accompaniment of Iqbal’s Khudi ko kar buland itna by Salman Ahmad’s jangling guitar, and the darkly brooding miracle of Ghoom (‘Turn’). That brilliant period lasted only two albums – Azadi and Parvaaz – before deflating into mediocrity, but those two records broke virgin ground in rock and roll and would make my desert-island list every time. They were an intervention in the history, culture and politics of the soil on which the musicians stood, and as such, it was making rock music from the inside out, and not just the outside in. For that I am quite willing to overlook the unexceptional musicianship, Ali Azmat’s voice going flat on Sajna, and Salman Ahmad’s recent attempts to project himself as the Muslim Bono without maintaining a corresponding musical output.
The Bangladeshi singer-songwriter-guitarist Faruk Anam – a.k.a. James – has made a broader and more sustained set of interventions. The adoption of a generic-Anglo stage name triggers an unfortunate echo of chains and black leather, and like any brand name it has proved difficult to jettison. But James has also encouraged his listeners to use the name ‘Nagar Baul’ (roughly, City Minstrel) to refer to him and his band, and this identity has compensated considerably, providing an anchor and an artistic agenda that is stunningly varied yet coherent. The Bauls are itinerant folk musicians with distinctive instruments like the single-stringed ektara with its glottal squawk, religious inclinations that straddle Hinduism and Islam, and an instantly identifiable vocal style. They are common in the Bengali countryside, the smaller towns, buses and trains. James does not simply borrow their appellation; he marries their music to his brilliance on the guitar in Eshechho Boshechho Bhabe (‘Here To Gamble'), which is one of the most extraordinary rock and roll songs recorded anywhere, not to mention a pretty good Baul song. In Pather Baap (‘Father of the Road’), the threads of Baul music are deliberately unraveled, then interwoven with a bluesy guitar to create something entirely new – but nevertheless recognizable – about the restlessness of wandering musicians anywhere. This is not the ‘fusion’ or ‘world music’ of the self-conscious western cosmopolitan engaged in collecting exotic sounds like artifacts from a museum gift-shop or global-imperial excavation pit. Like Junoon’s work with Bulle Shah’s poetry, it is making music from the inside out: the reflection of a superior cosmopolitanism that knows and loves the inside as well as the outside, that can walk between them in both directions, that acknowledges both the reality and the permeability of borders and identities.
Unlike Junoon, which excelled at adapting the lyrics of dead poets but were ordinary when it came to writing their own, James is consistently a superb lyricist. Patra Diyo (‘Write Me A Letter’) is a reverie about reverie, evoking the melancholy stillness of subcontinental afternoons as effectively as a Jibanananda Das poem. Dupur belar alshemi’te / purano din’er bhabna ele / dukhar kono golp’er phanke / mone pore gele’i amake, James writes: ‘In the laziness of the afternoon / when old times cross your mind / in the cracks within a conservation / you might remember me.’ The drowsy, broken sounds of the unslept siesta – crows, solitary street hawkers, distant bus horns, the ceiling fan – become ghosts echoed in slashing guitar chords and a bass that rumbles away like far-away thunder. Natore Railway Station captures the bewilderment of revisiting a lost hometown, not with the rage that marks Chrissie Hynde’s return to Akron in My City Was Gone, in which she recognizes nothing in a city that has been rebuilt in her absence, but with a wry shock that comes from realizing that nobody recognizes him in a city that has apparently remained the same. Janina kakhan ki-bhabe jeno / hariye phelechhi nijeke: ‘Don’t know when and how / I’ve managed to lose myself.’ Soaked in the blues yet perfectly pitched in provincial Bengal, Natore is set to the desolate chug and clatter of a slow diesel, not so much taking Jibanananda Das (who also set his most famous poem in Natore) to the Mississippi delta as inducing Muddy Waters to go native in Natore. Mirabai, with its evocation of late-Nawabi decadence and desire, sounds like Eric Clapton finally came out of his white room, gave Enoch Powell the finger and got in touch with his inner Paki. The machine-gun guitar on the astonishing Mannan Miya’r Titash Malam (‘Mannan Miya’s Titash Ointment’) is grounded by James’ use of the Bengali carnival-barker’s shout, and even the title digs deep into the language of the mofussil, i.e., the hinterland with its dusty fairgrounds and desperate snake-oil peddlers. ‘Panchish bochhor dhore ek jaigai boshe,’ James sings: ‘sitting in place for twenty-five years.’ In Nag-Nagini'r Khela ('Snakecharming'), another jagged guitar sustains the hoarse rural showman with his tired snakes and pipes.
Mannan Miya’r Titash Malam and songs about snake-charming are a far cry from ami bicycle chor. James maintains an ironic distance from Mannan Miya and does not presume that the distance can be closed, even as he acknowledges a relationship based on language, the past, and his own complicity in the peddling of dubious poisons and potions. Likewise, when James sings about country and belonging, he leaves the door cracked for the Dylanesque half-smile, a self-aware holding back in the moment of declaration: Ogo Bangladesh tumi / amar kabar tumi / sharey teen-haat janmabhoomi / matribhoomi. (‘You are Bangladesh / you are my grave / yard-long land of my birth / motherland.’) He has no illusions about where he is, but he is not trapped. 'Bondi'r haat'e jail'er chabi,' he sings: 'The prisoner holds the prison keys.' When you can do that, you can record Epitaph, the country-inflected song with which this essay begins, without being caught in the wrong country. You can also pretend Dhaka is New York and be in on the joke, as James does in Shada Ashtray-ta (‘The White Ashtray’), a tongue-in-cheek homage to Blondie and insomnia. (The latter is a recurring preoccupation.) You can reference Cezanne without sounding pretentious in Kotota Kangal Ami (Bengali rock musicians evidently like their modern art); you can even play with accent and pronunciation without coming across as a posturing idiot. A song with instrumental echoes of Traffic becomes for James a sly vehicle of vernacular lasciviousness. Haragachher Nur-Jahan, gang’er jaley kore se-nan (‘Nur-Jahan of Haragachh, bathes in the creek’), he leers: an extra syllable, ‘se-nan’ instead of ‘snan,’ anchors the song in rural Bengal and the urban fetish of the village girl, and frees it simultaneously from the bhadra sentimentality of Rabindranath Tagore's buk bhara madhu / Banger badhu ode to rural femininity (which, incidentally, sends twelve-year-old boys into fits of inappropriate laughter, not unlike a deliberately misheard Nazia Hassan song).
It is no wonder that for more than two decades now, James has made some of the most interesting rock music anywhere in the world, whereas his counterparts in gilded ghettos elsewhere in the subcontinent have quickly run of things to see and say. He has positioned himself to imagine, observe, remember, become and write more widely than the others, all the while deepening his roots in place and genre. Even at his most conventional, he is a revelation and a surprise: a recent love song – Meye Go (‘Oh Girl’) – suggests the Frames, and the political ballad Mone Pore, Sudhanghshu ('Do You Remember, Sudhangshu') returns Joan Baez to 1971's Come From the Shadows and Bangladesh.
James could, of course, play at Someplace Else; he may have done so already. He would be well received. The Calcutta audience likes celebrities. (James has now starred in a Pepsi commercial and done a Bollywood version of Moheen’er Ghoraguli.) But it is unlikely that an environment like Someplace Else could have produced a musician like James. For that, we would need to leave Park Street and risk disappearing into Chittagong and Palashpur, the mufussil towns where James developed his niche before stardom and Pepsi let him into the big time, albeit still in a small, yard-long, place. By creating Someplace Else, the Park Hotel has provided Calcutta bands and audiences with a valuable resource, but it is also a singularly constricting and corrupting resource. What is needed, instead – or in addition – are places where the gain of Los Angeles is balanced by the loss of Natore, the booze is cheap, the waiters have no uniforms, the memory of Free School Street is alive, and your bicycle might get stolen should you arrive on one.
Below, my friend and colleague Samir Chopra responds to my slur on Delhi, and provides a link with some excellent photography.
I think I could offer some perspective on the Delhi rock-n-roll scene
because I finished university in India, and went through the phase of
devotedly following certain rock bands especially at college festivals
like IIT-Delhi's Rendezvous, which featured an all-night rock concert
that started at 10 and went on till sunrise. I was surprised to find
when I arrived in the US, that rock concerts started at 8 and were
over at 11. They seemed tame in comparison to the Altamont-like vibe
of the Rendezvous concerts (the IIT festivals incidentally, were
legendary all over India, as were their 24-hour cafeterias!). The
bands that I remember the most were Electric Plant, Xplosiv and
another whose name I cannot remember but which featured an
unbelievably attractive woman on keyboards. A high-school friend of mine
formed a band called Children of the Faith, which did very good metal
covers (Maiden, Priest etc).
My nephew formed a band in high school called Metallic Monks - they
did some pretty good covers but then fell apart in their senior year.
I don't think there are any plans for a reunification.
Another nephew is not only in a band but also has been doing some
pretty good photography recently, especially of the music scene. Check
out: http://www.shivahuja.com/ (click on "Galleries" and then "Rock