How the Bangla rock movement evolved to become a self sustaining industry, thriving on talent, experimentation

·9-min read

'Bangla Rock Compendium' is a multi-part series examining the self-sustaining vernacular and cultural phenomenon of Bangla rock music unfolding in Bengal since the 1970s, and the pioneering ideas and figures that continue to drive the movement. Read more from the series here.

This is part 3 of the series.

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In the early 2000s, when the Internet was still an upper class commodity, television and radio reigned supreme in Indian households for entertainment and news. In Kolkata, several new TV channels like Akash Bangla, Sangeet Bangla and Tara Muzik came up to cater to changing music consumption patterns.

"The culture of listening to Bangla bands was growing. So in 2000, the newly launched Akash Bangla decided to feature around 20 bands in a programme where the songs were recorded live," informs filmmaker Birsa Dasgupta, who directed the show.

The bigger push, however, came from radio. With private stations entering the field and tapping into what was new and exciting, Bangla rock got its day in the sun. Its airtime increased manifold with the launch of Aamar FM in 2003, a station specifically dedicated to Bengali music. Mainstream newspapers, both Bengali and English, also covered the scene extensively.

This was further given a boost when rock band Cactus got the opportunity to compose the soundtrack of the film Nil Nirjane, with the romantic number 'Mon' becoming an immense hit.

By now, rural Bengal was also grooving to rock music thanks to folk fusion acts like Bhoomi and Kaya, whose roots-based songs found resonance with a population familiar with folk music. Pop rock band Kalpurush also became a frequent fixture in state-wide neighbourhood shows by delivering kitschy hits 'Maa Dekha De' and 'Matha Bhora Taak'. Krosswindz, the only band to be fronted by a woman Chandrani Banerjee, reinvented themselves in a folk rock avatar with the album Jhiko Jhiko (2004), and gave stiff competition to these bands for shows.

But Bhoomi's groundbreaking music could not be contained within the state or even within national boundaries. They went on to perform at the United Nations headquarters in New York in 2006 and Montreal Jazz Festival in 2008 €" among the greatest achievements by any Bengali band till date.

Side by side, the music evolved, incorporating different musical strains and socio-political consciousness into the songwriting. In their second album Rajar Raja (2004), Cactus sang about how countries were preparing for war through nuclear armament in 'Buddha Heshechhe'. This was a reference to India's first nuclear test €" Operation Smiling Buddha.

Fossils, on the other hand, went deeper into dissonance by delving into issues like poverty, crime, mental health, prostitution and suicide. The visceral composition 'Acid' even propagated self-cleansing as the first step in improving a depraved society.

This generation had come of age while India went through massive economic reforms post 1991. Capitalistic life wooed the masses and advertisements showed possibilities of a much better future. Naturally, they wanted more than what was available in a developing country. This was reflected beautifully by Lakkhichhara in the title track of Jibon Chaiche Aro Beshi (2003).

All this resulted in Bangla band music growing and spreading at an extraordinary pace and replacing film music as the most popular form of musical entertainment. The youth, especially, were totally captivated by it.

Even my conservative joint-family home, who were used to the sonorous sounds of Bengali film music playing on the radio every morning, found loud and cacophonic rock music as their unlikely companion. On the first floor, my brother listened to Lakkhichhara over my mother's shrill protests while another cousin blared Fossils loudly from the third floor. And I, barely a teenager, soaked in such frenzied music €" equal parts terrified and excited.

A self-sustaining industry

"In the mid-2000s, the presence of Bangla bands was everywhere! We were invited regularly as guests on radio talk shows, TV programmes and even game shows. In fact, I remember attending a cooking show wearing track pants," chuckles Gaurab Chattopadhyay, Lakkhichhara's drummer. Their song 'Ke Ki Bole Gelo Amay' was even broadcast across the continent on Channel V Asia.

Primary sources of income for gigs were college fests across the state. And the Bangla bands monopolised this circuit. In fact, their grip on this remains strong even today.

"Usually, college fests had one night for bands. Gradually, that changed to featuring bands every night and sometimes, even multiple bands on one night. One such concert at Bidhannagar College saw around 40,000 attendees," continues Chattopadhyay, adding that they played an average of 10 shows a month.

This clearly shows that the Bangla band scene had grown into a full-fledged, self-sustaining industry. Playing rock music was now a full-time profession, and economically rewarding for those who made a mark.

But not everyone could handle success, fame and money. Paras Pathar and Abhilasha both dwindled away, due to lack of professionalism, alcohol and substance abuse.

Reflecting on the magnitude and frequency of shows, I wonder if the Bangla rock scene was as big as its national counterpart. When I repeat this to Angshuman Ukil, a live sound engineer who has been working for over 15 years, he says one cannot compare the two. "National concerts have more attendees simply because there are more listeners for music in English and Hindi. Whereas, only Bengalis listen to Bangla rock, so the demographic reduces," he says. Despite that, if Bangla rock concerts could make several thousands turn up, that speaks volumes about how big the regional movement actually was.

Ukil further tells me that even though the maximum number of people attended these gigs for free, there is less pretension in the Bangla rock crowd. "If there are 2,000 people at a concert, then all of them know the songs by heart. You won't find that happening in other places," he says.

Before the digital era, another major earning source for bands was album sales. A report by Business Standard says that Paras Pathar's debut album Ajo Ache sold six lakh copies, Chandrabindoo's Chaw sold four to five lakh and Fossils' debut record sold two lakh copies.

A total of 45 albums, including the above three, were produced by record label Asha Audio between 1995-2016. An immense pillar of strength for the Bangla band scene, it stuck its head out for artists which other labels wouldn't touch. "People said that I was crazy to put my money on this music. But I knew that this would pay in the long run. And it did!" says owner Dibyendu Lahiri.

Cross-border camaraderie

Asha Audio's roster also includes two albums by Bangladeshi rock giants Miles and Warfaze, as the neighbouring country's music was quite popular in West Bengal. In fact, these bands came here to perform quite frequently post 2000, especially Ayub Bachchu's LRB and James' Nagar Baul.

Sheikh Monirul Alam Tipu, Warfaze's drummer, recalls organising a show called Republican Rock Fest at Kolkata's Rabindra Sarobar Stadium in 2006. "Around 10-12 bands from both countries performed there. Warfaze, Metal Maze, Artcell and Arbovirus represented Bangladesh," he says.

Such concerts featuring acts from both countries were becoming an increasing phenomenon across Bengal, while Fossils and Lakkhichhara would also go to Bangladesh to perform later on.

"There was a huge following for rock music in both countries. The love we got from India is incredible. The field and galleries would be packed at our shows. I remember one concert in Jalpaiguri where 12,000-15,000 people turned up!" exclaims Tipu.

The gargantuan rock music scene across undivided Bengal has historical significance. This foreign form of music was adapted into local traditions and became the voice of social change in these nascent democracies across several decades.

And it left its mark! Sporting long hair and wearing black outfits became fashionable. Gone were the cotton panjabis, crisply ironed shirts and tightly combed hair. The guitar replaced the harmonium as the musical weapon of choice for thousands of young kids. It might not be too far-fetched to say that every neighbourhood had one band, at least in Kolkata.

This statement's veracity is justified by the turnout at Band-e-Mataram, an annual band competition held since 2005, where acts are judged on the basis of original compositions. Chattopadhyay himself had judged 130 bands in the second edition, which according to two other sources, is a low figure.

Two bands which found fame here are Eeshan and Prithibi. Inspired by Linkin Park, the former brought a fresh nu-metal sound using electronic effects, heavy synthesiser usage and rap, while soft rockers Prithibi became well known for their imagery-evoking love ballads.

With numerous college and corporate gigs, Prithibi gradually built itself into one of the biggest bands in the circuit today. "The money earned doing shows back then was quite a lot, and the figure has only increased with time," informs vocalist Kaushik Chakraborty.

Changing sounds

The favourable logistics of the Bangla rock circuit convinced English band Insomnia to switch to the native tongue in their thundering second album Proloyer Shomoy (2006). This heralded the scene's shift towards a heavier sound with dense, grungy soundscapes.

Prachir would take this one step further in their debut offering Protibaad (2008) by executing riff patterns and rhythms borrowed from metal music. They would also test Bangla rock's mettle on a national platform €" Channel V Launchpad band competition €" by reaching the top six.

Simultaneously, a small metal scene was brewing underground. The first was a black metal outfit called Amavasya, formed in 2001. But they would have to wait five years to create a stir in a local band competition along with a death metal band called Atmahatya.

"A lot of people used to come to our rehearsals, driven by curiosity. That helped spread awareness about the existence of Bangla metal music," says Steve Phangchoo, Amavasya's songwriter-vocalist-guitarist. "I don't know whether people liked our music or not, but they were definitely astonished. At one show at a neighbourhood pujo, a really old man even stood up and applauded our performance. I shouted, screamed and played, yet I connected with him."

But shows were hard to come by, and the ones which did were usually self-organised and possible only if several metal bands were on the roster. This was partly because metal, unlike rock, was quite alien to the listenership, which was not very open to new musical forms. In fact, when an established band like Lakkhichhara went full on progressive rock in their critically acclaimed album Bishesh Bishesh Ongsho Birotir Por (2009), even that was not warmly received by the audience.

So while the Bangla rock movement was evolving into newer dimensions with time, audiences were reluctant to leave behind familiar musical strains set by the older bands. Would this, then, set a precedent for the decline of the movement in the following years?

Also See: From underground to mainstream: How the Bangla rock movement attained validation on home turf

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