Evolution of Bangla rock music: How the underground cultural movement changed Bengal's musical landscape

Shaswata Kundu Chaudhuri
·9-min read

Bengalis in the mid-70s had become used to a musical diet of Rabindrasangeet, RD Burman, Manna Dey and Hemanta Mukhopadhyay, so when Kolkata woke up to a distorted guitar playing a Bengali song in 1978, they were not yet prepared for the cultural takeover that would happen two decades later. The first Bangla rock song €" 'Shono Shudhijon' €" was part of Ajaana Uronto Bostu ba Aa-Oo-Baw, the second album by Moheener Ghoraguli, India's first vernacular band.

Though the group disbanded due to lack of commercial success, their leader Gautam Chattopadhyay encouraged talented young musicians to pursue their dreams. A cultural movement ensued, whose first output was the album Aabaar Bochor Kuri Pore (1995), part of Moheener Ghoraguli Shompadito Bangla Gaan. The rock anthem later went on to 'Prithibi' become a hit, and the rest is history.

Though it was Chattopadhyay's composition, the individuals who breathed life into it was the first line up of the band Krosswindz, which included Neil Mukherjee, the arranger of three Sompadito albums. A year later, Krosswindz themselves released their first Bengali rock album, Poth Gechhe Benke. A seminal record, this solidified the presence of Bangla rock in Kolkata's live music circuit.

The next six years saw an explosion in the scene, with bands such as Cactus, Abhilasha, Paras Pathar, Bhoomi, Chandrabindoo, Lakkhichhara and Fossils coming up with their own sounds in the rock format. While Cactus strayed into the blues and psychedelia, Chandrabindoo gave pop music an intelligent makeover with satirical lyrics. Paras Pathar and Lakkhichhara leaned on the softer side of the spectrum while Bhoomi grew dear to Bengalis with their folk sound.

In 2002, Fossils released their eponymous debut album and Bangla rock now had a grungy, heavy and hard rock derivative. This sound would go on to capture the imagination of Bengali youth and inspire numerous bands.

An important tool in the propagation of Bangla rock was the radio. "From 2003, radio support was immense, especially from Amar FM. One song used to play nearly 8-9 times a day. During the mid-2000s, Bangla rock was boiling," says Siddhartha Ray (Sidhu) of Cactus. "We hosted the Band-e-Mataram competition from 2005-2007. As far as the eye could see, there were long-haired, young boys with guitars on their shoulders. The venue was flooded!"

Gaurab Chattopadhyay, Lakkhichhara's drummer and Gautam Chattopadhyay's son, confirms that he had judged around 130 bands, all from Kolkata, in the second edition. In fact, this competition was organised with the help of television channel Sangeet Bangla, another pillar of support for Bangla rock in those days. This gave rise to bands like Eeshan and Prithibi who comprised the second wave.

Eeshan's number 'Shyamaprasad' and Prithibi's 'Classroom' spread like wildfire and were on the lips of every college-goer. Experimental and progressive elements also came into their ambit €" Eeshan brought a nu-metal sound, reminding one of Linkin Park, while the bilingual band Insomnia introduced the city to an alternative, progressive sound with their 2006 album Proloyer Shomoy.

But Bangla rock had to wait another three years for a pure progressive sound when Lakkhichhara shed their traditional rock avatar in the album Bishesh Bishesh Ongsho Birotir Por. Though it was highly appreciated in the music community, it was not warmly received by the audience which was used to blues derived rock sound that Fossils and Cactus had helped popularise. Another band AlienZ followed in this direction with their album Shwapno Noy, released in 2011.

Post 2010, however, things started going downhill. "Film producers realised that they were pumping in obscene amounts of money to shoot and record a song. They needed to recover that money. So, all FM and TV channel-slots were bought up and they began airing only film songs," says Sidhu.

Today, FM channels in Bengal largely ignore non-film music. That leaves bands with only the internet as their means of reaching their audience. However, this comes with its major cons, as songs get lost in the sea that is the Internet, as Chandrabindoo's vocalist Upal Sengupta points out.

He further elaborates on how television and YouTube changed the consumption of music. "Now, people don't listen but watch songs. Making good music videos is not easy and needs a lot of funds, which most bands don't have," he says. "Earlier, Facebook was a good platform to spread the word but now paid promotions get publicity. So, unless people search for new bands and songs out of their own will, new songs will remain undiscovered."

Naturally, the population that does not have this music thrust in their faces remains largely ignorant of its existence, even though Bangla rock has been evolving and growing in the past decade.

Among the new crop of bands, a certain section has leaned towards metal while others have followed in the tradition of the big-shots. Shnuopoka peddles indie pop melodies with stories about day-to-day life. With one album and several singles, their approach closely follows Chandrabindoo's style.

Goshai Gang, which has released six singles till date, is a proponent of glam rock. They have chosen not to stray from the established sound. Even their songs deal with simple themes of love and life, something that the audience is always expected to relate to.

Another band that received warm responses is the post-rock outfit A Dot in the Sky, though they did not intend to cater to listeners. "Our sound is outside the Bangla rock soundscape but people are demanding that we continue in this trajectory. I like ambient sounds and tried to fit it into some of the songs I had written. And rather organically, this sound came into being," says keyboardist Sudipto Paul, whose bedroom project turned into a full-blown band in 2016.

Contrarily, Blood, BadTrip and Kripa have gone in a heavier direction with post-punk, grunge and metal taking root. A significant change in the sound came about through the usage of double pedals in drumming which lends the music a more dynamic edge. Kripa's EP Nirob Agomon (2018) and Blood's debut album Mukti (2019) managed to floor listeners. The post-grunge sound was lapped up so enthusiastically that one could draw parallels to Fossils' early days.

BadTrip, on the other hand, intelligently focussed on their videos as much as their songs. With proper storytelling, the videos ensured that audiences were hooked while the sparse yet intense soundscapes gradually filtered into their ears.

But the band which took the bull by its horn is rap metal outfit The Prophesor. Visceral at its core, it leaves no stone unturned to fully express itself €" be it harrowing soundscapes or blood churning vocals. Their sole EP €" Year One (2020) - is not only eye-opening but can serve as a template for other bands that might attempt this genre. Interestingly, they wear masks while performing.

"The Prophesor is political. The masks allow us to go beyond our personas and do things which otherwise fall under restraints. The songs are mostly reactions to socio-political situations around us," says vocalist-songwriter Nabarun Bose.

He takes up his natural duties on the keyboard with another esoteric band Enolaton, who dwell in post-apocalyptic imagery. Their eponymous EP, a concept album, dealt with a dystopian future which is beyond existential reality. The music is experimental and unconventional €" in fact, they take guitar motifs and reverse it, to create dissonant soundscapes. Inspired by bands like Radiohead and Porcupine Tree, its distinctly eclectic sound might have been too new for the Bangla rock audience. So they shifted gears to English in order to have a bigger reach nationally.

Even with such great music, these bands have failed to achieve the kind of commercial success that the big ones have. A major reason is lack of funds.

"Doing only original Bengali songs does not bring in the kind of money required to crack commercial success," says Kaustav Banerjee, vocalist of multilingual band The Grooverz, which earns its bread by playing corporate gigs where Bollywood songs are demanded €" a prospect many bands turn away from. This has allowed them to reach an economical position where they can finally focus on producing and marketing their upcoming album in a manner which might make a difference.

Among the old war horses, Lakkhichhara has totally reinvented itself with a new line-up. The sound is also different with contrasting elements of Bengali folk and ambient embedded in a rock format. Their recently released single 'Kadajawle' is an excellent example of urban rock music that can come out of a city with close ties to its cultural roots.

Insomnia has also come back from the grave a decade later to release songs that had been composed years back but never saw the light of day. Their sound follows a similar format that they had introduced years back, but is richer now. The only single released so far, 'Aar Na', is not as removed from the Bangla rock sound, as their previous albums were.

But the man whose return has injected fresh hope into the scene is none other than the pioneering Neil Mukherjee. While his compositions gained huge popularity when Krosswindz belted them out 25 years ago, he himself was disillusioned with playing only western music and moved away. "Bangla rock is a strange coinage for me. My new songs have Indian elements which Poth Gechhe Benke did not have. I keep in mind that my songs should be accessible to the audience, but first, my own musical curiosity has to be satisfied. I'm the first filter," he says.

Indeed, his new outfit, named NeilMukho, plays music that is not limited to a singular genre. The five singles he has released in the past year have elements of Indian classical, flamenco, Latin and African music. The song 'Dekhi Barey Barey' is the first instance of bossa nova being used in Bengali songwriting.

Despite concerted efforts to not let this music reach masses, it finds its way to those who really believe in the spirit of Bangla rock. At the 2017 edition of the 'Mirchi Jalsaghar' concert, organised by Radio Mirchi at Nazrul Mancha, the audience sang the entirety of Fossils' song 'Khnoro Amar Fossil' while the band just played the music. This song was part of the album Fossils 4 (2015) which had not gotten radio airplay, yet the audience knew it by heart.

So when Gaurab Chattopadhyay says that 'Bangla rock is very much present even though it may not be mainstream anymore', one is persuaded to believe him. "Even today, when we perform in places outside Kolkata, you should see the reaction of the crowd when the first note of the distorted electric guitar rings out. They go berserk! You have to go and check it out to understand how deep rock music has reached at the grassroots level."

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