Remembering Moheener Ghoraguli, India's first rock band from Kolkata whose legacy thrives in resistance

Arshia Dhar
·19-min read

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair."

It is perhaps these now-iconic €" and often grossly abused €" words by Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities that rather accurately sum up the Calcutta of the 1960s and '70s. It was a Calcutta in the throes of a raging Naxalite Movement that had seized the imaginations of its young and old, rich and poor; it was a Calcutta grappling with its turbid past, an uncertain present but a hopeful future. It was a Calcutta that still dared to wish upon shooting stars, while simultaneously nurturing a musical revolution far ahead of its times in the narrow alleys of its settlers' colonies in the erstwhile South 24 Parganas €" the city's back of beyond, which was still a few years away from being subsumed by the metropolis.

It was when the Bangali bhodrolok was used to crooning to the comfortable tunes of Manna Dey's 'Jibone ki pabona, bhulechhi shey bhabona', that seven young men €" some in their twenties, others just past their teens €" were disrupting the status quo and breaking into Bangla rock, a genre alien to not just the city, but the country as well. Led by the enigmatic singer-songwriter (late) Gautam Chattopadhyay €" fondly referred to as Manik or Moni Da €" 'Moheener Ghoraguli' (Moheen's Horses) was born in the backyard of his south Kolkata home, in the company of his brothers Pradip (Bula) and Biswanath (Bishu), and their friends (late) Ranjon Ghoshal, Tapas Das (Bapi), Abraham Mazumder and Tapesh Bandopadhyay (Bhanu).

The 'ghoras' or the horses, however, never warmed up to the term 'band' while describing their musical endeavours, choosing to liken themselves to a sociocultural 'movement' that barely received widespread recognition back in the day. Nevertheless, it remains undisputed that the group was not just India's first known rock band, but also its first musical group to function as a well-defined band. Now, in the 45th year since its formation (and 39th since its dissolution), Moheener Ghoraguli has far surpassed notions of transient acclaim to become an indelible part of the Bengali consciousness, for at least a class of urban and suburban Bengalis raised in the glitz and shadows of high-rises.

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Moheener Ghoraguli performing at a concert

Their beginnings, however, were humble, and €" as some of the surviving band-members would like to believe €" analogous to those of The Beatles, performing at local events to an audience largely unfamiliar with their sound and aspirations. "I want to go back to our first performance as 'Saptarshi', a name we used before we were Moheener Ghoraguli. I remember it was during a Durga Puja celebration in Behala's Parnasree (a neighbourhood in Kolkata), when after our first-ever performance as a band, I went back on the stage to disassemble the drums and felt so apologetic for our music, as very few people could appreciate what we did. The moment felt so long and I wanted it to pass quickly. I felt as if the organisers were regretting inviting us to play," recalls Biswanath Chattopadhyay, Moheen's drummer, who is now settled in New York and pursues his passion as a "band leader, combining the musical intersection of Bengali and jazz."

In the absence of an appreciative audience that remained largely estranged from western music €" even more so from sounds that blended it with local, familiar tunes of folk, baul, among others €" the members, before officially forming the band, sought out other incentives (mostly food) to perform, following Gautam's lead. Tapas Das, one of Moheen's lyricists and vocalists, remembers one such incident when his Moni Da was invited by a neighbourhood jyatha (old uncle) to perform at a funeral. "He was told that his would be the opening act, followed by performances of well-known devotional songs. Jyatha also said that performers would be given khichuri at the end of the event, and Moni Da loved khichuri," he tells me from his Kolkata home.

While Tapesh €" who later became Moheen's vocalist and guitarist €" was debarred from associating with such an event by his family on account of being hardliner Leftists, Moni and Bapi were left with the responsibility of singing at the funeral. And so they did. "We decided to start with the devotional song 'Hori din toh gyalo, shondhe holo, paar koro amaare'. But we could not remember the next stanza, so we repeated the line twice. You won't believe me €" we saw the audience swaying to it as if they were at some rock concert!" he laughs. Soon after, Gautam asked him to switch to their original song 'Kolkata Kolkata', written by Das and Ranjon Ghoshal. The song eventually made it to their maiden album Shongbigno Pakhikul o Kolkata Bishayak (which roughly translates to 'An agitated flock of birds and Calcutta') in 1975.

The road to the group's first album, however, was a steep uphill one, as money was still scarce for them all. They ultimately had to resort to borrowing a handsome sum of Rs 1,200 from a kabuliwallah, with violinist-pianist Abraham Mazumder mortgaging his old stereo player. "And then, we were asked for Rs 1,600!" recalls Mazumder, the youngest in the band.

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Album covers. Left: Shongbigno Pakhikul o Kolkata Bishayak; Right: Drishyomaan Moheener Ghoraguli

And thus, Moheen's Horses were born, singing of sordid realities and futile urban dreams propelled by a burgeoning capitalist State to merry, soulful tunes. Their creations were an eclectic, heady marriage of inspirations that transcended boundaries and ranged from The Grateful Dead, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Lalon Fakir and Purna Das Baul on the one hand, to Bach, Beethoven, Ali Akbar Khan, and Pattachitrakars on the other. The results, despite being fitting tributes to them all, were living, breathing original entities that have stood the test of time. Their songs aspired to be anthems of resistance and alluded to conflicts raging across the world €" from Vietnam to Bengal.

The foundation of this collective enterprise, however, was built by the dynamic Gautam Chattopadhyay, as is corroborated by every surviving ghora.

A student of Physiology at Calcutta's Presidency College, Gautam was a restless young man whose political ambitions blossomed in the backdrop of the Naxalite Movement, landing him in prison for the first time in 1969-70. Brutal torture ensued, followed by another round of jail-time in 1970-71. Upon release, the man had to flee the city and seek refuge in Jabalpur and Bhopal, where he eventually met and fell in love with Minoti, whom he married and returned to Calcutta with. Music, however, kept him loyal company through every phase, as he could not resist but organise himself and fellow music enthusiasts into functional bands wherever he went €" whether it was 'The Urge' with his Anglo-Indian friends in college, or 'Blindfold' with his comrades while on the run in Madhya Pradesh.

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A young Gautam Chattopadhyay

Upon his return, it was during a Sunday rehearsal session at his Behala home that the musicians stumbled upon the perfect name for their group of seven (tentatively christened 'Saptarshi'). While reading an anthology of poetry by existential poet Jibanananda Das, Ghoshal chanced upon the line "¦®¦¹§€¦¨§‡¦° ¦˜§‹¦¡¦¼¦¾¦ - §¦²§‹ ¦˜¦¾¦¸ ¦–¦¾¦¯¦¼ ¦•¦¾¦°§¦¤¦¿¦•§‡¦° ¦œ§¦¯§‹§Ž¦¸§¦¨¦¾¦° ¦ª§¦°¦¾¦¨§¦¤¦°§‡;" (which loosely translates to "Moheen's horses graze on the horizon, in the autumn moonlight") in his poem 'Ghora'. Borrowing the term seemed like a no-brainer for them, as they had defiantly objected to using a name that would easily associate them with anything 'music', while gravitating towards something absurdist.

And so, Gautam slowly but surely rediscovered his primary passion with Moheen's fellow horses, and even after he suffered a leg injury upon his return, the songs did not stop writing themselves, and were often scribbled on the cast wrapping his broken limb.

*

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€" 'Runway', written by Ranjon Ghoshal with music by Gautam Chattopadhyay, was one of the songs that featured in their debut album in 1975. It upheld a vivid image of a forlorn airport with a desolate runway that had not seen an aircraft land or take off in days, perhaps months or years, as time stood still under its open, dark skies. The meditative organ holding a chord poignantly complements the words that read like an allegory for a post-apocalypse wilderness, on which stands the last human €" a young girl, crying into her soiled frock. The scratchy nature of the original recording enhances its hauntingly surreal quality, as if being broadcast from an invisible beyond.

Biswanath looks back on this novel experience fondly. "The excitement of going to the HMV studio is still very vivid, and also the memories of later going to the press to pick up our first album covers, inserts. And then packaging the new album, getting ready to distribute it. I recall we all gathered around to hear our recordings on a turntable €" so much solidarity and listening attention as a band."

The album, however, almost expectedly did not receive its commercial due upon release; talk of imminent doom was barely appetising to a generation that was waking up to the glamour of hyper-capitalist living. But commercial success was never Gautam Chattopadhyay or his band's aim to begin with.

"Moni Da's statement of life was unnerving. This movement that he started in the '70s was something he did fearlessly, without caring about what others thought. There was immense thought put into every fusion, every word and tune created by Moheener Ghoraguli, whom I first encountered at a neighbourhood Durga Pujo pandal, where their songs were being played on a loudspeaker because organisers had run out of Hindi and Bangla film songs to play," says Raja Banerjee, who replaced Tapesh Bandopadhyay in 1978 once the latter quit the band.

A cousin of the Chattopadhyay brothers, Raja €" who was majorly influenced by RD Burman on the one hand, and American band Santana on the other €" was shocked to discover that there existed Bangla musicians who played the lead guitar in the '70s. Currently based in Atlanta, Georgia, the artiste likens his time with Moheen to a parallel existence in a different "dimension". "Moni Da was my guru, my mentor, friend, philosopher and guide. He was my mecca. He was everything to me," he says, tearing up on the other side of the screen while on a video call with me.

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Raja was evidently starstruck by his bandmates, and he believed that they were much ahead of the curve. He admits that it would be difficult for a creative entity like Moheen to be commercially viable even today, echoing Biswanath by saying that they were more invested in "questioning establishments" and "going against the grain". He further attributes the premature demise of the band to their purely idealistic approach €" "You choose commerce, or integrity," he says, and on choosing the latter, one enters the game for the long haul. "If you do not have that honesty, you can only make 'songs', not a 'Prithibi'.

'Prithibi', whose tune was later borrowed by music director Pritam for his runaway hit 'Bheegi bheegi si hai raatein bheegi bheegi' in the 2006 film Gangster, is a song that predicts the erosion of human lives at the hands of their idiot boxes €" a literal prophecy. Written and composed by Gautam Chattopadhyay, the song was sung and performed by Bonnie Chakraborty, Neil Mukherjee, Vikramjit 'Tuki' Banerjee, Dwight Pattison, Chirodeep Lahiri (Chiro) and Robin Lai of rock band Krosswindz. (Mukherjee later went on to arrange music for three of the four shompadito, or compiled and edited, albums of Moheener Ghoraguli's collaborative acts in the '90s.)

Pradip Chattopadhyay €" bass guitarist and flautist €" sought peace in the fact that the original had, albeit vicariously, finally achieved national spotlight nearly two decades after it was conceived by his Moni Da. "Nearly 80 percent of the musical message was retained, even though the lyrics were completely different from the original," he says.

Pradip was a self-taught bassist and flautist, who showed a flair for instruments as a consequence of his upbringing in a creative environment. "Our father could play the violin. Every time he would visit the temples, he would listen to the beggars sing and would learn their songs instinctively. My mother could play the esraj, and she also taught me how to play it. Those lessons in esraj helped me learn the guitar too. And I picked up the flute while studying civil engineering because it was an easily available instrument," he tells me.

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Album cover of Abaar Bochhor Kuri Pore

Currently based in Kolkata, the artiste spent nearly a decade in Libya on professional pursuits after Moheen disbanded in 1981. While on site for his projects, he almost involuntarily interacted with various ambient sounds, local music and musicians, and also took a fancy to the stringed instrument 'Saz' for a while. "I did not bring it back with me to India when I returned, and for that I was lambasted by Moni Da for years," he laughs.

Moheen never chased genres, allowing its members to experiment, expand and create unrestrainedly. "I even pulled off crazy stunts on stage, doing somersaults and all," Pradip says.

Following their two final albums Ajaana Udonto Bostu ba Aw-Oo-Baw (Unidentified Flying Object or UFO, 1978) and Drishyomaan Moheener Ghoraguli (The Visible Horses of Moheen, 1979), and their subsequent dissolution, an attempt at reviving the Moheen legacy was made by the founding members who were still based in Calcutta during the '90s. The exercise, however, resulted mostly in collaborations with new and old artists from Bengal, culminating into the album Abaar Bochhor Kuri Pore (Twenty Years Later, 1995). At its core, the band still continued celebrating youth, new beginnings and new ideas.

"Anyone who wants to do something new and different is a ghora," says Pradip, adding that they were thrilled to learn that writers Sunil Gangopadhyay and Shakti Chattopadhyay were among their many admirers.

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Top: A young Gautam Chattopadhyay; Bottom: Gautam Chattopadhyay in later years

The group's novelty was apparent not only in their creations, but also their acts, as they turned any available space into their stage. For them, no audience was small or insignificant €" a principle inscribed in their manifesto. "And I still abide by it," says Tapas Das. "Our mandate had other 'not to dos', like never write about love. We would only write about the everyday struggles of the everyman. In fact, when the Calcutta Metro Rail was inaugurated in 1984, Moni Da and I sat on its steps and played music to an audience," reminisces Das, whose day job during his youth was at a ration shop, from where he drew a monthly salary of Rs 80. He later bought a guitar for Rs 120, and paid off his debt through EMIs.

He remembers he was only 18 when one of their now-iconic songs 'Bhalobashi' was written. A joint lyrical endeavour by Gautam Chattopadhyay, Ranjon Ghoshal, Tapesh Bandopadhyay, Tapas Das, Pradip Chattopadhyay, Biswanath Chattopadhyay and Abraham Mazumder €" with melody and chords by Gautam €" the song comes closest to summing up the band's outlook towards life and music.

"Moheener Ghoraguli stands for the inherently syncretic nature of our culture. 'Bhalobashi' is a perfect example (of that)," says Shantanu Datta, senior journalist and music historian whose book Calling Elvis: Conversations With Some of Music's Greatest, A Personal History charts the presence of international music in the South Asian subcontinent. It features a chapter on the band, told primarily through Tapas Das's perspective.

"Bhalobashi Picasso, Buñuel, Dante, Beatles, Dylan aar Beethoven shunte/Ravi Shankar aar Ali Akbar shune, bhalo lagey bhore kuashay ghore phirte" is our story. Ask anyone growing up in Calcutta during the '70s and '80s, and even now, and he/she will identify with this sentiment...It is a telling commentary on who we were, and what we have become, that this philosophy needs iteration," he says, adding that Moheen is the "embodiment of a kind of chutzpah rarely seen in urban musical soundscapes". They dared to do original Bangla songs in a rock idiom, that were not "mere derivatives" back in an agitated '70s' Calcutta. "Of course, they wanted to be different, steer clear of the mushy, girl-meets-boy-under-a-moonlit-sky kind of imagination being pursued at the time in the sphere of contemporary music. But what they did came out of thoughts and emotions mined from personal experience. It was brutally honest, and I think that is why their music sounds contemporary even today."

Reflecting on their contemporaneity and steadfast relevance, Tapas Das evokes the Hathras gang-rape incident and acts of sexual violence perpetrated on refugee women across the world, and says that their music and philosophies have always revolved around opening dialogue on such crises. "We know that even though the last 'official' war was the Cold War, the ongoing violence in the world is far more lethal. Moheen has been talking about these issues on various levels since forever now."

Not too long ago, Das was invited to a remote corner of the Sunderbans to perform at a carnival, where the locals requested him to sing 'Prithibi' and 'Kolkata'. "To think even they €" people who barely have access to urban amenities, electricity or even phone lines today €" know these songs and wanted to hear them, means something," he says with a hint of pride in his voice. Their universality is not just undeniable, but widely accessible as well. "In 2020, Moheener Ghoraguli is like a 'spell' that has been cast on people," Tapas says, and it is this very 'spell' that has also seeped into Abraham Mazumder's musical repertoire post-Moheen.

The maestro has trained several generations of musicians in the Western Classical discipline, having taught music at The Calcutta Boys' School from 1976-83, and then at La Martiniere for Boys till 2008. His distinct sound powerfully underlines songs like 'Bhalobashi', which was inspired by the Beethoven Trio.

On being introduced to the tribe by his friend Bishu at the young age of 17, Mazumder was asked by Gautam to listen to 'Eleanor Rigby' by The Beatles €" a song whose recording later inspired one of theirs. "I was a young, innocent boy who was totally corrupted in the company of these men," laughs Abraham. He takes a stroll down memory lane and recounts one of his first bizarre adventures with the band, when they had rented an electric organ from one of the "rich people" in town €" the only ones who could afford such foreign imports. "The organ came with its own convoy of security personnel €" three bearers and a guard! We had to pay a hefty security deposit and fee to be able to get our hands on it," he says.

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A young Abraham Mazumder

It was all done in the spirit of fun and celebration, and with a lack of patronage and appreciation, the members ultimately went their separate ways. Biswanath, however, often wishes things turned out differently. "If people appreciated us enough to keep us going, then perhaps many of us would not have left Kolkata to pursue a 'career' other than music. Thus, it became harder to keep playing together or producing records without patronage."

In a way, Moheener Ghoraguli finally received a form of vindication when Abaar Bochhor Kuri Pore sold over 500 copies almost overnight upon its release at the Calcutta Book Fair in 1995. During the album's launch, Gautam and Tapas began singing 'Prithibi' €" which was yet to be published €" at a stall in the Book Fair, only to find over a thousand people, young and old, joining them and singing along. How the crowd knew the song even before its release remains a mystery for Das even to this day.

It was also in that moment that Gaurab Chattopadhyay, Gautam's son €" who is also a musician and plays in the Bangla band Lakkhichhara €" realised the phenomenon that Moheener Ghoraguli is. "I was there when the crowd followed us to sing 'Prithibi'. It still comes back to me in vivid flashes and leaves me with goosebumps. That is when I really realised what my father and his friends' legacy is," he says. Four years later in 1999, his father passed away at the age of 51, only days before his band's first public concert in Calcutta. Gautam, however, had seen the concert ticket and said, "Dekhchhi, jodi oi shomoy Kolkata ey thaka jaye (Let me see if I can be in Kolkata during that time)."

That moment marked a schism in the lives of everyone associated with not just Gautam, but also the band €" its members, lovers and critics alike. It came nearly two decades after one other such schism had upended their lives €" when Moni announced to his bandmates at his Behala home that Moheener Ghoraguli would cease to exist from that moment onward. "I did not know what to do or how to feel when I heard the news. It was devastating," says Raja Banerjee.

However, 45 years since that momentous day, Moheen's horses have gone on to uphold its legacy by contributing to music in ways unparalleled and unique, keeping the spirit of their "movement" untouched.

"Aamra hawar moto eshechhilam, aar hawar moto chhoriye gelaam (We came into people's lives like a gust of wind, and then scattered into the air)," says Abraham Mazumder. "But hopefully, we have lit lights in people's homes and lives," he signs off while humming a familiar tune that has been embraced as an anthem by protesters and lovers alike.

€" All images courtesy Moheener Ghoraguli Archives

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