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Impressions: An alien in Kolkata

Sumit Bhattacharya | September 30, 2005 12:17 IST

There is a town in north Ontario,
With dreams, comfort, memory, despair,
And in my mind I still need a place to go,
'Cause all my changes were there�

Neil Young's Helpless plays in my mind -- I can't afford an iPod -- as the clouds give way to my first aerial glimpse of Kolkata in five years.

I was not born in the City of Joy, but it is still 'home' -- because all my changes were there. Despite its dirtiness, humidity, poverty and lack of opportunity, it tugs at my heartstrings like little else can. 

Even as I walk out of the airport, it's evident the city has changed. Serpentine flyovers where none existed. Adverts of malls that stock everything from 'fridge to feng shui'. Signs of a real estate boom: 'Where do you want to live in Kolkata,' ask some billboards, while shiny, happy people declare 'I live in luxury, and fish in my spare time too' from others.

Kolkata's other newfound love � again, instantly evident -- is 'Bangla rock'.

In the Seventies, there was but one bunch of renegade Bengali troubadours -- Mohiner Ghoraguli (Mohin's horses) � who defied the Bangali bhadralok's incestuous obsession with Rabindrasangeet. The band was led by the now iconic, and deceased, Goutam Chatterjee. What he started became a trend in the early Nineties, with the arrival of a guitar-mauling singer with Dylan-esque pretensions, Suman Chattopadhyay.

Soon, there was a phalanx of musically illiterate, pretentious, obnoxious singers and bands singing jibonmukhi gaan. Literally translated, that means songs that sing about life. In reality, what happened was a musical free-for-all. From Pink Floyd to Leonard Cohen to Carpenters, everything was recycled with Bengali lyrics as 'original Bangla rock songs'.

Every now and then, a band from Bangladesh would also deliver fly-by-night hits. Interestingly, Mallika Sherawat's [Images] Murder has a song that is completely stolen from a number by a Bangladeshi band called Miles.

But back then, Bangla rock was still was a fringe phenomenon. Now, it is as mainstream as it can get. Huge billboards advertise concerts by bands like Cactus, Chandrabindu, Bhoomi etcetera etcetera. Just a month ago, a Bengali television channel had a hit reality show called Band-e-Mataram, which was like an Indian Idol [Images], with bands as contestants.

Bangla rock concerts are now commonplace in mofussil towns of West Bengal, and Bangla rockers are celebrities in every sense of the word. Chandrabindu, one of the biggest Bangla rock bands, even has band memorabilia, like greeting cards conceptualised by the musicians and illustrated by the lead singer.

And, most music stores have a separate shelf for Bangla rock.

The other Kolkata musical phenomenon is smaller, literally. In 1997, the Park Hotel decided to transform a 25 by 10 feet room called Someplace Else � which was then a sort of discotheque � to a live music pub. It kicked off with one rock band. Now it has six bands playing seven nights a week, and is generally considered the hangout place. A list of recent performers at Someplace Else will perhaps qualify that statement: Ehsaan and Loy, Parikrama, Indian Ocean and Amit Chatterjee.

Chatterjee is a cult guitar player from New York who was, till recently, in the Zawinul Syndicate, led by legendary jazz keyboardist and Weather Report frontman Joe Zawinul.


Kolkata of the new millennium is a much cleaner city than what it was. It is now definitely cleaner than Mumbai (suburbs included). The streets look wider and flyovers help you get where you want fast enough. 

The main roads have Delhi-esque road signs and traffic is better than the financial capital of India. Kolkata now has much more cars than it had five years ago, and you don't need statistics to realise that. The public buses too have changed colours, from the drab silver to a garish blue with yellow band.   

But the city still shuts down by 12 am.


The best thing about Kolkata, its food, remains as good as ever. The first thing I did on arrival was get myself a plate of Biryani. And for those of you who have only tasted the curry-rice-meat concoction that passes off as Biryani in Mumbai, my sympathies. Lucknow-wallahs know what I'm talking about.


I was here on work, and couldn't do any of the things I wanted to -- like take a walk down Free School Street, where record shop owners taught me much more about life than any teacher could. Those were the days before the world became a global village, and pirated tapes -- most of the time suggested by the shop owners  -- were our doors of perception.

My friends tell me most of those shops are gone now. 

I couldn't see Saltlake's Sector V: the address that has fuelled most of Kolkata's new money. That is where the infotech volcano is bubbling, with offices of most software heavyweights in India.


As I leave the city, another song plays in my mind. It is by a Kolkata band called High. It was led by a man I have never met (he is dead now, and the group disbanded in the early Eighties) but who I consider one of the greatest songwriters ever, Dilip Balakrishnan.

It was fun, while it lasted
I was so, so enchanted
I saw your face, once again
But it's been such a long time
Since I felt this way

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