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

The bands simultaneously rebelled against the established system and painted honest pictures of a changing urban society.

Shaswata Kundu Chaudhuri June 06, 2021 10:13:17 IST
From underground to mainstream: How the Bangla rock movement attained validation on home turf

Cactus on stage. Facebook/cactusmusicofficial

'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 2 of the series.


One of my earliest memories of a band performance was when I was nine years old. Chandrabindoo, the band whose colourful cassettes my mother would collect, was performing at the park near my house. Clutching her hand, I went to attend the concert where mostly families and young people made up the crowd.

This was around 2003. Even though I was a kid without a clue as to what a band signified, I related to the music. It seemed like Chandrabindoo’s song ‘Bathroom’ — an indignant satire on the sadistic practice of not allowing schoolchildren to use the loo in the first periods — was written for me.

Such witty lyricism and intelligent dissection of topics like crass commercialism, advent of the computers and crucial social issues, but always with a layer of humour, widened Chandrabindoo’s appeal beyond the youth to middle-aged people too.

“Though we were labelled for our humour, our songs have many layers — the more you get into them, more dimensions you’ll find,” says vocalist Upal Sengupta, adding that their music is also multi-hued. “Though we are a pop band, we experimented with genres like reggae, calypso, blues and even opera and kirtan.”

Within 1997-2005, Chandrabindoo released eight albums — a testament to how Bangla band music was in demand. But in the early ’90s, when this form of music was restricted to only a few bands performing sporadically in college fests and neighbourhood shows, it was scorned by established singers of contemporary Bengali music. Though the ’80s saw a few groups like Nagar Philomel, they failed to make a mark.

Rebels with a cause

“The concept of a Bangla band was incredulous back then!” exclaims Siddhartha Ray of Cactus, which was formed in 1992. “There were only English cover bands. We were really hooked to the power, passion and craziness of the music but a lot of people did not understand the lyrics all the time. So, the alternative was rock music in Bangla.”

This led to Cactus talking about untrammelled desire, Kolkata, fear of failing in life and even suppressed sex on a blues and psychedelic rock soundscape in their debut eponymous album released in 1999. The sound was a direct result of exposure to bands like Pink Floyd and Deep Purple.

Their songs also marked a significant thematic shift as it went beyond the realm of unrequited love to paint contemporary pictures of an increasingly commercialist, urban society. ‘Amra Bhishon Eka’ was a disturbing portrait of loneliness, which also announced their political stand: ‘E shilpo biplob er shomoy’ (This is the time for revolution through art) — their act of rebellion in the face of established norms.

Soft rockers Abhilasha, led by the late Kutty Majumdar, also tread similar paths. Their self-titled debut album, released in 1997, had determined intentions. ‘Swapno’ spoke of dreaming without limitations and overturning conventions while ‘Shono’ urged listeners to carve one’s destinies on unknown paths.

But their philosophy was not just restricted to their songs. When Bengali bands were not given slots to perform at the government-organised cultural festival Gaan Mela in 1998, Abhilasha set up their own stage under a tree outside the venue. They cranked up the volume so much that it drew a significant portion of the crowd towards them.

“These people had the bravery to go up against the system and create a new one! They didn’t care about the money — they wanted to see what happens if you don’t follow the rules,” says the band’s former bassist Mainak Nag Chowdhury. He fondly recalls being formally inducted into the band with a priest putting a tika on his forehead, and only being dropped off home after practise when the senior members went out on a liquor run.

However, the band that clicked the most with the masses was Paras Pathar, whose debut album Aajo Ache (1996) was among the earliest records. A purely pop outfit, they peddled love and hope with the sweetest possible melodies. Some of their songs like 'Bhalobasha’ and ‘Bhalo Laage’ spread like wildfire and became much loved hits.

“We made songs adda’r chholey, in a free-flowing manner — friends singing together in canteens and college fests. People who heard our songs liked them, and that grew with time, reaching more people as shows increased,” says the band’s former vocalist and songwriter Anindya Bose, who would later split to form his own outfit Shohor in 1998.

Inspired by Moheener Ghoraguli and Bangladeshi rockers like Feedback, Miles and LRB, these bands — Cactus, Abhilasha, Chandrabindoo, Paras Pathar — formed the first wave, which made band music visible and accessible to the public. Informal performances surrounding the release of Sompadito albums at the annual Book Fair during the mid-90s helped too. By the end of the decade, bands were playing to packed halls.

Turning point

But the band which really set the wheels in motion in terms of a distinct rock identity was Krosswindz. Interestingly, they had started off as an English band and had even released an EP titled Singles in 1994. “I had written a number of Bengali compositions. When we got some funds from a friend, we decided to record them and went into the studio for three days,” says guitarist Neil Mukherjee.

The result was the first Bengali rock album Poth Gechhe Benke (1996), a Bible of sorts for the scene. From beautifully arranged ballads and melodic tunes with flamenco elements to dual electric guitar wizardry, this album proved that rock music was possible in Bengali.

Traditionally, lyrics and melody have always been primary in Bengali songs. But the sheer audacity of recording the instrumental ‘Elomelo Hawa’ completely shattered this norm, very much in line with the entire act of rebellion.

Now, on the very same day that Krosswindz recorded ‘Prithibi’ for the album Aabar Bochhor Kuri Pore in 1995, a band consisting of 12-year-old kids took the name Lakkhichhara and recorded the song ‘Porashonay Jolanjoli’. Six years later, they released their debut album Meghmollar (2001).

This alternative rock album, followed by their hit record Jibon Chaiche Aro Beshi (2003), signified a distinct shift in Bangla rock’s sound — riffs formed the backbone of songs rather than melodies. These teenagers, part of the post-MTV generation, were exposed massively to different forms of rock music and the output reflected that.

Also, the presence of such a young band turned the youth onto the exploding phenomenon of Bangla rock. “Lakkhichhara’s fan base was heavily rooted in colleges. Our contemporaries were fascinated to see us sharing stages with bands whose members were at least ten years older,” says the band’s drummer Gaurab Chattopadhyay.

Lakkhichhara’s rise to fame ran parallel to the upward curve of Bangla rock’s popularity at the turn of the millennium. While the city’s youth warmed up to it, the music also stepped outside Kolkata for the first time.

Capturing the imagination of the masses

In 2000, just before the release of their second album Ichhe Daana, Paras Pathar became the first act to get corporate sponsorship for a state-wide tour, informs keyboardist Raja Narayan Deb. This played a huge role in making band music economically viable. “When we went outside Kolkata, we realised how little we are. Nobody knew us, or what a band is. It was almost like educating the masses,” he says.

Gradually, band music was inching into the mainstream and the required push came that very year when folk outfit Bhoomi released their debut album Jatra Shuru. From Bhatiyali songs of the fishermen community to the mysticism of the wandering baul minstrels, Bhoomi presented a composite sonic picture of rural Bengal.

“We thought of experimenting with folk using Western instruments. It sounded good, so we pursued it,” says vocalist-percussionist Soumitra Ray. He primarily composed the songs with vocalist Surojit Chatterjee, whose interest in folk instruments like khamok, dotara, flute and even mandolin added several dimensions to their sound.

“Bhoomi’s sound was unstoppable – it was like a juggernaut. We broke all barriers and records!” exclaims Ray. Indeed, they were able to reach across all generations — from old people to children. Bhoomi even inspired Krosswindz, whose lineup had now changed, to move towards folk rock.

Now, while all this was happening, a slumbering beast was biding its time. In 2002, it was unleashed on the scene in the form of the album Fossils 1. An unhinged, roaring record, it gave Bangla rock a hard rocking and almost demonic avatar — the bhodrolok’s ultimate kryptonite.

Chuckling, guitarist Allan Ao recalls scaring off a bunch of college kids when he played the first distortion chord in one of their earliest shows. The reactions were expected — ‘reduce the volume’, ‘why so much screaming’, ‘can’t hear vocals’. But with time, this very album would go onto become a cult record.

“We broke a lot of traditions on how songs were presented, written and arranged,” reveals Ao, explaining how their sound was born. “It was a tumultuous phase — we were just out of college and didn’t know what we wanted to do with our lives. There was pressure at home to get a job and settle down, but we wanted to play music; then, broken relationships. We wanted to fight the system and were angry with everything that was going on around us. And all of this manifested in the music.”

With haunting soundscapes, incendiary guitar work, furious rhythms and intense vocals that sometimes took to screams, Fossils represented the darker underbelly of urban society. Inspired by Nirvana, frontman Rupam Islam had no qualms writing about loneliness, depression, poverty and existential crises — issues that the urban population was facing but was too afraid to accept. Fossils brought brutal honesty, which the disaffected youth instantly connected with.

So by 2003, the Bangla band scene had several acts who championed distinct musical genres. With the support of radio airplay, their reach would expand exponentially, penetrating all social and age groups. It had finally shed its underground identity to transform into the mainstream.

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