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The unique life of Moheener Ghoraguli, the original Bangla rock group. By Bharath Murthy Those not tuned into the musical radar will not recognize that the hit song ‘Bheegi Bheegi’, composed by music director Pritam for the film ‘Gangster’, is a cover version of ‘Prithibi ta naki’, a song by the Bangla collective known as ‘Moheener Ghoraguli’ (Mohin’s Horses). Formed in 1976, and led by its charismatic frontman Gautam Chattopadhyay, Moheener Ghoraguli released three records before disbanding in 1981. In doing so, they sparked off the musical movement known as Bangla rock, of which they were the pioneers. I got my first taste of the unique flavour of their music when I came to Kolkata in 2001 to study film at the Satyajit Ray Film and TV Institute. There was a bluesy number going on in one of the rooms in the hostel. The lyrics were in Bengali and the only English word in it was ‘telephone’. It was some kind of mix (I will not call it ‘fusion’) of Bengali folk and blues. The folk part of it, I later came to know, was Baul music (see box). At a time when Indian English rock musicians are still struggling to find an original voice, here was a group that had already made modern rock music their own and sung their songs not in English but in their own language Bengali.
Phase I : 1976-1981 The 70s were a heady time in Bengal, a time of revolutionary spirit sweeping the urban youth. The Naxalite movement, the call for armed struggle against the decrepit power structure, resulted in many bright youngsters losing their lives, leaving scars that Bengal is still yet to recover from. Gautam Chattopadhyay, outspoken B.Sc. student of Presidency College Kolkata during the height of the movement, witnessed all of it first hand. A natural musician, he used to play saxophone with a bunch of Anglo Indians in a band called ‘The Urge’. The music scene at the time was concentrated on Park Street, where live bands played in pubs like Trinca’s and Moulin Rouge. Abraham Mazumdar, one of the members in the original line up, recalls the time. “We used to play Beatles, Crosby, Clapton etc. I played with Louis Banks for a while, and Usha Uthup was also there.” The band came together in 1976 during a three-month break that Gautam took due to a leg injury. The name ‘Moheener Ghoraguli’ is taken from a line of poetry by modern Bengali poet, Jibananda Das. Gautam wrote lyrics, sang, and played lead guitar. The original line up included Pradip Chattopadhyay (brother of Gautam), who played bass/flute, Bishu Chatterjee, another brother (drums), Tapesh Banerjee (vocals), Tapas Das (rhythm guitar/vocals), Abraham Mazumdar (violin/piano) and Ranjan Ghosal (cousin), who arranged the music and drew album covers. The division was never strict and they would sometimes interchange instruments on stage.
Producing the music was never easy. A western band format featuring harmonized vocals and witty urban lyrics talking about everyday life was probably too much to take for record companies like HMV, who never supported the band. They self-produced their first album ‘Sangbigno Pakhikul O Kolkata Bishayak’ (Ruffled Feathers and Thematic Kolkata) in 1976. Gaurab Chatterjee, Gautam’s son and drummer of Bangla rock group ‘Lakkhicharra’ tells me that they even had to borrow money from kabuliwalas apart from putting in their own savings. Soon they started performing in colleges all over Kolkata and soon had a fan following among urban middle-class educated youth. Two more records followed, “Ajaana Udonto Bostu ba Aw.Oo.Baw” (Unidentified Flying Object or U.F.O., 1977) and “Drishyomaan Moheener Ghoraguli” (Real Moheen’s Horses, 1978). Like the music itself, the efforts have a hand-crafted feel, with even the album covers designed by the members themselves. The releases met with a less-than-enthusiastic response generally even as they garnered a small group of dedicated fans.
bauljazz The International Jazz Festival held in Kolkata for three consecutive years from 1979 deserves mention here for it was in this festival that the band played along with foreign jazz bands like the Swedish group ‘Rena Rama Quartet’ and the German group ‘Embryo’ and produced a fusion of baul music and jazz. Their experimental approach ensured that
they would use the snake charmer’s ‘bean’ and the ‘dotara’ along with western instruments. Though they were appreciated by the elite audiences, the group really wanted to reach out to the vast ‘petit bourgeois’ culture, who were used to the kind of restrained ‘adhunik gaan’ (modern song) which was an updating of the tradition of Tagore and Nazrul Islam. However, they were traditional in their instrumentation and often used lofty metaphorical lyrics. The ‘ghoras’ (horses, as they called themselves) wanted to intervene in that music culture and sing about contemporary themes, and give a voice to the experience of modernity and urban Bengali culture, which had seen a lot of political upheaval in the seventies. As Gautam had himself put it in one of his essays on their music, “they considered the guitar as an imperial cultural symbol”. Their fusion experience with jazz led them to use the guitar to work upon folk music thereby creating not so much ‘fusion’, but a style of popular music that remained rooted while at the same time allowing rock music style chord progressions. Apart from western rock, they also incorporated Latin music in songs like ‘Kotho ki koraar achche baaki’ (How much more remains to be done), among others. Also, they would tend to use raw and untrained voices. Minoti Chaterjee, Gautam’s wife tells me that once he got Kartik, who was a production boy in the recording studio, to sing in one of the songs. Phase II : 1995-99 After the ‘ghoras’ disbanded in 1981, everyone went off to pursue their own careers. Abraham Mazumdar teaches western classical music. Gautam went on to make films and did ethno musicological research. But none of the former members abandoned music. In the meanwhile there were others like ‘Nogor Philomel’, ‘Nagorik’ and solo performers like Ranjan Prasad who continued working in the ‘urban folk’ idiom. In the 90s, as the Indian economy opened up to global forces, a new generation of youth was on the scene, having grown up on television. A new bunch of solo singer/songwriters emerged like Suman Chattopadhyay, Anjan Dutta and Nachiketa who popularized a style now called ‘Jibonmukhi gaan’ (songs of everyday life), whose roots lie in the early experimentation of Moheener Ghoraguli. It was during this time that Gautam decided to revive the group but with the new crop of young musicians. Gautam composed and wrote lyrics, which were performed by these new musicians who were part of the growing Bangla rock scene with bands like Krosswindz, Lakkhichaara, Fossils, Cactus and Bhoomi. In fact, the song ‘Prithibi ta naki’ was the first Bengali song sung by Krosswindz. Four albums were released, the first being ‘Aabaar Bochhor Kuri Pore (Again, After Twenty-odd Years) (1995). Minoti Chaterjee, Gautam’s wife remembers the time. “We released the album at the Kolkata Book Fair, and each album would be hand wrapped as a gift and presented to the buyer with love.” The new album was a big success, and after twenty years the band’s original efforts finally reached out to the ‘petit bourgeois’. ‘Prithibi ta naki’ became a youth anthem from then on.
Box sections Gautam Chattopadhyay (1948 – 1999) Singer, songwriter, musician, theatre person, filmmaker and ethnographer, the multifaceted Gautam was a charismatic personality with a natural talent in music. He played many instruments with flair and sang in a rustic voice that carried his intensity into the music. His belief in spontaneity and experimentation led him towards both rural folk music and jazz and Latin music like the tango and salsa. Very closely involved in the revolutionary political movement of the 70s, because of which he was also jailed, he nevertheless used music and art rather than politics to bring people together. He was never an individualist and loved any form of community endeavour. As an ethnomusicologist, he documented various folk musical forms. He made four feature films and his first ‘Nagmoti’ won the President’s Medal at the National Film awards (1983). He died aged 51, while completing his last film ‘Rong-bin’, a film with the Karbis of Assam.
Baul music The bauls are a mystical sect of wandering minstrels of Bengal. Their roots can be traced to the Bhakti movement, sufi Islam and the tantric sects. They believe that ‘divine love’ leads to knowing the god within oneself, the ideal they call ‘Maner Manush’ (man of the heart). Music is one of the ways to spiritual rapture and Baul music celebrates celestial love, which transcends religion yet is rooted to the earth. In keeping with the earthy simplicity of their outlook, a Baul musician’s accompaniment is a single string instrument called ‘ektara’, where loosening or tightening the string while plucking produces tonal variations. Lalon Fakir, born a Muslim, was one of the most famous of Baul composers when Baul music was at its peak
during the early 20th century. Rabindranath Tagore did much to popularize the music among the educated lot. In recent times, Baul musicians like Paban Das Baul have taken the music to an international platform, mixing it with electronic drum n’bass, like in the album ‘Tana Tani’. The Baul influence can also be heard in music by Brit-Asian groups like Asian Dub Foundation. Discography Phase I : (1976-81) Shongbigno Pakhikul O Kolkata Bishayak (Ruffled Feathers and Thematic Calcutta) (1976) Ajaana UDonto bostu ba Aw-Oo-Baw (Unidentified Flying Object or U.F.O) (1977) Drishyomaan Moheener Ghoraguli (Real Moheen’s Horses) (1978) Phase II : (1995-99) Aabaar Bochhor Kuri Pore (Again, After Twenty-odd Years) (1995) Jhora Somoyer Gaan (Songs of Times Past) (1996) Maya (Illusion) (1997) Khyapar Gaan (Songs of the Loony) (1999) Aabaar Bochhor Kuri Pore extended CD re-release (1999) Photographs courtesy: Minoti Chaterjee Original album covers courtesy: Abraham Mazumdar Bharath Murthy 1/16, ‘Sanshaptak’, 1050/2, Survey Park, Kolkata-700075
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