Emmanuelle de Decker, the tall and graceful former deputy director of cultural events at Alliance Francaise de Calcutta, is helping to put together the Calcutta Rock Festival, the brainchild of two Calcutta bands.
Calcutta Rock Festival' Well, not many may know about it, but this effort by two original rock bands, Cassini’s Division and Supersonics, is already into its second year. It was a one-day event held at Nicco Park Super Bowl in February and had three bands performing: Supersonics, Cassini’s Division with Hoof Hooey doing the opening act.
This year, the bands are planning the event for December in a much bigger avatar. “We are looking at an audience of 1,000 to 2,000. And at Nalban and Swabhumi as venues, but there is still time,” says Emmanuelle (picture below by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya), who is managing the event. This edition will be a three-day affair with big national names as well as the more established original rock bands from Calcutta and opening acts by rising rockers. One or two international acts may be there too. “International acts will generate interest not only among the audience but also among the sponsors,” says Emmanuelle. The festival will showcase the new, original rock bands in the city.
This is as big as plans have ever got for original rock in Calcutta (Bangla bands are in a different bracket altogether). But why would someone like Emmanuelle de Decker from Paris, who also manages events for a leading Indian music company, be drawn to rock in Calcutta, which is far behind Mumbai’s or Delhi’s' There is another out-of-towner — Alex Postelnek from the US, a regular at all Calcutta concerts. Though none of the bands making national news now — Parikrama, Them Clones, Pentagram, Thermal and a Quarter — is from Calcutta. The last Calcutta rock band that made it big was Shiva. And not many Calcuttans still have time for young Calcuttans singing of their angst in barely understood English accompanied by very loud noise: “Sister Sarah saw a vision,/Of her mother in unison,/In a church gown,/It was a sweet confession of a dirty old obsession/ That she had found...” goes a Supersonics song.
But Emmanuelle says she would like to organise the festival because doing it here is much easier than organising something in Paris. “In Paris you are discouraged from the first moment,” she says. Which makes Paris sound just like Calcutta, but Emmanuelle also sees in the Calcutta rock scene business potential. “It will take time, but it will happen,” she says.
“For the first time the city is identifying with original rock music as New Delhi and Mumbai did some years back. With the kind of talent available in Calcutta and the Northeast, there is a tremendous scope for rock festivals and concerts just waiting to be developed,” says Alex, a tabla player, who has shown interest in getting the concert scene going. “A movement to promote original rock in Calcutta is needed with either a recording label or the media or some corporate house supporting it. They need to be convinced that there is a huge market of original rock music in the city,” Alex adds. He is impressed by young people from as far as Durgapur and Asansol who know more about rock than him.
The bands here fervently hope that people like Emmanuelle and Alex are looking at things with objectivity — and there is hope. For things need to change drastically here.
Pubs with live music, college fests, clubs — Calcutta has it all. But the city curiously suffers from a lack of platforms for the rockers who are visible otherwise; they are in the newspapers and television; they are part of the city’s identity in a film like The Bong Connection. That, however, seems to be the limit.
A lot has to do with doing original music in Calcutta. Not all the bands are equally good — but live music in Calcutta is dominated by cover bands belting out age-old numbers. As with many things, originality is not much encouraged. “The cover music scene, which has been here for quite some time, has conditioned the audience. People come to shows expecting to listen to songs they have grown up hearing or are currently big in the international scene,” says Ananda Sen, lead vocalist of Supersonics. “There never has been a original music scene in Calcutta. What we have here are hotel bands and it is proving to be a huge task convincing the audience and the pubs to accept original music,” feels Ritoban (Ludo) Das, drummer of Cassini’s Division.
All cover versions do not guarantee satisfaction, either. “We had just played Smoke on the Water, when this gentleman came up and asked who had sung the song. On hearing it was Deep Purple, he said he had sat next to them at an airport, but wanted us to play a love song by Rod Stewart. He also said that the drums needed cleaning,” says Souvik Chakravarti of the Hobos (acronym for the Hedonism Obsessed Bunch of Shamans. They stress on the hedonism part more than the shamanism, they claim).
Supersonics play emo and garage rock with influences of grunge and punk rock bands. Cassini’s Division, labelled an alternative rock outfit, plays a combination of nu-metal, emo and Goth pop. The Hobos, who practise in a tiny pad in Dum Dum Park, play progressive experimental rock. It makes life tough.
The pubs could have done better. “While pubs in Delhi are trying to make an effort to build up a scene for the local bands there, music in pubs here is more of an accompaniment to a bottle of beer,” says Souvik. The people who can buy expensive beer are usually older and prefer older music. So pubs prefer safe cover versions.
The colleges could do better too. “Colleges would pay a huge sum to get a band from Delhi or Bangalore even though they could get similar stuff for half the amount here,” says Ritoban. “Thanks to the media exposure and platforms the outstation bands get.”
But Calcutta really lags behind other cities in its lack of live concerts. “Concerts make rock bands thrive,” says Rahul Guha Roy, vocalist and song-writer with Cassini’s Division. Delhi has its Great Indian Rock, Chennai has June Rock Out and Mumbai has its I Rock. Chennai also has a place like Unwind Center, points out Souvik, which allows upcoming bands regular jamming sessions without allowing alcohol or tobacco. “It encourages real music lovers,” he says. “Even a place that could host shows every fortnight with no booze would be a sell-out in the city because the younger generation comes for the music,” adds Souvik.
There are other problems with the system. “If we sign a contract with a pub, we are not allowed to play in other pubs in the city. Since there is no concert scene, we have to settle for whatever we get paid,” says Ananda of Supersonics.
Which brings up the very important question of money. All these leave many of the bands, famous though they are in the city, quite poor. A city rock band on an average earns between Rs 7,000 and Rs 15,000 for a show in Calcutta. An outstation show would fetch around Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 for most bands. With four members in a band on an average and two to three gigs in a month (if at all), it doesn’t come to a fortune. The bands can be paid as little as Rs 4,500 per member in a month by a pub with which alone they have to get by at times since there are very few gigs happening. “It is more difficult if you are doing music full-time with no additional income because you can’t even invest in your instruments," says Ritoban.
The established older bands in the city can settle for a meagre sum, which would make shows go their way. “Bands should co-operate if music has to be made into a career. A certain level should be maintained when it comes to payment, so that everyone stands a fair chance,” adds Ananda. As Rahul says: “No money means no motivation.”
And sponsors, band managers and event managers, essential to a music industry segment, are still missing.
But not all is bleak. Souvik is very hopeful, like Emmanuelle, about the future. With time, and faith, he believes, things will change. Calcutta bands are also going some places. While Span, a city rock band doing original music, made it to the Channel V Launchpad this year, Cassini’s Division made it to the Great Indian Rock festival in 2006.
New spaces are opening up. Till recently, Someplace Else was the only pub for live bands to perform. But now Princeton Club on Anwar Shah Road is turning out to be a favourite haunt for music lovers, especially the young (also because it is far more affordable). Princeton promotes a lot of the new original rock bands with gusto. “When we started we played to only our friends. Now, we are playing to packed places. The crowd is definitely becoming more receptive,” says Ananda.
So despite little money, despite only a few places to go, despite no big brand banners at the back, the show goes on. Because despite everything, the bands have their fans, their groupies, a name, even if among a fit audience though few. And because rock challenges the order of things.
And as a Cassini’s number goes: “You think what you see is real/ But it’s just a polaroid point of view/You know, the lens is perfect but pictures bend/One way or another... one way or another…” Rock on.
Original rock bands in the city