|Yesterday once more
They make a mean High Rise at the Grand Hotel’s Chowringhee Bar. The waitress smiles politely every time she passes me by. There is something Wodehousean about the ambience, it carries the sort of ease that the smoking room at the Drones Club might exude. It is a man’s world, this one — on the wall behind me are arranged a series of binocular telescopes, across the room hang ornate walking canes. I half-expect members of ye olde English aristocracy to step in any moment in riding breeches, from a bout of hunting foxes or shooting pheasants or whatever item of massacre forms the day’s special. They would light cigars, fetch themselves drinks from the antique dumbwaiter standing laden at one corner, and proceed to the billiards table at the centre of the room, making of leisure a full-time profession. Instead, a foreigner walks in, wearing a T-shirt and jeans and places himself in front of a giant TV screen.
Yet, when the first notes of the saxophone embellish Carlton Kitto’s mesmeric seduction of the guitar, and the strains of a familiar Sonny Rollins blues rhythm pervade the room, it is a serenade that captures the romance of an era long gone. There is none of the bonhomie of a New Orleans jazz club, but a tuxedoed jazz ensemble led by Kitto entertains guests every night. “These days I play Bryan Adams if it is requested,” smiles the man who singly carries the responsibility of keeping the culture of jazz alive in the city, who has performed with the likes of Duke Ellington and others who fashioned the changing face of jazz music. “The scene was much more sophisticated earlier,” Kitto beams, showing none of the dismay he very justifiably feels, “Anything is passed off as jazz in Calcutta these days. There’s Indo-jazz, fusion-jazz. We try to be authentic though.”
The past, because it is irreclaimable, becomes automatically construed as magical. The stories of yesteryear, of places that still exist, and some that don’t, contribute as much as the present to make up the ampleness and vitality of this city. But the magic has altered immeasurably over the years.
Those pretty women with lilting names and haunting voices are gone — no Delilah or Sweet Hazel sings into the hearts of dapper young dinner guests at Moulin Rouge or Mocambo. The prowlers of the night, and their preferred haunts, both wear new faces. It is gratifying to believe that the present is necessarily more modern, more progressive in outlook. That there are more choices at hand now. But the nights of this city tell a different story. Hark back to the Fifties and Sixties, and Park Street shared the seductive allure of the cabaret dancers that performed inside its watering holes. Every dining address provided live entertainment, some as often as thrice a day. There were ventriloquists, magicians, fire-eaters, cancan dancers and even cross-dressing strippers. “This one time, I went into the greenroom of one of these places and was met with a tall blonde’s sexy, naked back,” recalls Nondon Bagchi, “Then he turned around and asked me for a cigarette, before adjusting his wig and getting ready to go on stage for his drag act.”
There was a wide variety of music to choose from, and the trends were apace with those in the West. While one could have Beethoven, Bach and Tchaikovsky during lunchtime, evenings were meant for swing jazz or pop. The dance floors at Blue Fox and Trinca’s would be overflowing with men and women in their fashionable best, jiving to the latest single from the other side of the world. If Scherezade, the erstwhile night club at The Grand could speak, it might have told a thousand-and-one tales. Of nights of intoxication and heady entertainment, where the bhadra Bengali learnt to shed his inhibitions alongside wealthy Jews, Sindhis and Anglo-Indians under the fairy lights and the come-hither eyes of luscious dancers with names like Lolita and Violetta. Jazz bands and crooners would all end up at the Golden Slipper opposite Nizam’s, for a final jam till the twilight hour. Only the very wealthy could afford the expensive, often international, diversion offered by the club. The years have taken the gilt off the Slipper. Nobody remembers how or when it was buried, all that stands in its place today is the seedy Hotel Raunak.
The city was also catching up with the latest in pop and rock music. “It helped that the HMV in Dum Dum was tied up with EMI, the record label that was bringing out the best in rock music at the time. So we had The Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan and the likes within three weeks of the release of their albums or singles abroad,” says Bagchi. A fashionable teenager in Sixties Calcutta would have to be seen at the Sunday afternoon jam sessions at Trinca’s. Young bands — the more popular among them being The Flinstones and The Cavaliers — would entertain a young crowd that scrimped and saved all week to be able to afford the glass of soda-pop that would allow them to sit in and enjoy the music.
Park Street. That one street alone has produced many musical legends. And too many have left for greener pastures. While those like Louis Banks and Usha Uthup went on to join the music industry in Bombay, Biddu Appaya attained worldwide recognition as a music producer. Marie Samson, famous for her silken voice, went on to entertain at jazz clubs in Sydney.
In the late Seventies, the government levied enormously high entertainment taxes on all dining addresses and clubs, and many of them had to do away with their live acts. Carlton Kitto remembers scuffles between patrons who had to pay double, sometimes treble for their meals at regular stamping grounds like Blue Fox. It was around this time, too, that the Anglo-Indians began leaving the city in droves. The mass expatriation of a community of music-makers gave a more sordid colour to the nights in the city, which was only complemented by the government’s strictures.
In 1968, pretty women were skipping heartbeats to the rhythm of a young man’s drums as his band, the Checquered Tricycle, brought the music of the Rolling Stones to Trinca’s. Forty years later, Nondon Bagchi bears the same unassuming charm as he plays just a door away, at Someplace Else, with his group, Hip Pocket. Park Hotel’s Irish-themed pub takes credit for having revived the culture of live entertainment in Calcutta, when it reintroduced live bands in 1997 (albeit the music never stopped at Trinca’s). Though many have left, a group of veteran musicians in the city have worked hard to keep the show going and Bagchi, Gyan and Jayshree Singh, and Amyt Dutta are at the helm of this circle that stayed on.
New addresses have come up. Princeton Club, on the seamier side of Prince Anwar Shah Road, has followed in the footsteps of SPE in encouraging new bands to showcase their music. The music, though, remains primarily of the Sixties and Seventies, arguably the most creative period for rock music. The debate now is over the popularity of “cover bands”, who play renditions of popular songs, in comparison with that of “original bands”, who compose their own music. The coinages, of course, are formed out of a fierce sense of competition between bands vying for gigs. “I don’t want to be 50 years old and still playing other people’s music. I’m not dissing cover bands. The crowd here is such that they demand covers,” says Ananda Sen, frontman of The Supersonics. They have gained a faithful fan following in the city for their original music. A Supersonics concert feels like a cult gathering, crazed groupies doing complicated and dangerous things to their bodies in the front row. There are other such groups who have carved their own niche — Cassini’s Division, for instance. But for the most part, new bands agree that Calcutta has been unable to let go of the popular music of the past, often blaming the veterans for setting a wrong precedent by concentrating only on playing covers. “Also, a big percentage of people who come to these clubs is not here for the music,” rues Rohan Ganguli, lead guitarist with Supersonics.
The cabaret has been replaced by pole-dancing and Bollywood fantasia. Leggy beauties from eastern Europe or Bollywood “item girls” — it is the old erotica that titillates in a new package. New talent, in the form of young bands, is mushrooming across the city. But the favoured music remains that of a past generation. Are we merely recycling the past or actually reinventing the face of the night in this city?
I’m watching Hip Pocket at Someplace Else on a Wednesday night. A small crowd sits around, sipping their drinks, listening intently, tapping their feet to the beat. The band opens with the first Beatles solo, Paul McCartney’s ‘Yesterday’. It’s the Sixties again.