Over some hot brewed coffee at AMPM Kolkata on Park Street, t2 chatted with some women vocalists who’ve dominated the live music scene in Calcutta for the past few decades. The ladies — Arunima Dasgupta, Rupsha Sen, Tanya Sen, Diya Bhattacharya, Ahona Sen, Shrestha D. and Aneeshaa Seth — all dressed in black and jammed to Hey Jude by The Beatles at a fun shoot only for t2!
Is music your full-time career? If yes, what inspired you to take it up?
Rupsha Sen: I grew up around music, dance and the arts in general. There was no plan to take music up professionally or any guidance for that matter. It was just a natural trajectory that took its course as my interest peaked around middle school. I do have a full-time job apart from this, which is entrepreneurial in nature. That was always the plan, music just happened (smiles).
Arunima Dasgupta: Music was an intrinsic part of my childhood. I used to be the drummer in the school’s Western music band and in college. I met Jayanta Dasgupta from Hip Pocket at Someplace Else. When he left Hip Pocket to set up his own band, he asked me if I would be the vocalist and I just said yes. I didn’t really have any experience singing live, but he believed in me, and the rest is history. So, I wouldn’t really say I made a conscious decision to make music a career — it kind of just fell into my lap and happened. Apart from music I’ve also worked as a freelance graphic designer, freelance fine artist and from 2012, I have also been working as the artist relations and events head, India, for Fender guitars and Ernie Ball Music Man to name a few.
Diya Bhattacharya: I’d like to mention that my full-time career is that of an IT professional. I’ve been working in IT for the past five years. However, music has always been an integral part of my life and shall remain so because I love being on stage and in the studio. Inspiration hits you from different sources at different stages of your life as a musician.
Aneeshaa Seth: I’ve grown into a very musical family. My dad is a Hindustani classical musician so music has always been there. I used to be a trained kathak dancer for about nine years in my school days. Later I discovered I could play a little guitar all thanks to the Internet and sing along. With time I just found myself being very comfortable performing and singing. Music has always kept me anchored.
Tanya Sen: I started singing from a very young age of six, so I knew all along that I wanted to sing professionally. Everything else was accidental (entrepreneur, interior designer) but being a singer was always the plan.
Ahona Sen: While growing up, I never considered taking up music as a career. Once I met my husband, Pradyumna Singh Manot, who is a jazz pianist of many years, I got exposed to the world of a professional musician and Latin jazz music. It was thrilling and felt like home. The golden voice of Maria Rita singing in Portuguese was the kind of music that stirred my soul. I immediately decided to form a Brazilian jazz band, Sabor do Brasil, in 2018. I also teach kids how to sing and play the piano.
Shrestha D.: I started my training in music when I was eight. I always knew that music is my thing. I am a full-time musician as I teach and perform. I spend most of my time with my music.
How did you start performing?
Rupsha: The first performances can definitely be traced back to inter-school competitions or school fests as we called them. Forming a band in school, rehearsing and performing was how it started for me. Subsequently, college fests followed and on one open-mic night at Someplace Else, which was then hosted by Neel Adhikari, I met guitar player Rohan Ganguli who asked me to sing for his new project, a blues band that we would eventually call ‘Big Family’ and that was 10 years back and I’m still playing with him and Premjit Dutta and Aakash Ganguly on and off.
Arunima: Jayanta formed The Saturday Night Blues Band in October 1999, then we got the prime spot, every Saturday nights at SPE from 2000.
Diya: Back in school I would jam with my brother’s band. Around 2014, when I was in college, his groove metal band Marijane Overdose needed a clean-singing back-up vocalist, and I was given my first ever gig.
Aneeshaa: I started performing in college. I’d represent my college in various inter-college culture festivals.
Tanya: So, it started with inter-school competitions and fests. At age 17 I did my first professional show for a Christmas Eve party at a club and that was how it all started.
Ahona: My first stage performance as a musician was at a showcase of upcoming singers at The Piano Man Jazz Club, Delhi, in mid-2018.
Shrestha: I was called to attend a jam where they played Western music. By this time, I was already inclined towards Western music. We named this outfit, Palindrome. We looked for pub gigs and sent our demos.
What kind of feedback did you get?
Rupsha: The feedback initially was good, which is what encouraged me to continue but I’ve always had an internal verdict meter that I used to gauge how I performed and no matter what others told me I could never be happy until that internal sense of satisfaction was achieved, which did not happen a lot of the times. But as the days pass by I keep learning.
Arunima: Honestly, those were the start-up days of trying to convert SPE into a live music venue, so it wasn’t easy. To top that off we were a full-blown blues band — a genre people were not that familiar with. Though it started off as us sometimes performing just for the staff and a few friends, word slowly spread and within a year we were playing to a packed house every Saturday night.
Diya: There are already a limited number of venues in Calcutta which support the kind of music that I usually sing, like English pop, jazz, indie and soft rock. Nowadays, I also try to include some Bollywood songs in my set, only the ones that I truly enjoy singing. Over the years, the audience have indeed been kind to me, and I’ve seen them have a really good time at my performances. I thank them sincerely for that.
Aneeshaa: One feedback which has been a constant is that I have a very “heavy” voice. People even say I’ve an unusual voice. One more feedback would be a “jazzy voice”.
Tanya: Feedback was really good. Got covered by quite a few publications and that gave a really big push and motivation to take up music professionally. Also, the support and encouragement from senior musicians of the city that I looked up to, like Amyt Datta, Jayshree Singh and Gyan Singh gave me all the more drive to do this.
Ahona: What really thrilled me is how people would dance to the music! That is the best kind of feedback, to see your audience grooving to the music you make!
Shrestha: I have mostly received great feedback from my audience about my performances. But the fact that I perform pub gigs doesn’t sit quite well with a lot of people in the society. As this line of work is glamorous and people have uber perceptions about this. Anyways, I have learnt to ignore these and do my work as best as I can.
Since it is not a high-paying career path, how do you come to terms with that?
Rupsha: I never initially considered music as a career option so even 10 years ago when I began pursuing it professionally, I already had a full-time job that I still have today. Music was something I did for myself as I was passionate about it, and I was lucky enough to be able to play with such talented musicians all around.
Arunima: For most of us in the band we had other sources of income, so the music was never a part of making money. Performing live every week was a passion and getting to do that at one of the best live music venues in the country, week after week, was a blessing. Diya: I don’t entirely agree that being a full-time musician is not a lucrative career path. There are so many musicians who have made it big and are sustaining themselves pretty well.
Aneeshaa: I wouldn’t say this isn’t a high-paying career. You just have to know your weaknesses and strengths and really grind. But if you work for it it’ll pay for itself. Tanya: To be honest this thought never even crossed my mind. I was having too much fun doing music with the band, learning so many new things and experiences. In fact, I felt extremely grateful and lucky to be pursuing a career in something that I truly enjoyed.
Ahona: I pursue teaching music to kids alongside my singing career. This dual career makes me quite financially comfortable.
Shrestha: It’s not a high-paying career yes, but I think it’s quite rewarding. I always believe, money doesn’t make you rich. Wealth does. Wealth can be a lot of things. Love, people, money, life experiences, journeys, friends.
Did you consider singing in films or in Bengali or Hindi since it is way more popular?
Rupsha: I have never gone out of my way to be ambitious with music. I have sung for a film once and done a few similar projects but again it was not what my goal was with music so it’s not something that I have ever aspired to do but I admire those who do it well. Arunima: No, never. I was happy with what I was doing musically and that was enough for me. Diya: I would definitely look forward to getting into the sphere of Bengali or Hindi film music, because there’s space for a lot of exploration and experimentation.
Aneeshaa: It would be wrong to say I don’t fancy singing in films but never wanted to do it in Bengali or Hindi then that wouldn’t be my strength.
Tanya: Yes I did sing in quite a few Bengali movies like Chalo Let’s Go, Madly Bengali, Ashchorjo Pradeep, Meghnadbodh Rohoshyo, Notobor Not Out, Highway, Devi, sang for jingles, voiceovers in multiple languages.... I’ve always been open to any kind of studio work. However, when it comes to live performance, I prefer Western music.
Ahona: I sing the music that I resonate with. There is no barrier on language. I believe that if I love what I sing, I will find the audience that resonates with it too and at AMPM Kolkata the crowd is also so enthusiastic and respectful. I love playing here!
Shrestha: I have always pushed the boundaries when it came to versatility. I sing in Bengali, Hindi, English and other languages too.
How do you look back on the journey and what are the takeaways?
Rupsha: Looking back on the journey right from my childhood music sessions with my sister in the balcony during power cuts when I played the Gattam and we sang together, right through my school band years, then college band, and finally pursuing music professionally — it has truly been a life-changing experience for me. I have had wonderful musical experiences, connections with others, gained so much knowledge, encountered wonderful places, things and people, and made some friends for life and had the best time. I enjoy performing at AMPM Kolkata. It is a new venue in the city and very quickly it has become a spot for music lovers to frequent as one of their three pillars is music, the other two being cocktails and coffee.
Arunima: Well, the journey so far, apart from being exhilarating, has been very enlightening and a great learning experience. Nothing teaches you to hone your skills quicker than literally being thrown to the lions (the audience!) week after week on a live stage — that too with some of the best musicians in the city backing you. Working with some of the stalwarts of the industry like Ehsaan Noorani, Bruce Lee Mani, Loy Mendonsa, and Amyt Datta to name a few, taught me the most valuable lesson of all — the importance of staying humble and thus never taking any of it for granted.
Tanya: I look back super fondly, it was a completely different time, the musician’s community was a very well-knit circle back in the day. I cherish each and every gig, especially the collaborations with so many incredible artistes from all around the country and some international artistes too. Learned a lot from my bandmates and fellow musicians.I just wish we had more venues supporting Western music and taking pride in hosting artistes, which is so important for the showcase and growth of the varied culture of Calcutta.