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photos by Sayan Dutta  (facebook.com/theredbantoo)
and Aaharon Rothschild (aharonrothschild.com)


Kolkata: the city of Joy. A phrase that defined us for the world, from Dominique Lapierre’s novel turned movie to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. This Joy they portrayed belonged to the impoverished millions that lived through famine and disease but still managed to find hope and a smile when offered a helping hand. It was an emotion that brought people flocking to experience this phenomenon, especially one so alien to the western world.

Kolkata: the city of culture. Assimilating emotion and cultivating geniuses. The greatest literary figure: Rabindranath Tagore, the most celebrated filmmaker: Satyajit Ray, the ambassador of Indian philosophy: Swami Vivekananda, the scientific luminaries: Satyendra Nath Bose and Jagadish Chandra Bose, the world-famous musician: Ravi Shankar. The experience of life here with exposure to western culture seemed to be a volatile combination that gave depth to all they did.

Shift to today: poverty, noise, grime and smiles. A culture now diluted with cola and apathy. A highly creative city still, Kolkata is no longer the undisputed capital of culture. I returned to India after five years in the States. Mid-twenties and obsessed with electronic music and digital culture I went looking for something similar. Kolkata nightlife was infamous at the time with clubs open till 5am creating a different world inside the city. It was the great urban escape though it didn’t go beyond what was happening in the other cities. Similar music, crowds, prices, Kolkata just partied longer and harder. The live music scene was also very popular with rock bands singing in Bengali and pub bands playing cover songs to a lip-syncing audience.

The crowds loved it so it made me feel like I was the only one who noticed the DJ playing the same song four times a night and the band playing the same playlist for years. The youth of the city were aping a movement but had not grasped its essence. All DJs took requests and bands rarely played what they listened to. The only genre that was growing was Trance music courtesy the international trance community from Goa. There was no Techno, no Drum n’ Bass, no Dub, some very mainstream Hip-Hop and way too many pop & Bollywood remixes.

Cities like Delhi and Bombay had been quicker to integrate these new forms of music into their nightlife, quickly developing subcultures. To fill the gaping void I began organizing events that focused solely on original music and the performing arts, and it confirmed by suspicions that most artists were also looking for an escape. They just needed a platform and someone to convince the venues that change would work. We also saw a massive influx of musicians from rural Bengal coming into nightclubs to play with bands and producers.

Electronic music was boosted with gigs by German acts Mouse on Mars and Modeselektor. New projects were created, DJs began to play music they enjoyed and creative expression through digital media was finally taken seriously. A thriving underground scene had been created in a matter of months.

That was four years ago. Legislation raised its stern head and gave us a curfew of midnight earlier this year. Events are purely commercial now yet the winds of change are evident: Bengali filmmusic being produced by DJs. Bands inviting international guests. Concert going audiences growing. Electronic music created in home-studios across the city. So even as Kolkata has fallen back into its slow rhythm it is evident that the creative pool is enormous. We’re not a shiny metropolis but a city with long roots. A city that will always have the potential to create great minds, more international icons and many more music legacies. We know it in our hearts, we just need to go with our guts and remember that there is much magic left in this land of soul.

Written by Varun Desai