Kolkata Soundscapes

Street Music

Kolkata, as the seat of Bengali culture, portrays a unique cultural niche that the Banglali nation has carved out for itself. The prevalence of Buddhist, Tantric and other “alternative” traditions, and hence, the diluted influence of the Kanauj Brahmins; the establishment of Kolkata as the colonial capital and thus the pivotal cultural interactions that occurred; the strong prevalence of socialist ideologies in the twentieth century; all were factors contributing to this uniqueness. Contemporary music, like every other art forms, is a synthesis of all these factors. Influence of the western tradition has seen the music of Bengal shift from heretofore prevalent Indian classical traditions and incorporate notions of harmony. The blues and jazz has embellished music here and introduced concepts of cyclic rhythm and beat. The ‘baul’ and ‘phakiri’ traditions, along with the inception of socialism has brought music out of chambers and ‘jalshaghars’ into the streets. And thus such a largely synthetic performative tradition has been viable in Kolkata and found great success, the epitome of which found itself in “Mohiner Ghoraguli”.

Today’s band culture largely draws from the trend set by the aforementioned band. Guitar strumming youths, singing their brand of ‘jibanmukhi’ songs, in roadside tea shops and ‘para rocks’, is the face of such music. Busking is illegal in the country and thus never really became a fad. However, official performances in open spaces, such as Nandan, falls within the purview of street music. In an alternative tradition, evolved from a western orchestra and military bands, yet having the spectacle of the traditional theatrical forms such as ‘jatra’, big brass bands, such as the “Mahboob Band”, are often seen rumbling through the packed streets, on an occasion of marriage or ‘bhashan’. These ‘tasha partys’ do not enjoy the artistic status of the western influenced ‘rock bands’. Yet, the tradition is a deep-rooted one. 

However, street music has had a much grimmer face. Beggars, often sadly decapacitated, are seen meandering through traffic jams and crowded compartments of buses and local trains, voicing devotional songs, evolved mainly from the ‘vaishnavite’ and baul traditions, and askin for alms. These performers use a plethora of self-made instruments, improvised from traditional instruments. Two flat stones flicked over each other, is an improvisation of castanets, and help to keep rhythms. Vines, roughly strung to crude shells, functions as make-do ‘ektaras’ or ‘khamaks’. Their performances are seldom listened to and even less appreciated, or paid.

With similar notions of entertaining the stranded commuter, the government very recently started playing songs through speakers, at traffic signals. The songs played are mostly popular recordings of Rabindrasangeets, such as “anondodhara bahichhe bhubane”, “amar khola haowa” et cetera, done by leading exponents such as Hemanta Mukhopadhyay, Debabrata Biswas and Konica Bannerjee. Manna Dey’s songs were played for a few days, after his demise. Also, songs pertaining to certain occasions, such as “mahishasurmardini” during ‘mahalaya’, or carols during Christmas, are played. The songs and recordings played seek to reflect the popular emotion, in an attempt to reach out to most people.

But again, much like the beggars’ laments, the recordings at the traffic signal, are hardly paid any heed. With time being of the utmost essence, people don’t really have the leisure or patience to listen to the songs. Blaring horns, rumbling engines and cacophonous cries of the bus-conductors and ‘autowallahs’, drown out the feeble Rabindra Sangeet wafting with the smoke and dust, between the rows of automobiles. Any commuter interested in music at all would rather prefer to switch on the car audio system. Thumping basses from private cars and autotuned Bhojpuri love songs from cabs, battle it out over pointless hustles. As is evident, these rarely stay put in the private domain and spills into the public domain very loudly. As does something else, which definitely should not have – telephonic conversations! If one has the ear for it, overheard news about other people’s lives may seem very musical. And if one doesn’t have the ear for it, the preceding ringtone does the job of providing music for them. Ringtones, in every form; whether songs, tunes or quirky sounds; go off in about every place. It is probably the kind of music that is heard most by contemporary city dwellers on the streets.

Apart from these, specific music dominates the streets during certain specific times. For example, any puja or festival is marked by the presence of a number of very large sound-boxes, blaring out club influenced music, from the local Tollywood film industry and hits from Bollywood. The Durga puja soundscape is dominated by the deafening roar of thousands of ‘dhaks’ accompanied by an assortment of brass percussive instruments. The tunes, melodies and rhythms that emanate from the heart of the city are numerous and multifarious and constantly shapes her soul. However, with the ongoing march into the post-post-modern and increasing individuality, work pressure and materialism, there seems to be a despairingly discordant disharmony. Notions of harmony and disharmony, it seems, has found its way out of the staff notation, into the streets, and right into the very lifestyle of the urban populace.

Recording (0337): Songs on Loudspeaker at Baghbazar – Girish Mancha Crossing. 

Date of Recording: 14 July 2014; Format: MP3 (192kbps) – Original: WAV (44.1khz, 16-bit audio)

Recording (0338): Band Music on Street. 

Date of Recording: 21 April2014; Format: MP3 (192kbps) – Original: WAV (44.1khz, 16-bit audio)

Recording (0339): Beggar’s song on a local train.

Date of Recording: 21 September 2014; Format: MP3 (192kbps) – Original: WAV (44.1khz, 16-bit audio)

Recording (0340): Beggar’s song at Esplanade.

Date of Recording: 14 July 2014; Format: MP3 (192kbps) – Original: WAV (44.1khz, 16-bit audio)

Recording (0341): Mehboob Band at Sealdah.

Date of Recording: 15  September 2014; Format: MP3 (192kbps) – Original: WAV (44.1khz, 16-bit audio)