The late ‘60s and ‘70s are oft credited as being the starting point of Indian Rock. For many, the arrival of The Beatles to Rishikesh in 1968 stands as a distinct memory of India’s rite of passage to the world of rock. Still others are convinced that it was the Simla Beat Contest from 1967-1971 that heralded India’s Rock Revolution and started it all. Indian Rock has evolved over the years with channels like MTV and Channel V bringing rock music videos to our homes in the ‘90s. While tracing the evolution of rock in India chronologically might mean limiting what made it what it was, there is one band that is arguably India’s first homegrown rock band – one that brought a largely foreign genre to the shores of India and gave it its own identity.
Back in the ‘70s, when rock music was slowing permeating into Bollywood with composers experimenting with rock sounds and fusing them with more traditional sounds, a band in Kolkata decided to embrace rock in its entirety, taking it away from the realms of ‘filmi gaane’ and breathing a new life into the genre. Late in the ‘70s, Bengali band called Mohiner Ghoraguli were the first to release a rock album that had both elements of personal and social that categorizes the Bob Dylan-esque form of folk rock we know today.
Drawing influences from American folk, Jazz, and Bengali Baul and other Bengali folk forms, they oft referred to their music sensibility as ‘Baul Jazz’. While the band only composed and played songs in their vernacular language, Bengali, they embraced rock for what it was – radical, anarchic, novel, and ground-breaking.
The original lineup of the band consisted of Gautam Chattopadhyay – frontman, lyricist, lead guitarist, and vocalist, Pradip Chattopadhyay on bass and flute, Tapesh Banerjee as vocalist; Bishu Chatterjee on drums, Tapash Das as vocalist and rhythm guitarist, Ranjan Ghoshal as music arranger, and Abraham Majumdar on piano and violins.
It was in the context of the Naxalite movement, when revolutionary spirit amongst Bengali youth was high due to vocal rebellion in the region as well as the Vietnam war in the world, that Mohiner Ghoraguli was born. Further adding to the band’s revolutionary nature that wished to break free from structures and stand as a symbol of modern is the fact that the band deftly borrowed its name from a line in renowned poet Jibanananda Das’s poem Ghora: “Moheen’s horses graze on the horizon, in the autumn moonlight.” The band’s name literally translates to ‘Moheen’s Horses’.
Sreemoyee Bhattacharya, someone who grew up listening to the band years later remembers them for Get Bengal (an online magazine devoted to preserving the essence of Bengal) as much ahead of their times. She says, “The then audience called them ‘hippies’ and often could not relate to the kind of music done by them. But they called themselves ‘ghoras’ (horses) who were ready to run many miles ahead of their times. Mohiner Ghoraguli primarily wanted to offer a firm voice to the modernity and the urban culture of contemporary times with a guitar as symbolic cultural imperialism. However, the dearth of enthusiasm among the masses could not stop the journey of ghoras.”
In 1981, the band decided to part ways. While they might not have had the popularity they deserved back then, three decades later, they are fondly remembered as pioneers of India’s rock movement, played in concerts and college fests across Kolkata for a new generation of rock lovers to embrace and love.
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