The Indian music scene in the 1970s was a nascent being that was discovering the joy of Western rock music. Fans came in throngs to see bands perform personalised covers of rock anthems by the great Western bands. Original compositions were unheard of – or at least they didn’t pay the bills.
Until a few dared to hum their own tunes.
Some bands such as The Combustibles, The Savages and Great Bear had a few originals up their sleeves, but two men who made writing originals a tradition are Susmit Bose and Lou Majaw. The former’s EP Winter Baby (1971) and album Train to Calcutta (1978) were the first original English record and album to come out in India respectively while Majaw’s band The Great Society, formed in 1977, became an institution in the northeast. So many years later, the septuagenarians are still going strong with new releases in their roster.
“The ’60s and ’70s were dichotomous times and there was a lot to write about. We were sort of pushed into thinking socially and politically. Young people took it upon themselves to change the world,” says Bose, when asked about what inspired him to write original songs. “I follow the genre of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. They were writing about people and happenings – directly connecting with people through stories which they heard or found in the newspaper. I took up that style of writing too.”
‘Winter Baby’ dealt with child abuse while ‘Train to Calcutta’ courted themes of poverty, human apathy, economic inequality and the rural-urban divide. It was also rich with resistance elements and portraits of social backdrops like hippie culture and the travails of post-independence India.
Majaw, on the other hand, is free from such intellectual constraints. He writes down whatever comes to him — feel being more important than the theme. “I don’t have anything specific like I have to write this song today or get something down by a certain time period. A song just happens in that moment itself. I’m not a good planner nor do I think too much,” says Majaw over the phone from Shillong.
While Bose wrote about things he observed, Majaw dispensed songs from his own hard life. The first song he wrote - ‘Sea of Sorrow’ - is a heart-wrenching tale of poverty and overcoming it. This was in 1967 - the time when Majaw was rocking Calcutta with cover bands. Over the next few years, he penned a lot of material that would eventually morph into proper songs under The Great Society a decade later. “I realised I had something inside of me — what I felt, my expression, my emotion. I’ve got to share, let it out,” he says.
Lou Majaw’s Sea Of Sorrow
In Dylan’s Direction
The man who inspired him to write original songs is the Nobel Prize-winning troubadour Bob Dylan. Though he was exposed to other greats such as The Beatles and Elvis Presley, hearing ‘Blowing in the Wind’ at a friend’s place changed Majaw’s life. “The simplicity yet depth of Dylan’s songs really got to me. There’s so much hope and wisdom. You see beyond the trees, into the forest and so many things. He makes you feel what you see and hear. That is his beauty. No other lyricist has that power, magic.”
Dylan’s imprint is so strong on him that Majaw celebrates his idol’s birthday with a concert every year since 1972 in Shillong. It has become an annual tradition now. He performs with his own band ‘Lou Majaw and Friends’. Some artists from across the country also come to perform.
Both Bose and Majaw have been called the ‘Bob Dylan of India’. Perhaps both are fitting. Though Bose was inspired more by Seeger, hearing Dylan made him change his lyrical stance. “Seeger was a soft lyricist. He was not direct, unlike Dylan, who was hard-hitting. He created pictures of what was actually happening, like ‘Hard Rain’. That appealed to me a lot,” says Bose, who paid tribute to the legend with the song ‘Hey Bob Dylan’.
Another similarity both the singer-songwriters share with Dylan is the non-conformity of rhyme. If lyrics don’t fit into the melody, they pick them out and simply recite. Bose’s ‘Talking Life at a Cocktail Party’ is an excellent example whereas Majaw literally narrates a tale in several songs like ‘April Shower’, ‘Ride the Wind’, ‘Because’.
Susmit Bose’s Hey Bob Dylan
Lyrically, Bose is a much more powerful force as his songs are eye-openers to the realities of contemporary Indian society. Barring three, Bose’s oeuvre of seven albums — Train to Calcutta (1978), Man of Conscience (1990), Public Issue (2005), Be the Change (2006), Song of the Eternal Universe (2008), Essentially Susmit Bose (2009), Song of Dharma (2011) — can be considered a periscopic view of how India progressed and changed over the years, with references important events that shaped history such as the Babri Masjid demolition, insurgency in Kashmir and north-east, Godhra riots etc. His song ‘Time for a Change’ talks about the wrongdoings that the country has faced and how the people should wake up and bring about a change.
Majaw, on the other hand, is not so heavy-duty and wanders in the realm of emotion, hope and joy. A lot of his songs aim to discover the better things in life and standing by other people — something that resembles his own outlook on life. Nature finds a major place in his writings, especially as he aims to literally show listeners what he sees himself.
The Calcutta Connect
The fact that his most creative days coincided with his hardest says a lot about how close Majaw’s relationship is with music. During his early Calcutta days, Majaw had even worked as a labourer and slept on the streets due to lack of money. It was only later when he started singing in clubs in the Park Street area – the Mecca of music in the east – that he began carving his path as a pioneering artist.
“Calcutta taught Lou Majaw to survive. I am ever grateful for that. Calcutta is one of the reasons I am what I am today,” says Majaw’s beaming voice. “It is a beautiful city. When I’m there, I feel good. It was fun, laughter, sunshine, rainbow, thunder, hunger, pain and joy.”
For the Delhi-based Bose, Calcutta was a passion city. His liaison started in early childhood when he came to visit relatives during the summer. He had tried to make an inroad in the early ‘70s but was unsuccessful. “I went for an audition at a restaurant. This was after Woodstock, so I sang Richie Havens’ song ‘Freedom’. After I finished the song, the manager called me and said, ‘We don’t want any communists here’. That was the end of it,” he chuckles.
However, Bose found himself settling in Kolkata in 2014 as Delhi was not savoury for him anymore. “In Delhi, I did not feel I had space in the cultural scene anymore. Whereas in Kolkata, people were still talking about Seeger and Guthrie and the style remained alive,” he says.
Last year, for his 70th birthday, a group of young people relaunched Train to Calcutta as a digital album Then & Now where the latter side is a collection of songs from his later works. “This would never happen in Delhi or any other city. That kind of passion for serious work would never have gotten support. I got my space in Kolkata, do a lot of concerts and participate in addas where people ask me about old times and then relate my songs to them. I really like the city’s academic spirit,” he says.
While Kolkata gave Bose a fresh start in his old age, it was Majaw’s initial springboard. He first played with bands like Oracle Bones and Little Richard and the Small Frys, gradually evolving into a solo performer at the renowned Trincas restaurant. Later, he went back to Shillong where he fronted several bands including Blood and Thunder and Ace of Spades.
Laying The Foundation
The Great Society, however, is the band through which his songs would reach the lips of numerous people across east India. The blues-rock sound was fresh and exciting and attracted serious musicians. The band toured the north-east and Kolkata extensively and released two albums — Breakthrough (1987) and Dance Your Ass Off (1988).
With Majaw’s songs being easily relatable, they captured the imagination of crowds as well as musicians, and the north-east gradually saw a shift from covers to originals. In search of a purer strain of blues, members of The Great Society would go on to form seminal blues bands like Mojo and Soulmate, driven by guitarist Rudy Wallang.
Though it disbanded and Majaw had to start anew all over again, The Great Society had achieved the status of an institution that paved the way for original music. “It’s a meaningful feeling when you get to know that there are people who have been inspired by The Great Society. It was blues, reggae, rock n’ roll and everything,” says Majaw.
Nowadays, he releases music under his own name with his old bandmate – guitarist Arjun Sen. Both old and new material has been released in three albums — The Road Ahead (2015), Bluesman from Shillong (2018) and April Shower (2020). His next album Matter of Respect will release on April 14, coinciding with his 74th birthday.
While Bose is a pure urban folk artist in the singer-songwriter tradition with a guitar and harmonica, Majaw covers much more ground with a warm, electric sound that is informed by diverse genres. The influence of both these pioneering musicians is undeniable today when the indie scene is flushed with singer-songwriters who are trying to say their own thing.
Majaw finds great joy in hearing young people singing their own songs and gives opportunities to them at the Dylan tribute concert. He says, “I always encourage everyone to write what they feel – they will be about different rainbows, sunshines and sunsets. But express, express your emotions! Set your soul free!”
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