Rediscovering Calcutta’s Disco Jazz From The ‘80s & Its Star

Rediscovering Calcutta’s Disco Jazz From The ‘80s & Its Star

When Rupa Biswas’s son, Debayan searched for her mother’s record online, he found that it had been uploaded on YouTube, and that original copies of the record were being sold for more than £500. It had also being reissued by the USA label, Numero Group. Dan Snaith, Aka Caribou, and Daphini are among its biggest fans, who have also brought it to a larger audience after including the track, ‘Aaj Shanibar’ in his DJ sets. Rupa was speechless after getting to know that her old album was garnering so much love and attention, and that too on an international level.

“I still don’t believe it’s real,” she told The Guardian over a video call from Kolkata, India.

Disco Jazz

Rupa Biswas’s first album, Disco Jazz, after having sold a handful of copies in 1982, faded into oblivion, along with the singer herself. Born in 1955 in Malda, West Bengal, Rupa Biswas grew up in a liberal, middle-class family in 1970s Kolkata – a time when the country was going through a disco revolution in its cosmopolitan centres. At this point, music maestros like Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, and others had also started trading their traditional ghazals with disco music. Rupa Biswas performed in small shows around town and eventually reached out to the All India Radio to be able to sing for a larger audience. Sen approached the Calcutta station of the broadcaster in 1978 and auditioned. “I wasn’t successful the first time, but I tried again,” she says in an interview with Scroll. After the second audition, the AIR broadcasted her singing a pop song. Despite getting such an opportunity, Sen was jittery about leaving academics for a full-fledged career in music, and therefore, enrolled in Calcutta University to study Biology.

In the meantime, she continued to sing here and there, until a family holiday to Calgary, Canada in 1981 turned her destiny around. She had gone there to visit her brother, Tilak Kumar Biswas, who arranged a small get-together for her to perform in, at his house. A few members of the local Indian community in Calgary were also invited there. The audience was so mesmerised with her performance that day, that they asked her to sing for a larger public event. At the University of Calgary’s Boris Roubakine Hall, in the autumn of 1981, Rupa sang geets and ghazals to an audience of about 1,000, including the Grammy-award-winning musician Aashish Khan (son of Ali Akbar Khan) and his tabla-playing brother, Pranesh. Sen sang for more than three hours that evening, after which Aashish Khan, who had known her brother for a long time, started coming in quite often to have jam sessions with her.

“We even played together on local TV,” reminisces Biswas.

“It was after that show that Aashish proposed to my family that he would like to make a recording,” said Biswas to Scroll.

Recording the Album

Khan gathered together a group of local studio musicians at Richard Harrow’s home studio, which was known as the Living Room. Harrow, along with a local Calgary guitarist and student of Khan’s, Don Pope then started jamming with Sen at their studio. Over the next week, she went to the studio for three to four hours every day, and sang lyrics composed by Khan’s wife, Saroj. Rupa, who had until then worn only traditional Indian clothing like sarees and salwar kameez, went on to wear a Western attire for the album’s cover, while also getting a new haircut for herself. They recorded the album, Disco Jazz which consisted of four tracks. The opening track of the album, ‘Moja Bhari Moja’ (as well as the rest of the album), was an allude to the zeitgeist of the times, which was one of dance and rock-n-roll.

With fast-paced drum beats and funky bass, ‘Disco Jazz’ made critics swoon over the record. Even though it is not your usual 1980s record, it managed to use the form, sounds, and structures of club dance music to give rise to a new form of music altogether. Apart from Pranesh Khan ( Aashish Khan’s brother) filling in the gaps with his fine tabla beats, the album was also given a special touch with Khan’s sarod. It is this unexpected and exotic sound that makes the songs so unlike the other disco music of the time. Even though Sen’s previous experiences spanned mostly household gatherings, it took her no time to showcase her flair in the studio and make it her own.

Funding for the Record

After the recording was over, she flew to the UK to visit her brother, Chandan.

“He was the one who paid for the recording,” she says. “It was £1,000. I was too scared to ask Tilak because he was a bit strict.” In October 1982, the record was released in India. But, due to Pakistani singing sensation, Nazia Hassan’s record being released around the same time, Sen’s record failed to make a mark.

“It was so exciting to see the record in the shops, but sadly the Nazia craze made it hard,” confides Biswas.

Rupa Biswas’s Life and Journey

The songs on her album were later used as a soundtrack to the 2012 arthouse Bollywood movie, Miss Lovely and had an unofficial release on German label Ovular, later blowing up online.

It has been a long time, and she has not received even one rupee from any of the companies that released her songs, but she is not one to live with regrets. She enjoys her life as a journalist, tutor and homemaker as much as she has enjoyed being a singer. Her side interests and hobbies also include gardening, painting, and embroidery.

Even though she agrees that she feels great to receive so much love, she wouldn’t trade the life she has now with any fame in the world.

“I don’t care about the money. I’m just happy that people like my music. Boys, girls, everyone is dancing so much. That’s what makes me happy,” she tells The Guardian.

Karishma Daswani recently released a podcast with yesteryear singer, Rupa Biswas, who became an overnight sensation ‘80s Kolkata for her song, ‘Aaj Shanibar’.

Check out the podcast here.

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