Imagine you are in a room surrounded by rock music enthusiasts. The 1970s, a glorious decade of music, with its iconic sounds and unforgettable hits, became the topic of conversation. You will hear names like The Who, Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and bands along the same vein of greatness rolling off from the tip of their tongues and deservedly so. The editorial team at Homegrown found ourselves in a somewhat similar situation. But as is our nature, we tried to contextualize the rock music scene to India, tracing its origins and evolution.
We decided to focus particularly on Kolkata, as during the 1970s, the rock scene in the city of joy was flourishing, with Kolkata's famous Park Street at its epicentere. Now, being a team made up of Gen-Z and late millennials, we realized that we are about to delve into a timeline decades before our birth. There was no internet back then and the information that you can find today on the world wide web about the rock music scene in Calcutta during that time is severely limited. We decided that none could be a better source of learning than someone who was in the thick of the rock music scene in Calcutta during that era. This brings me to the interview I was privileged enough to conduct recently with legendary drummer, Nondon Bagchi.
For those unaware, let me introduce you to Nondon Bagchi. He is a legendary drummer whose career began during the 1960s. He is one of the pioneering figures among Indians making music in English. In 1974, he became an integral part of the iconic band — High. The original line-up of the band comprised Dilip Balakrishnan (Rhythm Guitar, Keyboards, Harmonica and Vocals), Nondon Bagchi (Drums), Adi Irani (Lead Guitar) and Lew Hilt (Bass Guitar), with Balakrishnan’s lyrics and compositions comprising the majority of the band’s original playlist over the years.
Even though they were influenced heavily by American and English rock bands of that time, it was their original compositions that garnered them a cult following. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, High was the ‘high’ point of Mr Bagchi’s career and the band flourished till the 1990s. However, the band’s success was cut short by Dilip Balakrishnan’s untimely demise in 1990. It was then that the other three members disbanded as a mark of respect for their late friend. In 2009, the Saregama label released several recordings by High. Over the years Nondon Bagchi and Lew Hilt have regrouped from time to time with various other musicians such as Shaukat Ali, Jeff Menezes and others, to create music, reminiscent of High. In 2013, the band was awarded the prestigious 'Rerock Award for Lifetime Contribution to Indian Rock'.
With eager anticipation accentuating in our hearts, my partner, Rukmini and I, visited Nondon Bagchi’s residence to interview him. She was helping me with shooting the video and my excitement was mixed with a tinge of nervousness, as I had to be the one asking the questions. The aged rockstar greeted us with the utmost warmth and despite his age, his eloquence was marvellous. What followed was an hour of intriguing conversations where he shared with us his wealth of musical knowledge. It very much felt like we were stepping into a time machine.
At the beginning of the interview, Mr. Bagchi shared an anecdote from his youth when he was a journalist for a thriving magazine (at that time) called Junior Statesman (JS). It had a young readership, focusing on entertainers, primarily musicians, along with Bollywood. He shared how while working for JS, he once went to interview the owner of Trincas. If you’re from Kolkata, Trincas needs no introduction but for those not from the city, Trincas on Park Street is a heritage restaurant that has historically been a major patron of live music, along with offering the finest cocktails and food. While Mr. Bagchi narrated his own journalistic experience, I could not help thinking how I was in a somewhat similar position as a young Mr. Bagchi all those decades ago.
It was the owner of Trincas who told Mr Bagchi how the Park Street music scene plummeted during the 70s and 80s with the Anglo-Indians leaving the city. Mr. Bagchi emphasized that to understand the rock music scene in Calcutta, we have to examine the cultural scenario of the 1960s. The Anglo-Indians were at the forefront of the entertainment industry. The whole Park Street-Grand Hotel-Arcade area, which was the entertainment hotbed (even today), thronged with the Anglo-Indian population. The music scene in Park Street during the 70s and 80s was nothing compared to Park Street in the 60s, as by the onset of the 70s, a sizable portion of the Anglo-Indian population was leaving for places such as Australia, Canada, the USA and England. They embodied the heart and soul of the rock music scene in Calcutta — not just as performers on the stage but also as the audience.
Mr. Bagchi went on to say that again from the 1990s leading up to contemporary times, Park Street has once again revived itself as the epicenter of entertainment and fine dining in Calcutta. However, it never got back to what it used to be during the 60s. In response to me asking what the cause of the revival was, Mr. Bagchi replied “The Anglo-Indians were replaced by another strata of society, comprising primarily of Indians, who became their clients and the connoisseurs of such music.”
The interview then moved on to talking about the legendary band, High and Mr Bagchi’s personal experiences surrounding it. He said that before the members formed High, everyone had a rich musical background and experience of playing together. As an example, he cited how Dilip Balakrishnan, Lew Hilt and he had played for the iconic rock band, The Cavaliers. He also mentioned Calcutta-62 and How Balakrishnan had formed a quintet called Great Bear, the first progressive rock band in the city.
Mr. Bagchi said that many Calcutta bands during that era, while choosing which music to cover always had at the back of their mind, the need to incorporate a “dancing element” as they were catering to a major part of an audience that went nightclubbing. “So they wouldn't do Pink Floyd, for you cannot dance to their music,” as Mr. Bagchi put it. An important part of such music embodied elements such as "foot-tapping, dancing and being on the floor". Even though they had elements of rock, they could just as easily fall under the pop genre.
On the other hand, Calcutta bands like High and The Flintstones were also covering some of the best global rock music of that time. It was that aspect, which lent a multicultural and multigenric element to the Calcutta music scene. Mr Bagchi mentioned that he and his contemporary musicians would listen to iconic global rock bands like Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Beatles and such in the comfort of their homes. They also covered songs by these bands and played it across several venues in Calcutta for a niche audience, who belonged to a more serious class of listeners. The influence global these bands had on the likes of High was reflected a lot in their original compositions.
You can listen to a beautiful cover of Floyd's Shine on You Crazy Diamond by High below:
It was then that I asked him, “In today’s age of the Internet and streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, etc., accessibility to music is at our fingertips but how did the people access global music during that era?” Mr. Bagchi then went on to talk about the renowned Indian record company, HMV (His Master's Voice).
“They had a factory in Dumdum and their business model was economically clever. They released LPs that included both top-notch global rock songs as well as pop-infused rock that you could dance to — that way they catered to a diverse customer base. The shops had music that was both for serious listening and also for dancing.” From 2000 onwards, HMV started retailing its products under the brand name 'Saregama'.
The interview then moved on to discussing the recording process during an era when equipment and technology were not as advanced as it is today. Mr Bagchi said “The bands played live and it was recorded. There were not many studio technologies like overdubbing involved. As a band, we always recorded in HMV studios, especially if we were recording songs for an album. If the purpose was to produce, say Sides A and B of a 45 RPM recording, HMV was the go-to place. HMV understood that as time changes, music also changes. As a company, they have evolved with the changing times.”
When I asked Mr. Bagchi for his opinions on present-day Calcutta rock musicians, his candid answer left me quite amused. The comment did not have the slightest manner of contempt towards contemporary rock musicians but rather it is his age that prevents him from being an active contemporary listener. I ended the interview with a question that I have personally been grappling with in recent times, “ What do you think of the increasing use of technology in music, or in any creative field?”, to which he gave a fittingly progressive response.
“Technology will advance and there is no stopping it. I think it's a good thing and it all depends on how you use it. It can be used very profitably. I don’t say profitable in a monetary sense but rather profitable in a creative sense.”
Even at the age of 70, Nondon Bagchi is prolific on the drums, most proficient at playing music that he terms “Rock music of the Woodstock Generation”. He also teaches young drummers to hone their craft, with a particular focus on Western drumming styles while still making sure that they acquire a skillset applicable to diverse musical genres. As the interview concluded and we left Mr. Bagchi’s house, it felt like having spent a Sunday afternoon exploring a rich musical archive, under the expert guidance of a veteran.
The Youtube channel, HighAgainCalcutta, has a sound repository of tracks by High. You can listen to one of my favourite songs by High below.
You can also listen to High On Spotify.