Calcutta as the city of my birth and upbringing exerts tremendous influence on my life. Living in a city like this is not always an easy task. Apart from the vicissitudes of urban life, it is burdened with an aura of negativity. Like all other urban agglomerations in modern India. The easiest thing to do is to find fault because it needs no active involvement, done conveniently from within a bubble of one’s own making. A reader has pointed out that my feelings for my city slide into the romantic, hinting that it may even border on the ridiculous. I prefer to err, and be ridiculous, on the side of romance. There is much in our history and heritage that offers scope to feel the way I do, as much as there is leeway to be a manic depressive about it. To find the balance is what I attempt and this column is usually a way of expressing that. Everything about this city interests me so I keep my topics broad and divergent.
For me, the creative process and output is what fascinates me the most. That, and how it influences life in this city. Art is a social catalyst without doubt. Our city has enough in its annals to portray that. Even when the creative process highlights the negative aspects, it is usually presented and meant to be considered in a positive light. Silver linings in dark clouds is a wise old cliché.
Music eventually, can grab me like nothing else can. While I may show a tendency to only talk about what is termed ‘western music’, it is really the exceptional quality and beauty that such music offers me which moves me. The genre then becomes meaningless to me, labels redundant.
Jazz in India places Calcutta on top of the list of cities in the country where it gained ground in the minds of listeners, as it did for me. As an amalgam of styles and genres of music, jazz is its own distinct style in the mechanics of its performance. Beyond that is really where jazz exists. The individual musician creates his or her own interpretation and meaning to the song. There is never any one way of playing a tune other than its basic structure. And even that can change with the musician’s improvisation and ability. (Much like living in Calcutta!) For me music must have soul, that intangible thing we all possess, where beauty and an emotional quotient together move me in spirit, and where applicable, to dance. Jazz gives me that, and before any debate arises, jazz and blues and its offspring, rock’n’roll are all music meant for dancing. That it is no longer entirely so is another matter.
Some weeks ago, I heard a jazz guitar player I had never known of in an auditorium in north Calcutta performing at a music workshop. Choton Banerjee is not exactly a resident of the city but of Konnagar on the outskirts. A student of the late and venerable Carlton Kitto, someone I have heard since I was this high, I instantly found myself transported in my music loving mind to that space I mentioned earlier when I heard Mr Banerjee — he had soul. In fact, he may even have outstripped his teacher and mentor in his playing.
Yet Choton Banerjee has never performed at the many jazz fests and concerts I have attended in Calcutta over the years and I found hardly anyone who had even heard of him.
Art is the other aspect of the city I have delved into every now and then in these pages. Calcutta is undoubtedly widely recognised as a place where some of the most wondrous works of physical art have been created. You will see artworks strewn across the city as street furniture and decorations for functional places like public toilets and Metro stations. We have reputable institutions of art established in the city and to paraphrase a great man, probably more artists per square foot than football players. The Venice Biennale first took place in 1895 as a massive, international, interdisciplinary, contemporary art exhibition. Since then the word ‘Biennale’ has become synonymous with such similar events. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale was instituted in 2012 and is so far probably the only one of its kind this side of the world. It filled my heart with gladness to know that we would soon have a Bangla Biennale in a little village called Komdhara across the river from Calcutta from late December till late February 2019. The organisers, lacking the advantage of Kochi anyway being an international tourist destination, have the vision to make the Bangla Biennale a gateway to art and creative works from the east and north-east, not just of the country but the subcontinent. Besides, many artists from elsewhere in the world are already on board.
If there’s anything life has taught me, it is to seek the positive among all the troubles and turmoil that our being on this planet subjects us to. It is what leaves me with a sense of sanity, with a visceral satisfaction that is internalised but also shared in different ways with others.
There was a John Mayer who is famously unknown in India, unlike the upstart of recent times. Born in 1929 to an Anglo-Indian father and Tamil mother in Calcutta, he studied music here before leaving on a scholarship for London’s Royal Academy of Music in 1952 to study comparative music and religion in eastern and western cultures. He stayed on to perform and compose in Hindustani and Western classical forms and his violin sonata was performed by Yehudi Menuhin in 1955. In the 1960s he joined forces with the Jamaican-born jazz saxophonist Joe Harriott to form Indo-Jazz Fusions, a 10-piece jazz double quintet with five Indian classical musicians. He continued to perform till his death in 2004 at the age of 74, caused by a fatal car accident.
Source: Times of India