Like every year, there was a flurry of new releases ahead of the Durga Puja season in West Bengal this year. Those putting out new songs included well- known names Shaan, Sunidhi Chauhan, Anupam Roy, and Akriti Kakar. Even otherwise, with live concerts not happening following the lockdown in March, more musicians from Kolkata are focusing on new songs.
“We have had seven singles during the festive period,” says Mahendra Soni of SVF Music, one of West Bengal’s biggest music labels.
“All the songs are from different genres, and since they became popular in a very short span, it proves that they have been accepted and people are ready to consume new content,” he adds.
While too many releases may sound good on paper, the results may not always be great. Apeksha Lahiri, director of Asha Audio, points out that too much content can be harmful, as it affects quality.
“Many people are recording songs or shooting videos at home. They are looking for short cuts, using basic equipment, and only some people are proceeding in a professional manner,” she says.
The COVID Effect
Like other regional markets, the West Bengal music industry has been affected by COVID-19. Lahiri says at the time of the Bengali New Year in April, nobody could do anything and nobody knew what was in store. Slowly, people started doing concerts from home, but there was no revenue model in place.
Today, the live concert scene is practically zero, and despite an excess, online concerts are not garnering adequate revenue. The industry is thus dependent entirely on recorded music. There too, there is a catch. Except for the younger generation, people are not much into streaming music. Singer Lopamudra Mitra, one of the most popular voices in the state, says the older generation still prefers listening to music on CD.
“Many of them are not even aware that all the old hits are available on streaming platforms. The younger generation, which is technology-friendly, has a different taste,” she adds.
“For many in the older generation, digital music only means YouTube. They get this free and even share links on Facebook. But they are unaware of paid streaming platforms, which have such a wide variety at a nominal cost. If more people subscribe to streaming sites and listen to music there, it will help the industry generate some revenue.”
The Main Genres
The West Bengal music industry is divided into the film, non-film, and classical, with a lot of non-film music now being released independently. Within non-film music, there are poetry-based forms like Rabindra Sangeet, Nazrulgeeti and Dwijendrageeti, modern or “adhunik” songs, devotional songs specially released around New Year’s in April or Puja time in October, Bangla rock bands and folk music, which comprises Baul, Bhatiyali, Jhumur, and related forms.
Over the past two decades, many singers have focused on the modern songs category. At the same time, older legends like Suchitra Mitra, Shyamal Mitra, Debabrata Biswas, and Hemant Kumar continue to be heard by the senior generation.
Many people, including non-Bengalis, also love the Bengali songs of S.D. Burman, R.D. Burman, Salil Chowdhury, Hemant Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhosle, Geeta Dutt, Talat Mahmood, and Manna Dey, who was known across India for Hindi film songs. Aficionado Pradeep Shah says he accidentally discovered Bengali songs of his idol R.D. Burman on YouTube and ended up finding a wealth of music by the other old-time greats.
According to Lopamudra, older styles like Rabindra Sangeet and folk music will always have an audience among the older generation.
“However, during the past three years, I have noticed that modern songs have reduced in popularity, and even the quality has dropped. Film music was gaining for a while, till it was affected by the lockdown,” she says.
Adds Soni of SVF,
“As far as film music is concerned, it’s all a matter of taste. Bangla rock bands have their dedicated followers too.”
Rock and Fusion
The Bangla Rock movement was started by the group Mohaneer Goraguli in the mid-1970s. Over the years, many Bengali-singing bands have gained an audience. These include Krosswindz, Chandrabindoo, Fossils, Bhoomi, Cactus, Parash Pather, and Lakkichhara. Bands from Bangladesh also found a market.
According to virtuoso guitarist Neil Mukherjee, the entire sound changed sometime in the 1990s, as metal influences began to come in and audience tastes changed.
Mumbai-based Mukherjee, who had been part of the popular Krosswindz album Poth Geche Beke in the late 1990s, recently returned to the Bengali music scene after over two decades, by releasing the album NeilMukho.
“The songs had been with me but I felt that the time was right now as my kind of sound is making a comeback,” he says.
Of late, there has been a surge in folk-fusion bands like Maadal, Fiddler’s Green, the Miliputs, and Kaahon.
According to Lopamudra, the entire non-film music scene began changing in the 1990s.
“There were changes in the way the songs were composed, the way they were sung, and the way they were arranged,” she says.
Though Bengali music has a sizeable audience, even among the diaspora abroad, it is yet to create the kind of impact that Hindi or Punjabi music does.
Established artistes like Lopamudra, Anupam Roy, Anjan Datta, Nachiketa, Srikanto Acharya, Kabir Suman, Jayati Chakraborty, Iman Chakraborty, and Rupankar Bagchi have their own fan following, whereas Hindi playback singers Shaan and Shreya Ghoshal keep recording Bengali songs. This year, Sunidhi Chauhan did her first Bengali non-film song ‘Dugga Dugga’ for the Puja season.
Labels like SVF, Asha, and Amara Muzik also keep scouting for younger talent through television reality shows and folk-fusion bands. According to Lahiri, there is also the challenge of knowing what exactly to produce.
“Many people find it hard to accept new music. They always prefer known songs, but artistes still love to experiment.”
Soni says the bottom line is that many young singers and composers are really talented.
He elaborates, “The future of the industry lies on the fresh breed of talent with innovative sound sense and production. In that way, we are evolving and growing. There is a huge space for independent music and we need to focus more on that.”
The next few months will of course be extremely crucial, and the COVID situation will have a major role to play. Since it will take time for live concerts to be back, one has to be careful in terms of the quality of new recordings. For that, both the artistes and the labels will have an equal role to play.
Text by Narendra Kusnur