A male voice addresses the audience in Bengali as a rhythm guitar strums furiously in the background, “Those of you who could not go to Calcutta during [Durga]Pujo, don’t worry. We’ll try to take you to Calcutta!” He proceeds to jump into a song which was once the favourite tune for the probaashi (expat) Bengali community in Delhi in the mid-80s. The song ‘Rail Gaadi’ is about the experience of travelling from Delhi to Kolkata by train. And the recording, scratchy and evidently old, is from a live performance of a Bengali band called Niharika.
This name is unlikely to ring a bell. This band existed for about a decade in the 1980s, then faded into oblivion. Today, only a handful of people—mostly family and friends of the band members—remember that name, and the beautiful songs that they had created. But their legacy is far greater as Niharika is one of the first indie bands in India to make original music.
Formed in 1981, by Someswar Chakravarty and two brothers Subhramanya and Suprabuddha Sanyal, it was originally a choir for a theatre group in Chittaranjan Park, Delhi’s Bengali commune. They brought in harmonica player Pradeep Nag, singer Sandeepan Mookherjee and four women singers Sudha, Jaba, Champa and Subhadra for vocal harmonies.
The choir primarily used to sing Indian folk songs, but gradually shifted to singing originals. Within two years, the women left and in came three other musicians—drummer Ratnadeep Rudra, the late Indrajit Dutta on lead guitar, and the late Asheem Chakravarty, who would later gain fame as the tabla player and vocalist of the band Indian Ocean. The eight male musicians officially formed the band. However, none of the members were professional musicians. They were either students or held jobs and enjoyed making music in their leisure hours.
“We did not have a plan to form a group as such. We used to meet in the evenings in the neighbourhood or a park for adda sessions. Like that only, the group happened. And singing and writing songs was more of a hobby,” says lyricist Subhramanya Sanyal over a Zoom call from the USA.
The band’s songwriting backbone was formed by Sanyal and Someswar Chakravarty. With contributions from others, they ended up having over 60 originals in their repertoire. When asked about what made them go down this path, Chakravarty says, “I used to compose songs for the theatre group. One day, I presented two songs—‘Shefali Phool’ and ‘Rimjhim’—at a rehearsal, and everybody liked them. We started singing them alongside the folk songs. We were also dissatisfied with contemporary Indian popular music, and I wanted Niharika to be a band in line with western bands performing our own music.”
This was no mean feat because in those days the culture of creating and performing original pop music was rare in India. The bands which existed were cover bands. Only in Kolkata, a group called Moheener Ghoraguli were performing originals in Bengali, but the group had disintegrated due to financial reasons by the time Niharika was formed.
Niharika’s journey in the early days was beset with problems. Event organisers and concert promoters, who were unsure of placing a bet on such a novel concept where young men and women would perform their own compositions, met them with astonishment and disbelief. Some even questioned their audacity.
Rudra recalls how they landed their first gig at CR Park’s Shiv Mandir Durga Puja function in 1983. “The organisers asked us what songs we would perform, and when we said we would sing originals, they were shocked! They wanted numbers by popular film singers. But we begged for an opportunity and somehow managed a half an hour slot. When we asked for money, they were incredulous! ‘You’re asking for money as well? Be grateful for the opportunity.’ But they relented and gave us `500 to cover our logistical costs.”
The year after, Niharika got prime-time slots across several venues. Gradually, shows picked up and the band became a regular fixture at community functions. But their shows mainly came during pujas, a couple of college fests and three ticketed concerts at the All India Fine Arts & Crafts Society auditorium. As they sang in Bengali, their reach and scope remained limited. But within their community, they had become a household name. “At that point of time, there was no culture for Bengali music in Delhi except for some Kolkata artists who were brought here occasionally. All the young generation Bengalis in Delhi knew our songs and even used to request a couple of the popular ones,” says vocalist Shakti Sharan Roy, who along with his two brothers Rajshekhar and Niraj were a part of the band.
The reason for their popularity lies in their simple music and vivid lyrics. Their most famous song ‘Rail Gaadi’, for instance, takes listeners on a virtual train journey where they can sip on roadside tea and inhale coal smoke on their jangling ride across Mughalsarai and Bihar’s red soil into the green fields of Bengal. “That song was very relevant for Bengalis in Delhi because everyone used to go to Kolkata during summer holidays to visit relatives. So, crowds could relate to that,” recounts Rudra.
Romantic numbers like ‘Shefali Phool’ and ‘Kon Aandhare Mon’ also proved popular. Using metaphors, melodic hooks and upbeat music, the songs paint a delightful picture of the sweet warmth of young love. Then again, songs like ‘Zebra Crossing’ and ‘Saabdhan’ were political. The latter, translating to ‘beware’, warns the world of the impending perils of nuclear war while the former is a riveting portrait of apartheid.
Musically, Niharika hovered in the folk fusion space and used both Western instruments—drums, guitars, bass, violin, keyboards—and Indian instruments like tabla and harmonium. Even though they were inspired by bands like The Beatles, their sound carries a heavy imprint of famed Indian music directors of that time, especially of the legendary Salil Chowdhury. The arrangements, in particular, follow that of hybrid orchestras that were employed to score for films back then.
But their ace card was implementation of rich vocal harmonies in Indian melodies. The song ‘Duli’, inspired by Harry Belafonte’s ‘Hosanna’ is one such example. On an engaging sonic bed created by guitars, bass, keyboards and drums, two sets of vocals and the violin play around in a call-and-answer format, reflecting a ride in a palanquin.“Song themes primarily dealt with nature, love and life experiences. The music wasn’t folk or rock, but pop. They had interludes, preludes, counters—all these were discussed while composing the song,” says Satyakam Mookherjee, whose brother Sandeepan, Partha Deb and Rumi Mitra were also part of the band at some point of time. “There were a lot of members—around seven-eight on the stage at least and four more off stage,” says Niraj Roy, adding that their conga player Rajshekhar who acted as the manager as well “was the glue that held the group together.”
The band saw several line-up changes mostly because members gradually began leaving Delhi for jobs, some even shifting abroad. This would eventually lead to the band’s disintegration.
Going by the scale and frequency of their shows, Niharika might seem like a small local act, but they inspired two other Delhi-based Bengali bands Spandan and Saptak, where music director Shantanu Moitra started his musical journey. It was also through Niharika that percussionist Asheem Chakravarty would meet his future bandmate Susmit Sen—former guitarist and co-founder of Indian Ocean—and go on to create music history. Sen, who was never a part of Niharika says, “Except for a couple of shows, I did not play with them regularly because my style of music was very different—it was far more instrumental, while theirs was more vocal in
nature,” but he adds that he respects them for being an original band in ’80s Delhi.
However, he was not impressed by Niharika’s only album Kolkata Jacchi Dol Bnedhe, released in 1991 under the Kolkata-based label Atlantis Music. The ten songs were arranged differently than their original versions. The album did fare poorly in the market. Members who recorded it attribute it to shoddy marketing. The album’s release caused several problems within band members as well, especially as some of the old members –who had left the band by then– weren’t too happy with how things had turned out. Their internal problems peaked and within a year of the album’s release, the group disintegrated for good. Today, no copy of the cassette exists and the songs which have been salvaged from old recordings of live performances, are the original versions. These are available to only a select few people, while the general public has to contend with a handful of YouTube videos.
Today, the remaining members are well into their sixties and this slice of history might soon disappear. But what they leave behind—their songs—are too precious to fade out. They are a record of the life of a community, which made their home in a foreign city. More importantly, they are an integral part of India’s musical history and deserve to be preserved.
I find myself repeatedly returning to their music despite their shoddy recordings through glitches, breaks, silences and muffled portions. And when my mother pauses her chores and flops down on a chair to listen to the songs as well, the weight of these priceless compositions dawns on me. They cut across generations and have that elusive beauty which only good art has—to connect people with a shared experience. Niharika’s songs have to be saved!
But perhaps, a better measure of their music’s worth is how it made a mark on their audiences. Indrajit Sen, the vocalist of Nagar Philomel—a Kolkata-based band which had once performed at the same venue as Niharika in 1984 at Kalibari, Delhi—jostles with his memories when I ask if he recalls them. “They had some brilliant compositions. I remember one…something about a train…”
“Rail Gaadi?” I offer.
“Yes! That’s the one. Amazing song!” he replies, referring to a tune that he had heard once in his life, 37 years ago.