Alternative Music, Youth and the Politics of Creative Becoming: Locating the Ontological Liminality of the Early-Modern Bengali Urban Imagination
In this paper, Shankhadeep seeks to understand the ceaseless act of ‘becoming’ or an ontologically liminal condition of youth voice in the cultural biosphere of the 1970s Bengal, which has exclusively been postulated by one of the first Indian alternative music bands – Moheener Ghoraguli with a motif of breaking down the vertical order of social structure that leads to an ever-changing identificatory process.
Max Weber has described ‘modernity as a historical phenomenon that is in a constant process of ‘becoming’ and which is prevalent in everyday lives. Each field of human life is subjected to a unique rationalisation of the project called ‘modernity’ but ironically Weber depicts “what is rational from one point of view may well be irrational from another” (Weber 27). As the process of rationalisation or the wertrationalität (value-rationality) accelerates, the anxiety of an ‘iron cage' or the Stahlhartes Gehäuse begins to form inside the social order. The ‘iron cage’, Weber claims, can imprison any random individual at any random order of time, and hence, possess a dystopic potential to formulate a cultural void or a ‘nullified zone’ by increasing the teleological efficiency in the society which automatically leads to extreme rationalised control and calculation over the social order.
Any individual or collective subject, situation, and condition, which is born out of a conflicting in-betweenness, whether that is due to a socio-political, cultural, economic or spiritual crisis, have historically been undergone through an exclusive act of suffering and therefore attuned with a diabolical amplitude. The fourteenth-century epic poem The Divine Comedy has illustrated a particular scene in the canto three of Inferno where the ‘neutrals’, those who have rejected both sides of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ due to their moral crisis, have strikingly been punished in the ‘hottest place of hell’ – i.e., its vestibules or threshold. Dante has denied the ‘neutrals’ from entering inside the territory of the ‘hell’, neither he allowed them to the outside and described their condition under the ‘red sand clouds’ where they were consistently being stung by wasps and horseflies throughout the constant cycle of change. The ‘neutrals’ as a collective subject is therefore located inside a perpetually changing vortex of “entre-deux” which professor Tally suggests as a “site within a cognisable spatial assemblage or formation” (ix). Like Dante’s ‘neutrals’, the young individual minds of the 1970s India can collectively be seen as such a phenomenological subject that functioned in an intermediary state of ‘being under the determination of imaginary limits. Professor Tally suggests that to make a sense of these contrasting and middling situations “the poet creates a map, giving form to the spaces and places of experience” (x). The imaginary boundaries or ‘limes’ which are the essential component of a liminal situation signify a territorial limitation or the sense of an ending. But unlike the spaces of discontinuity, the diabolically conflicting contexts of the early-modern Indian, as well as Bengali urban imagination, is reflected in a transgressive zone where the individual gets habituated with an ontological flux as the ‘limen’ remains in a state of constant unravelling and becoming. Therefore, the liminal essence of ‘being’ becomes a perception of the spatial perturbation which exclusively functions in association with the everyday human condition under a given socio-cultural, political and economic circumstance. This conflict-ridden perception doesn’t only breaks down the subjunctive moods of the social order but also generates new insights into the normalcy of that order.
The Lost Age of Aquarius
The cross Atlantic countercultural song tradition and the distant flavour of global youth activism of the 1960s and 70s had splashed upon the Indian shore at a time when the young nation was struggling to cope with overwhelming socio-political problems and witnessing extraordinary convulsions. Large and expensive cities like Bombay, Kolkata, Madras and Delhi along with Shimla and Bangalore were the epicentre of youth-led activism and Western music consumption. The nascent urban imagination that these cities have produced has remained extremely political and vastly productive as they offered a significant series of alternative musical forms which were sometimes unstructured and eclectic like Rock, Jazz, Psychedelic and Blues music. Undoubtedly a deliberate desire of becoming the ‘other’ acted as a stimulus amongst the young youths of the nation and most of them were freshly graduated or directly or indirectly connected to the happening university campuses across India.
By the 1960s, with the euphoria of independence slowly subsiding and the Nehruvian vision of nation-building and communal harmony overshadowing the contemporary socio-economic challenges, alternative and experimental music genres like, “rock”, according to Siddharth Bhatia, “became a metaphor for rebellion and angst among a new generation in that heady times...No sooner had a trend taken off in America or Britain than it was picked up in Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta. Pop, protest music, rock, hard rock, - they played them all” (Bhatia 2014). The distant cultural negotiations had significantly added up to the construction of ‘urban Indian youth’, who were growing up in the restrictive socio-economic condition, took part in the protest marches, and sneered at capitalistic interests. They were the midnight’s children of socialist India and some of them were much ahead of their times.
Newspaper clipping reporting on Partition violence.
The cover page of one of the issues of Junior Statesman magazine. Source: Google
Initially, the creative imagination of the post-independent Bengali urban middle-class had failed to engage with the experimental enterprises of cultural productions that were developing around them. Hence, they confined themselves within a down to earth framework of everyday life with all its anxieties, celebrations and torments. However, in the 1960s, voices of American and British counterculture trickled into the city and bloomed like a lush tropical fruit in Kolkata’s Park Street. With its glitzy nightlife, youth associations, the Anglo-Indian community, and famous music pubs like Trincas, Mocambo, Moulin-Rouge and Blue Fox, the city represented an alter ego of itself centred around Park Street. In those gritty and roaring times of the 1970s, the urban places with all their complex socio-political, economic and cultural associations had emboldened several young minds with a motif of transforming the societal codes and conducts as well as the everyday lived space of the people. Due to improper documentation and lack of archiving, the history of the Indian counterculture of the 1960s and 70s has not survived much except for a few copies of Junior Statesman magazine. In this regard, Siddharth Bhatia’s book India Psychedelic: The Story of a Rocking Generation (2014), which is the only constructive effort to unify the memory of the lost age of Aquarius, is a significant contribution to the field of Indian counterculture as well as the youth-led musical activism where marginalised voices and the affective capacities of the young people had initiated a trend of individual political enrichment.
The Trincas Pub, the 1970s. Source: Google
As per topographically concerned, post-war India, like any other post-war south Asian nation has remained as an allured victim of global capitalism. Young Indian youths were disproportionately affected by the globalized capitalistic mechanisms and offered a revealing lens through which to restructure the civil society. In the 1970s, a section of the young Bengali leftist intellectuals felt the urgent need of expressing severe urban concerns against the backdrop of the Naxalite Movement and Bangladesh Liberation Movement. They thought of unifying people through alternative music and by sharing common ideologies that could provide a cultural battleground, over which caste, creed and class unite, where the urban space becomes not only liveable but also a place through which one lives with certain romantic intensity and hope for cultural regeneration. It was a time when global music was playing a significant role in socio-political transformation.
Like the Deleuzian ‘nomad’, the collective social experience of 1970s Bengal has catered to the urge of ‘deterritorialization’ by making the individual drop out of their prefixed social organization and context. Deleuzian ‘nomads’ are formed in the ‘intermezzo’ or the ‘middle’ and occupies the ‘smooth spaces’ which are constantly being striated with an intense process of transformation. In their book A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1980) Deleuze and Guattari have suggested that an act of ‘becoming’ is not destined to reach any specific object or an ‘end’, rather it is, “an encounter between two regions, as short circuit, the picking up of a code, where each is deterritorialised…a line of becoming has neither beginning or end, departure nor arrival, origin nor destination” (Deleuze and Guattari 293). Also, their 1991 book What Is Philosophy? has concisely explained the creative possibility of a ‘culture’ by critiquing the effect of post-industrial capitalism and massification of culture over the aspects of creativity, youthhood, communications, and revolutionary desires.
Gautam Chattopadhyay, playing live in Kolkata. Source: Google
The moral starkness and virtues of freedom from all aspects of a repressive social life had framed the archetypal setting of 70s India where the individual, as well as the collective lives of an isolated and disenfranchised community, had reflected an unrelieved bleakness of a world that is sick, starved, fatigued and torn. Therefore, the entire zeitgeist of the age has often been recognised with several ‘anti-structural’ elements in its various range of societal and cultural production which shaped a desire to break free from the static structures of society. This article will look at a few lines from a couple of pivotal songs by one of the first Indian alternative rock band Moheener Ghoraguli (Moheen’s Horses) (note 1) and will try to explore the way Bengali alternative music has captured the everyday liminal experiences and contributed to the process of ‘creative becoming.’
Alternative Musical Activism and Bengali Urban Imagination
The ceaseless act of ‘becoming’ or an ontologically liminal condition in the cultural biosphere of the 1970s Bengal has exclusively been postulated by one of the first Indian alternative music bands – Moheener Ghoraguli with a motif of breaking down the vertical order of social structure that leads to an ever-changing identificatory process. The band consisted of a few neo-urban young leftist intellectuals and university graduates like Gautam Chattopadhyay (songwriter, singer, lead guitarist and saxophonist), Pradeep Chatterjee (bass guitar, flute), Tapas Das (songwriter, singer, guitarist), Ranjan Ghosal (singer, songwriter), Biswanath Chattopadhyay (drums, bass, violin), Abraham Mazumdar (piano, violin), Tapesh Bandopadhyay (singer, songwriter, guitarist), and Raja Banerjee (singer, guitarist). Moheener Ghoraguli has endowed their subjects and places with a perennial status of liminality and reflected resistance to the ‘present’ which go along with the modernist shift that is associated with the advancement of a post-industrial capitalistic society. Their song Shongbigno Pakhikul, from their first album, Shongbigno Pakhikul O Kolkata Bishayak (Of birds on tenterhooks and Kolkata) (note 2), radically altered the very conception of ‘the urban’ by foregrounding everyday liminal situations that has never been envisioned by Bengali urban imagination before:
No one’s across the runway but emptiness
Cloud claps then on the sky
Indolence of the melancholic radar
A little happy birds on tenterhooks! (Translation Mine)
[“রানওয়ে জুড়ে পড়ে আছে শুধু কেউ নেই শূন্যতা
আকাশে তখন থমকিয়ে আছে মেঘ
বেদনাবিধুর রাডারের অলসতা
কিঞ্চিত সুখী পাখিদের সংবেদ!”]
The exploration of modernity has been developed here around the denial of any totalitarian meaning or any ontological concretization. Therefore, like a murky cloud over the indolent radar, the act of resistance has always been reflected on the state ‘becoming’ where both the singing and listening subjects are prone to inhabit an ambiguous domain of conclusion and therefore engaged in a permanent process of ‘becoming’. The next stanza goes like this;
For long, in this vast airport
Sky soaring crafts haven’t stopped by
Hedges of weeds hither and thither
Lay motionless air over empty landwards! (Translation Mine)
[“এমন বিশাল বন্দরে বহুকাল
থামেনি আকাশ বিহারী বিমানযান
এখানে-ওখানে আগাছার জঞ্জাল
শূন্য ডানায় বায়ুবীত-গতিবেগ”]
Such urban representations are severely ontologically liminal as it explores a bizarre urban environment which is devoid of any imaginative empathy, passion or outlook towards the inhabitants of its landscape. Therefore, the confused and directionless motif of the narrator is often inflicted with a sense of ‘autonomy’ or rather the urge of reclaiming the ‘autonomy’ from the dominant social order in a perpetual motion of ambivalence. Each subject here, i.e., from the abstract space of the airport to the natural space of the hedges, is existing in a state of denial. Drawing heavily on the aspects such as place, time and memory, the narrator has represented the Bengali urban imagination as a repository of ‘ontological in-betweenness, unbound of any spatio-temporal dimensions, where the logic of material boundaries are found in a hesitant tussle against their limits and peripheries. These tussles cater to a precarious as well as a perennial zone of spatial conflict that does not only create tension inside the social order but also gesticulates towards an elusive human existence. Finally, in the last stanza, the narrator claims that,
The wandering minstrel has seen this image,
And the heart has realised vacant capricious cloud
Never does he fail to remember this picture
So emerges his affection, his woe
And the cloud in the sky awaits the impending storm.
[“চারণ দেখেছে এই ছবিখানি, তাই
হৃদয় জেনেছে শূন্যতা, উড়ুমেঘ
চারণ শোনেনা এই ছবিখানি, তাই
বড়ো মায়া লাগে, বড়ো তার উদ্বেগ
আকাশে তখন ঝড় এসে যাবে বলে
থমকিয়ে আছে মেঘ”]
The narrator’s treatment of his subjects reflects not only the radicalism of a modernist avant-garde but also the post-modernist acceptance of a dislocated and fragmented world where human creativity and imagination become analeptic by being situated inside an ontologically ambivalent and playful universe. The pernicious process of liminal anxiety, that was pervaded throughout the creative imagination of the 70s India, had come up with its distinct socio-economic and political motif of ‘fixation’, thereby contributing against a repressive homogeneous functionality of the ‘state’. Hence, the narrator’s ardent ingenuity conveys an uncanny hollowness of the urban imagination where the states of ambivalence and uncertainty contribute to the romantic desire of escaping, traversing and wandering of the ‘self’. We see a radical rejection of the late capitalistic values and the pre-existing structure of social order simultaneously marks here an enclosure as well as a potential space of in-betweenness full with adverse and conflicting possibilities as symbolised by the impending storm that could gust through the veins of the stubborn society, knocking all cohesiveness down as well as the rules of consistency.
In most of the early songs of Moheener Ghoraguli, we see neither the characters are conforming towards a future outcome of a continuous act of denial, nor they are going back to the past. Thus, they have ontologically been habituated with the essence of things that are relational as well as processual in nature and therefore conceiving the liminal endurance. Such conception of situations brings a diabolical suggestiveness both towards its assets and liabilities. The re-emergence of the band in 1995 is marked with their iconic song Prithibita Naki Choto Hote Hote (As the world keeps shrinking down) is perhaps one of the most celebrated anthems for the doomed youth of technocracy.
As the world keeps shrinking down
Swayed by the satellite and cable
Trapped inside an idiot-box at the drawing-room
Sitting at home along the whole world
Connects into the hand
Swiftly faded away the boundaries of time and distance
Have you ever thought of it
Faraway as are the stars
Far, far away from there
You and me gradually are drifting apart. (Translation Mine)
[“পৃথিবীটা নাকি ছোট হতে হতে
স্যাটেলাইট আর কেবলের হাতে
ড্রয়িংরুমে রাখা বোকাবাক্সতে বন্দী
ঘরে বসে সারা দুনিয়ার সাথে
যোগাযোগ আজ হাতের মুঠোতে
ঘুচে গেছে বেশ কালসীমানার গন্ডি
ভেবে দেখেছো কী?
তারারাও যত আলোকবর্ষ দূরে
তুমি আর আমি যাই ক্রমে সরে সরে”]
The anxious narrator makes the imagined urban scape bolstering about the ‘liminal endurance’ of its inhabitants that desires for a new identity amidst these permanent acts of transformation. The formative experiences that the characters achieve in the paradoxical universe of this song is fundamentally an altered projection of their identity where they are continuously drifting apart from their own ‘self’ and being alienated. The narrator in the song remained constantly anxious about the ontologically liminal person, who is a product of the technocratic globalisation and appears to be an immobile subject only for a limited period of time and whose perceptions are stuck in-between the cartographically anxious atmosphere of ‘instability’ and ‘transgression’. Thus, all the paradoxes and tensions that the characters encounter in the song make them inertly de-limited and ambiguous by nature.
Arrays of faces come and go
Eyes inebriated into the T.V screen
Suicidal alliance of insects with fire
Sitting and watching together side by side
Not really together but cut-off
A new trick of the tenants of you and me. (Translation Mine)
[“সারিসারি মুখ আসে আর যায়
নেশাতুর চোখ টিভি পর্দায়
পোকামাকড়ের আগুনের সাথে সন্ধি
পাশাপাশি বসে একসাথে দেখা
একসাথে নয় আসলে যে একা
তোমার আমার ভাড়াটের নয়া ফন্দি”]
The rich musical motif of the song thus dredges up all the paradoxical possibilities in sharp contrast to the vision of real progress and therefore the narrator does not want to suggest anything further until and unless something deliberately arrives into the alienated state of being of the particular individual addressed in the song. Thus, the narrator vibrantly exposes an ontological account of liminality for himself, as well as for his alienated and delusional characters who can be found inside the dark alleys of modernity and who are surviving against the dominant wave of imperious authoritarianism.
The creative expansion Moheen’s lyrical universe feeds upon the interstitial experiences of human existence and therefore are very much concerned about the stepping and overstepping of the ‘limen’ or the markers of ‘threshold’ and that makes their characters as George Simmel would suggest in another context, “the limited being that has no limits” (Simmel 6). The inevitably middling situations where Moheener Ghoraguli deliberately places their characters, whether that is the ominous runway, the deserted urban alleys or the alienated corner of the skyscrapers, all explicitly functioned as a locus of transgressiveness by approaching a shift into another new zone where individual experience is based upon a continuous process of unfolding and enhancing the ‘self’. Moheen’s poetic state of mind has always remained hazardous and in a constant process of becoming, therefore, the audacious nerves of their poetic lexicons had reached the potentiality to embrace a brave new world. The surreal dichotomies that Moheen had provided their listeners, prepared them for an ambivalent force of ‘creative becoming’ that simultaneously threatened their territorial perceptions as well as regenerated an order of a new movement.
In his book Living in the End Times (2010) Žižek has argued about the terminal crisis of global capitalism, which is being regarded as the source of all evils, and the calamities that modern human beings are facing. He thinks that it is like four black horsemen of the apocalypse who are constantly on their way to annihilation. He suggests the four horsemen as ‘the global ecological crisis, ‘the biogenetic revolution', ‘economic imbalance’, and ‘the exploding social divisions’. It is no wonder that all of these evils have their root in the post-war economic crisis and global capitalism, especially in the case of India. But the potency of the romantic fantasies of the early modern urban youth of India, as well as Bengal, had its root in the idea of a space of becoming which is a gateway to the ‘political’. The emergence of alternative music in India in the 60s and 70s has ardently served as a connecter to that gateway with distinct political expressions. The creative genius of such early modern Bengali rock bands, like Moheener Ghoraguli, had been involved in a dialectical struggle between a ‘delimitation’ and an ‘absolute’ where the coexistence of a coherent social structure and unstructured communities becomes transparent. Like liminal entities, the Bengali urban imagination of the late 1970s, whether that’s a group or a separate individual, with their disruptive artistic potential had facilitated a unified cultural stage where the aspect of creativity and a motif of ‘change’ can be located.
1. The name of the Bengali rock band Moheener Ghoraguli and others has been italicized by the author for the sole reason of containing the unique Bengali essence while pronouncing the names.
2. The name of the Bengali rock band Moheener Ghoraguli and others has been italicized by the author for the sole reason of containing the unique Bengali essence while pronouncing the names.
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso. Ed. & trans. by Robin Kirkpatrick, Penguin Books, 2014.
Bhatia, Sidharth. India Psychedelic: The Story of Rocking Generation. Kindle Eds. Harper Collins, 2014.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. What Is Philosophy? Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell, Columbia University Press, 1996.
Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari Félix. A Thousand Plateaus. Bloomsbury, 2013.
Moheener Ghoraguli. Lyrics to “PrithibitaNakiChotoHoteHote.”
Simmel, Georg, et al. The View of Life: Four Metaphysical Essays With Journal Aphorisms. The University of Chicago Press, 2015.
Shongbigno Pakhikul. Booklet. Moheener Ghoraguli. Gathani Records, 1977. CD.
Weber, Max. Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells , Penguin Classics, 2002.
Tally Jr, Robert T. “‘A Utopia of the In-Between’, or, Limning the Liminal.” Landscapes of Liminality: Between Space and Place, edited by Dara Downey et al., Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd., 2018, pp. x-xv.
Žižek, Slavoj. Living In The End Times. Verso Books, 2010.
Mr. Shankhadeep Chattopadhyay earned his B.A in English from Ramakrishna Mission Residential College, Narendrapur (Autonomous), his M.A in English from Banaras Hindu University and is pursuing his Ph.D. from Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi. His doctoral research deals with the Spatial aspects of the countercultural songs in performance in 1960s America. His interests include music and literature, urban geography, spatial and cultural studies, digital- humanities, postmodernism, and creative writing. Shankhadeep has been invited and presented his contribution at several national and international conferences in India and abroad. Shankhadeep is a creative writer at heart, a devout traveler, and a classic-rock aficionado.
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