Music A book and film uncover the story of India’s jazz age
Is there something in the air about the history of jazz in India? That was a question one of the audience asked Susheel J. Kurien at the Bangalore International Centre auditorium after the screening of his film Finding Carlton: Uncovering the Story of Jazz in India. It was a reference to the coincidence with the recent publication of the book Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age by Naresh Fernandes (Roli Books). In fact Fernandes makes fairly extensive appearances in the film, and Kurien said that early on in his project he’d been put in touch with the writer, so the two projects had moved along in parallel.
They also cover about the same period, the middle half of the 20th century, and both these labours of love came about by accident. Hearing a bit of gossip that had circulated among Bombay’s Goan musicians around the 1930s, Fernandes wanted to know more about it from a member of this fraternity. What opened up before him was the half-century in which jazz thrived in India, especially Bombay, from the mid-1920s.
Kurien, an NRI in New York, is an ardent jazz and film fan with other professional preoccupations who, while trying to learn jazz guitar, was asked by his teacher why he as an Indian had got interested in this art form. He soon found himself trying to trace the story of how it came to India and put down roots here. As Kurien found out from the distinguished jazz critic Dan Morgenstern (and Fernandes from his own sources), African-American musicians who’d migrated to Europe after World War I to escape racial discrimination found themselves getting somewhat squeezed by economic stringency and sought fresh pastures in Shanghai, and then India.
Their music was enthusiastically taken up by the bands that played in the hotels, dance halls and nightclubs of Bombay and Calcutta. Bombay’s Goan musicians especially, well schooled in Western music, took to what was the pop music of the day. India’s jazz age was born. As it blossomed, jazz acquired dedicated fans who were nourished in part by visiting greats such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck.
Of the two, Fernandes’s book is more academic, more of a chronicle, than Kurien’s film. It also has a somewhat narrower focus, as the reference to Bombay in its title suggests. Kurien’s film is more illustrative, somewhat more episodic. It also has running through it the thread of the life and struggles of Carlton Kitto – a Kolkata-based guitarist who fell in love, early on, with the records of Charlie Christian. This genius of the electric guitar died young but not before playing with some of the originators of be-bop, the highly improvising and often fast-paced style of jazz that was being born in the 1940s. Among these pioneers, the famous alto saxophonist Charlie Parker is another hero of Kitto. He migrated from Madras to Calcutta to play jazz guitar and has stayed true to both jazz and Calcutta long after the jazz age was over.
When Kurien began researching the subject of his film, someone in India told him to look for Carlton Kitto in Kolkata, and so was born the title of his film. How he resisted the urgings of his colleagues, especially the Nepali pianist Louiz Banks, to move to Bombay around 1980 is an important theme, as is the fact that Banks, finding the jazz age had come to an end, diversified into ad jingles and fusion with Indian classical music, among other preoccupations.
Fernandes’s book, on the other hand, lays great stress on how Bombay’s Goan jazz musicians found work and rewards in moving into the orchestration of Hindi film music. Both the film and the book trace the development of the jazz audience, including its leading lights such as the late Niranjan Jhaveri, the founder of the Jazz Yatra. Now the jazz age is over and the audience has vanished.
Sanjay Divecha, a much younger Mumbai-based jazz guitarist, agrees in Kurien’s film that there is no jazz audience in India. And yet musicians like him, Kitto, Banks, and Bangalore’s own Amit Heri, driven by passion, continue to perform, although some among them are dismaying purists by fusing it with such genres as Indian classical music.
Both the film and the book are painstakingly researched, their stories well told, the book’s strong narrative offsetting the density of the facts. And they’re imbued with as much passion as the musicians brought – and bring – to their art.