Passage to India

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MUSIC A book and film on 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 recently 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 the two projects had moved along in parallel. They both cover the middle half of the 20th century, and both 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. 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 found themselves getting somewhat squeezed by economic stringency and sought fresh pastures in Shanghai, and then India. Their music was enthusiastically taken up by 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 nourished by visiting greats such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck.

Fernandes’s book is more academic, more of a chronicle, than Kurien’s film. 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. He migrated from Madras to Calcutta to play jazz guitar . When Kurien began researching, 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.

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. 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, continue to perform.

Both the film and the book are painstakingly researched, their stories well told, the book’s strong narrative offsetting the density of the facts.


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