How many school bands can say that they made it big as professionals? Very few, but it is a claim Kolkata-based rock band Insomnia can make proudly. The only band to have individual albums in both Bengali and English, their ride hasn’t been pretty all the way – they broke up about ten years ago. But the band has now re-grouped to release a Bengali single called ‘Aar Na’ (Not Anymore). More are to follow.
Insomnia’s journey started in 2000 at South Point High School. “Somehow, we were much more skilled than other school bands. We thought since we are sounding good and having fun, why not take it further?” says guitarist Bodhisattwa Ghosh.
Besides him, the initial line-up included Subho on guitar, Rajarshi Burman (Dodo) on vocals, Buti on keyboards, Tito on bass and Rohit Nandi on drums while Rahul Mehra handled management and PR. Several personnel changed over the years. The re-grouped line up has Ghosh, Burman, keyboardist Savvy Gupta, bassist Prasenjit Chakrabutty (Pom) and Mehra. The drummer is yet to be announced.
Dedicated, regular practice in their formative years brought out an alternative rock sound which the city had not yet heard. With two guitarists and a synth player who sought post-modern soundscapes, their music was rife with progressive elements and experimentation.
“New things came up everyday in practice and we grew together as musicians in this engaging journey. We struggled a lot for about a year and a half, practicing for 12 hours and having only snacks for lunch. We did not have money to take an auto even. Had to travel in buses,” recounts Burman.
A demo landed their first professional gig at Music World, a music store in the city’s culturally iconic Park Street area. This was 2002, a time when original rock music was taking Kolkata by storm. “The scene was much better back then because if you were playing any kind of rock show, whether Bengali or English, there were dedicated listeners who would turn up,” says Ghosh, who also plays for Bangla rock band Lakkhichhara and his own dark jazz outfit The Bodhisattwa Trio.
“Media also covered indie music extensively. We were fresh-out-of-school kids starting out as a rock band and we got featured in all the mainstream newspapers! Later on, we got radio airplay too.”
Two years later, the demo turned into a full-length English album called ‘Cry of the Spirit‘, released independently. Ominous soundscapes, dense instrumentation, maniacal guitar work and obscure prog feels made a statement that was totally new. The overarching theme was loneliness of the human soul – lyrics dealt with confusion, stasis, search for lost paths and even the apocalypse, while an acoustic guitar wonder illustrated life-threatening depression.
But being an English band had its cons. Most concerts demanded playing covers and the number of gigs weren’t enough to earn a living. Bangla rock bands, however, got regular shows as a predominantly Bengali crowd favoured music in their own language. This prompted them to take a crucial decision to write Bengali songs.
Their sound took a really dense turn to become grungier, darker and much more powerful as evidenced in their second album ‘Proloyer Shomoye‘ (Time of the Armageddon), released under label Asha Audio in 2006. Songs spoke about the anguish of cities riddled by crime, corruption and capitalism and the tendency of man to profit at another’s loss. The album’s political acumen peaked when it questioned whether industrialisation, which harms the environment, is really progress.
However, this switch caused an identity crisis for the band as it was torn between being a Bengali or English act. Pub gigs required a setlist of original English songs and covers while the majority of college concerts demanded a mixture of Bengali originals and English covers. Crowds were divided on the lines of language, with only a very few appreciating songs in both. This debate went on until Insomnia disbanded in 2010 due to ideological differences.
“One band cannot do original music in both languages as the clientele is completely different. Listeners will get confused as to what our sound is if we do different types of music,” says Ghosh, whose had insisted on choosing one language and sticking to it.
“The Bengali language is such that the songs require melodic treatment. You cannot take an Iron Maiden song, put Bengali lyrics to it and call it Bangla rock. The composition’s whole vibe changes due to the language,” he says.
While musicians may not want this differentiation, the truth is that two distinct scenes – Bengali and English – exist for the listener. Socio-economic reasons and differential schooling systems have a role to play here. “For the fans, two separate scenes do exist but not so much for musicians. Earlier, the separation was more distinct but now it is less as some crossovers are happening,” says Gaurab Chattopadhyay, Lakkhichhara’s drummer.
Today, Insomnia has regrouped as a purely Bangla rock band. They had quite a few half-baked Bengali originals in the pipeline. Talks were ongoing for a few years to get those out and the pandemic finally presented an opportunity to do that. They also felt it was time to rehash old arguments and start anew. Though ‘Aar Na’ is an old song, it was selected to be released first as its theme of not accepting dreadful circumstances has present context.
Gupta, who’s also an in-demand music director in the Bengali film industry, says, “Insomnia is a place of love for all of us and our friendship was still there. Wherever we are today, I believe Insomnia has a huge role to play in that. Everyone wanted to go back and it did finally happen.”
Shaswata Kundu Chaudhuri is a features journalist based in Kolkata with an unhealthy interest in music.
Featured image credit: Rick Basu