My Moonwashed Horizons: Moheen and I

Guest Author: Debmalya Bandyopadhyay

The first month of college was lonely.

Fresh out of school, I was suddenly in a place filled with strangers and had no one to really talk to. As I tried to leave my shell to make friends, I somehow got invited to ‘Music and Lyrics,’ a collaborative event by the Music and the Literary Club on campus. It was happening on the eve of my 18th birthday – something I wasn’t really looking forward to that year. Having fought my introversion that entire day, when I walked into the room, I was greeted by a bunch of smiling faces – someone tuning a guitar, someone’s laughter chiming from the walls. There was no ‘stage’, everyone sat in a circle to listen to each other. Someone announced we would start the event by singing an old Moheen favourite. It took me a minute to understand they were referring to Moheener Ghoraguli, from who I had only listened to a few scattered tracks. Within a minute, the lights were dimmed, the guitars buzzed, and voices around the room began to sing Haay bhalobashi in a chorus.

If I had to choose one image to remember my 18th birthday by, it would be sitting in that room with a group of seniors who would soon become close friends, while we all sang a Moheener Ghoraguli song. I watched them tilt their heads and sing Jokhon dekhi ora…, as my loneliness evaporated into the late August clouds. Although I had listened to the late-70s band before, I would like to think of that evening as my first proper introduction to Moheener Ghoraguli.

The band

For most of the twenty-somethings in that room, Moheen was a revolution in Indian independent music. But that was hardly the case forty-five years back, when the band started out with impromptu jamming sessions in the late Gautam Chattopadhyay’s backyard. The Bengalis, known for their strong sense of cultural aesthetics as much as their orthodoxy regarding the same, had hardly appreciated the kind of music Moheener Ghoraguli set out to make. Of course, in the ‘70s, the audience at large was estranged from western genres that were fused with Bengali folk in Moheen’s sounds, unlike any other Indian contemporary act. This unique mix of folk-rock experimentation set them apart as iconoclasts. As is often the case with such alienated bands, raising the capital to publish their first album – Shongbigno Pakhikul o Kolkata Bishoyok, was a challenge. Abraham Mazumder, a surviving member of the original line-up recalls borrowing money from a kabuliwallah and having to mortgage his stereo player for the same. At the end of a long struggle, they were able to finally release the album in 1977, pioneering a new wave of Bengali music that would touch so many young lives to come. The album began with Haay Bhalobashi, which is not only a love letter to the many simple and intricate things in life that fill us with undecipherable happiness, but also a homage to the workers of the world. From the very first track, they weren’t afraid to establish that their music is political, as good art often is.

Gautam Chattopadhyay in a still from Kichu Songlaap Kichu Prolaap (1999), a film he appeared in

When I first discovered the lanes in Gautam Chattopadhyay’s life, I was filled with awe. I wanted to experience life the way he saw it – Right from the sixties when he played guitar in English cover bands like The Urge at glittery Park Street pubs, to when he got involved in the Naxal movement like the rest of his generation, was imprisoned, and upon his release, pioneered a very important avenue for independent Bengali music. In my mind, I’m with him when Ranjan Ghoshal suggests the name Moheener Ghoraguli – a reference from a poem by Jibanananda Das, to replace their placeholder name Saptarshi. ‘মহীনের ঘোড়াগুলো ঘাস খায় কার্তিকের জ্যোৎস্নার প্রান্তরে,’ goes the line, roughly – Moheen’s horses graze on autumn’s moonwashed horizon. They do not gallop into the mainstream, their music is a niche that few embrace with acceptance, but the small cult that does, wholeheartedly takes upon the responsibility to design posters, sell tickets for their gigs. Of course, this was the late 70s to earlier 80s, when commercial success was hard to get by for such a radical venture. As their resources dwindled, the members slowly branched out to various fields of work, albeit staying in touch with music on the side. Gautam Chattopadhyay went into filmmaking, but his guitar followed where he went, ensuring music never stopped.

A few years ago, when I was a sophomore, Ranjan Ghoshal and Abraham Mazumder (with his music academy) came to perform a piece at my college. It was a marriage of theatre, music, and art, the kind of collaborative project one rarely gets to watch live. But even more than watching the performance, I went to the auditorium to see them – erstwhile members of Moheener Ghoraguli. It was my closest rendezvous with that temporal span I have yearned to live in, when the horses ran towards their dream. After their splendid performance, I tried to meet them in the green room, but like most things in my life, I was too late for this – they had already left. That night when I returned to my room, I played what is perhaps my favourite Moheen song – Shongbigno Pakhikul on repeat. As Tapesh Bandyopadhyay sang of a runway that is abandoned, forgotten by aeroplanes, the melancholy in his vocals and Ranjan Ghoshal’s poignant lyrics haunted my dreams. Where else would I dump my heart’s silly anomalies, if not with Moheen?

‘চারণ ভোলেনা এই ছবিখানি তাই

বড় মায়া লাগে বড় তার উদ্বেগ

The balladeer never forgets this image

In his tender compassions, his concerns

Of course, Moheen’s last album in the 70s – Drishyomaan Moheener Ghoraguli, wasn’t their swansong. Although they disbanded in the early 80s, there was more to come. In the late 80s, a bunch of young people rediscovered Moheen’s songs and were enamoured. They reached out to Gautam Chattopadhyay, and the latter’s drawing room soon turned into an impromptu stage. Several people came over every day and night to jam with Moni da, as he was lovingly called. Thus the movement of Moheener Ghoraguli was slowly revived, and around the mid-90s, Gautam Chattopadhyay decided to release a new audio cassette with the support of this august musical company that had flowered around him. The cassette album was called Abar Bochhor Kuri Pore, also a quote by Jibanananda Das. It featured both Chattopadhyay’s own compositions and collaborations with others, many of whom would soon gain prominence in Bengali music. When the album was released at the Kolkata book fair of 1995, it was received with much more love and appreciation compared to the earlier efforts. A large crowd miraculously sang along to the song Prithibi when it had not been officially released yet, something that the horses of Moheen couldn’t make sense of. Gautam’s son Gaurab Chattopadhyay (presently the drummer of the band Lokkhichhara), who was present in that crowd on that day, recalls that chorus with goosebumps. Moheener Ghoraguli had finally achieved the kind of response from their audience that they deserved, albeit very late. The road ahead for the horses should have been smooth, but Gautam Chattopadhyay passed away very unexpectedly in 1999 from a cardiac arrest, a few days before Gourab’s first band performance in Kolkata.

‘বেঁকে গেছে পথ গভীর বনে   

মাতাল করে বিহন জনে’

The road bends into the forest

bewitching the empty hearts

Gautam Chattopadhyay with Paban Das Baul, recording for ‘Doriyay Ailo Tufaan’. Image courtesy: Gaurab Chattopadhyay

At the very end of college, I decided to take an unplanned trip into the rural forest that wrapped around my institute, with two of my closest friends. This was the last time we would be together for the foreseeable future, before we headed off to different continents to pursue our PhDs. The three of us managed bicycles from others and set out on our own little adventure. A little away from campus, when one of them suggested we take a left, leaving the road and into the forest, we gladly agreed and went in. As we did, I stepped down from my cycle.

What lay before us was almost a cavern built of trees. There was a beautiful canopy on top of us, and the sky, already dark, couldn’t throw much light inside. It was darker and cooler the way most forests are from the inside, but it was also filled with a sense of quiet adventure, a mystic path leading us into that neverland. My friends cycled ahead of me as I shambled after them like a Sal Paradise eager to take it all in, filling my chest to the brim. Our bicycles crushed fallen branches and dry leaves underneath us, and I played an old Moheen song the woods reminded me of. Choitrer Kafon had been written in memory of Chattopadhyay’s Naxal comrades engulfed by the fire in their chests. In another life, we could have been right here, taking these trees as shelter, the yoke of revolution a weight on our backs. We could have lived and died in this green and yellow, with only these leaves as witness.

‘সে বুঝি শুয়ে আছে চৈত্রের হলুদ বিকেলে

সেখানে চূর্ণ ফুল ঝরে তার আঁচলে

সেখানে চূর্ণফুল ঝরে তার কাফনে….’

he sleeps perhaps on April’s yellow afternoon

where the blossoms rain on his sleeves

where the blossoms rain on his shroud

But here we were in our own reality, at the end of college, about to leave this place forever. That yellow afternoon when we played Choitrer Kafon, pedalling behind my friends, I felt strangely nostalgic about this epilogue. Life had come a full circle; it was time for the horses to lift their head from autumn’s moonwashed horizon and to gallop away on their own. Of course, they would cherish these years as their favourite chapter in life, of course they would come back together someday again. After all, our hearts resonate to the chorus of Moheen’s sound –  

‘এই সুরে বহুদূরে চলে যাবো, চলে যাবো…’
Through these tunes we would sail far, far away…

The author is deeply grateful to Gaurab Chattopadhyay for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk about his father and his times, over the phone.

Further references:

Remembering Moheener Ghoraguli: Link

On Gautam Chattopadhyay and Moheener Ghoraguli: Link

Read more by Debmalya:

Ganesh Pyne: A Dreamer of Darkness

The Poet in Translation: Six Poems by Shankha Ghosh

Debmalya Bandyopadhyay is a student of mathematics, poetry, and everything life offers in between. He is most likely to be found adrift in books, cinema, and music. He can be found here.

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