Ms. Rupa Sen, by all appearances a regular suburban Bengali housewife, opens our conversation with a self-deprecating dig, accompanied by a proud smile. “How is it that all of a sudden everyone is interested in my music? I am like a dead fossil.
I’m saying something about the power of the internet to create new audiences and connect people in unexpected ways, especially music freaks like me. But it’s a good question. Why, nearly 40 years after its release, is the old-fashioned world of music collectors paying so much attention to a spur-of-the-moment home-made record in the Canadian prairie city of Calgary?
The record has only four tracks and was released on an obscure German label (Ovular), but it has an ambitious title: disco-jazz. Undoubtedly, no work of art since Tolstoy War and peace branded himself so boldly. Bursting with disco-like energy but nuanced by long jazzy instrumental segments and sophisticated drum breaks, the music manages to both intrigue the mind and move the body.
Since its reissue in 2017, disco-jazz has been hailed by critics as a “Holy Grail“, and like “Essential” and “Unavoidable”. He has been featured on posh music sites such as Boomkat and was released – again – on March 29 by the respected Chicago-based archival music company Group Number. Extremely successful, it has sold worldwide and another release date will be announced soon. Original copies of the LP were recovered hundreds of dollars.
After hearing the record, I wanted to know what happened to the creator whose face glowed so brightly from the cover art. Was she alive? What happened after the disc was released? Was she still singing? Several months passed before someone contacted me to tell me exactly what I wanted to hear: Sen was alive and well. And she lived in Calcutta.
When the Skype camera turned on, Rupa Sen née Biswas greeted me with a namaskar and that contagious smile. She was accompanied by her son, Debayan, and her niece, Anneka, to help bridge the language divide, if necessary.
Sen grew up as a typical, but “fairly liberal” middle-class Bengali girl in the 1970s in Calcutta. There was music in the family. “My mother, Sabita, was my first guru, and she taught me how to sing classical music,” Sen said. But the generation of the 1970s sought their music beyond the Indian shores, like the Beatles and Tom Jones. And of course, the voices of Asha Bhonsle and Lata Mangeshkar were everywhere. “My dream was to sing along to playback,” Sen said.
She performed in small shows in the city, but at a time before several TV stations, FM radio and YouTube, there was only one way to reach a large audience – All India Radio. Sen approached the broadcaster’s Calcutta station in 1978 and auditioned. “I didn’t do it the first time around, but I tried again,” she said. “After a second audition, AIR played me singing a pop song.”
Unsure about a career in pop, Sen was admitted to the University of Calcutta and began studying biology. She continued to sing “here and there”, until a family vacation in Canada finally opened up the world of music to her..
“In August 1981, we went to visit my older brother, Tilak Kumar Biswas, in Calgary,” said the senator. day of our arrival. Some members of the local Indian community were also invited. “So impressed” were the audience members with her singing that they asked her to “put on a public show”.
A few days later, the University of Calgary’s Boris Roubikane Hall was booked for a live performance by Geet and Ghazal. About 1,000 people attended, including the limit-pushing sarod player and Ali Akbar Khan’s son, Aashish Khan. Sen sang for three and a half hours that night, and Khan was quite excited to approach his brother. “My brother and Aashish had known each other for a long time and were good friends,” she said. “After a few days, Aashish came to my brother’s house and we started having jam sessions together. We even played together on local television. It was after this show that Aashish suggested to my family that he would like to make a recording.
With time running out – the Biswas family were due to leave for England for the second stop of their summer vacation in a week’s time – Khan assembled a group of local studio musicians in the home studio of drummer and producer Richard Harrow, who was known as the living room. There in the studio were Harrow and local Calgary guitarist and Khan student Don Pope. Pope, who had nurtured an interest in Indian classical music since his teens, would tour India the following year as part of Khan’s fusion formation, the Third Eye Band. There was no doubt then that he would support his guru in this impromptu recording event.
Over the next week, Sen went to the studio for three to four hours each day and sang lyrics composed by Khan’s wife, Saroj. The lyrics weren’t complex, but like the opening track from Disco Jazz, Moja Bhari Moja (Fun, Great Fun), they correspond to the spirit of the time, which was to dance and have fun.
disco-jazz is anything but your usual 1980s disco record. It manages to use the form, sounds and structures of club dance music to take it to another level, which, while not exactly jazz, is something quite its own form.
Although belonging to a much disparaged genre, the musicality of disco-jazz was remarkable. It’s not hard to see why critics are swooning over the record. Fast drum beats and funky bass hold the bass sound firmly in place and create ample space for Pope’s guitar – alternately rhythmically hypnotic and buzzing – and the inevitable waves and whirls of the synthesizer. Pranesh Khan, Aashish’s brother, fills in the gaps with beautiful tabla rhythms. But the clear instrumental hero here is Khan’s sarod, electrified and amplified for this special occasion. It is this unexpected and exotic sound that makes the songs so different from other disco music of the time. That and the fact that they are sung in Bengali.
Hitting all the fast moving musical traffic, Sen’s voice sparkles and slides – she’s as good at scattering as she is at singing or even pouting flirtatiously. What stands out, however, is how natural she is in the studio. Small live concerts in your hometown are one thing. But it’s as if she finds herself in a studio surrounded by elite musicians, Sen is shedding her inhibitions and committing to her destiny.
“It was my first time in a studio but I was so excited,” Sen recalls. “We recorded everything live.” There was even an appearance on Calgary TV. Were you nervous? “No. I appreciated the attention. Being there with Khansahib and Don Pope. It was amazing.”
When check-in was complete, Sen packed his bags and flew to the UK to visit other family members. Although the experience was exciting and too short, “all the musicians have become friends and have visited me in India over the years”.
After the recording, Sen’s two brothers funded the production of the LP and in October 1982 the record was released in India. “It was in the stores in Calcutta, but …”
“Around the same time, the Nazia Hassan record was released,” Sen said. The young Pakistani singer from Karachi had become a pan-Asian sensation after his debut in Feroz Khan’s Hindi film. Qurbani in 1980. At the time when Sen’s disco-jazz came out, Hassan and his brother were flying high not only in the subcontinent, but also across Asia and the United Kingdom. Legend has it that siblings Deewane Disco sold about a lakh of copies in Bombay alone shortly after its release.
Given the lack of hype and the lack of a major label, disco-jazz struggled to get a lot of airplay. “It was so exciting to see the record in stores, but unfortunately the infatuation with Nazia made it difficult,” Sen said. While she sang several “songs around Calcutta in various shows”, such as Ke jeno aakashe rong e rong tuli diya (As if someone had added colors to the sky with a brush) – the music and lyrics “by Sudhin Dasgupta, who was my guru” – and Aami jodi hotam mago vhor belakar phakhi (Mother, if I were a morning bird), her time in the spotlight must have been delayed by decades.
Sen views the recent attention his little record has garnered with mixed feelings. As someone who admittedly “loves attention”, she is delighted that her record is reaching new audiences. She has created pages on Facebook and other social media platforms. “But no one asked my permission to release the record,” she said. “I haven’t even received a rupee from any of these companies, even though it’s my name, photo and voice on the record.”
With seemingly unfulfilled fame and professional singing dreams, Sen embraced the life that was available. But there is no trace of regret or bitterness. “I believe my life is like a coin,” she said. “Rupa Biswas is only one side. On the other side, there are other things that are equally important and good. Over the years, Sen has been a music and beauty columnist for Aajkal newspaper, tutored students in math and science, raised a family, and took up painting, gardening and embroidery. “And I still sing.”