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“High... to Dilip”: Remembering the granddaddies of Kolkata’s rock scene

Forty years ago, four Calcutta musicians came together to form an extraordinary band, one that enjoyed a cult following in the pre-MTV days. Ajachi Chakrabarti profiles a group that was much ahead of its time.

Ajachi Chakrabarti  19th Apr 2014

Dilip Balakrishnan

bout 15 minutes into our interview, Lew Hilt pauses and turns to me. "Ajachi," he says, "you have to head this 'High... to Dilip'. And then you print what you want." He repeats the request on several occasions. It's a cosmic wave to a dear friend who died in 1990, leaving a void both in his friends' lives and on the city's rich music scene. It's also an acknowledgement of how essential Dilip Balakrishnan is to the story of High, the pioneering Kolkata rock band Hilt played bass for.

Hilt first met Balakrishnan in a 1967 concert in St. Xavier's College, Kolkata. He was playing guitar for a band called The Cavaliers, a cover band "doing all the stuff that needed to be played in those days", mostly bubble-gum pop. One of very few groups that can lay claim to the title of India's first "beat groups", as the Beatles-inspired three-guitarists-one-drummer bands were then called, The Cavaliers didn't have a fixed line-up, going with whatever foursome local promoter K.C. Sen would sign. Hilt, an Anglo-Indian from a railway family — the community, says journalist Sidharth Bhatia, whose latest book India Psychedelic is about the history of India's "Age of Aquarius", comprised 99% of Kolkata's music scene at the time — was one of those hired, earning Rs 10 a gig (of which Sen would keep Rs 1.54 as his commission).

It was coincidence that the two met. Fats Kapoor, the Cavaliers' drummer at the time, couldn't make it, which meant the bassist Robin Sen moved to drums. Hilt was asked to play bass for the first time, and Neel Sen, the vocalist, took the lead guitar. To fill the vocalist's spot, Hilt asked Balakrishnan, a wiry Tamil kid who played the guitar and harp along with singing, and whose earlier performance that evening had impressed him. Offers from the first Calcutta band to have cut a record with HMV didn't come every day, and Balakrishnan readily agreed.

Three years later, Balakrishnan returned the favour. After The Cavaliers split in 1968, he had formed Great Bear, with Devdun Sen, P.C. Mukherjee, John Brinnand and Nondon Bagchi. When Sen, the bassist, "left the band to seek nirvana in the mountains" in 1971, Balakrishnan's first call was to Hilt. The band, Hilt found, was a far cry from the bubblegum pop The Cavaliers played. The band's lifestyle was also very different. ("I had my first smokeroo, my first hit of acid.") Most importantly, his mindset as a musician changed.

Balakrishnan was unique among Calcutta musicians of the time in that he wanted to play original music, not covers. "You learn chemistry and medicine abroad and come practise here," says Hilt. "The same should go with music. Dilip's whole trip in life was, 'Man, we've studied all this. Why can't we make our own medicine out of it?'"

Balakrishnan's pharmaceutical hopes would be realised only in his next band: High. Formed in 1974, a year after Great Bear folded due to the departures of Sen and Brinnand, High was composed of Hilt, Balakrishnan, Bagchi and Adi Irani. "We did covers," says Hilt, "but we did unusual covers: Frank Zappa, Allman Brothers, Mountain, Grateful Dead. No other band did these covers." Gradually, however, their sets began including more and more original compositions. Precious few of these songs survive; the few that one can find on YouTube are from a 2008 album the band released after remastering Balakrishnan's voice in old studio recordings.

You learn chemistry and medicine abroad and come practise here. The same should go with music. Dilp’s whole trip in life was, ‘Man, we’ve studied all this. Why can’t we make our own medicine out of it?’ —Lew Hilt

These songs demonstrate Balakrishnan's considerable abilities as a composer. "Dilip, in my mind," says Bagchi, "is in the same league, maybe not lyrics-wise but melody-wise, as the Lennons and Dylans, and I'm fairly certain that people who get to know the music won't argue with me." A song like In the Land of Mordor, part of a rock musical based on The Lord of the Rings, with the mesmerising aural world Balakrishnan creates, is a great example. Another perennial fan favourite is Politician, a rejection of party politics that was, as Bhatia writes in his book, typical of the rock bands of the time.

he progressive, edgy sound readily won High a loyal fan base, and the band could fill any venue in the city with these "High Heads". It helped that the band really knew how to put on a show, bringing elements of lighting, backdrop and band costumes that distinguished them from the nightclub acts of the time. These shows were held together with spit and glue, in the spirit of a band (and an era) that made the most of what it had. Hilt, one of whose day job was that of a welder, describes the bass guitar he used, made by attaching metal wires to the body of a charkha, with a pickup made of magnets. Bagchi owned a basic drum kit, he says, while the guitars were whatever they could afford, and Adi Irani, whose "trip in life", Hilt says, was to tinker with technology, made his amps using discarded sweet boxes.

Anjan Roy was one of those working behind the scenes to set up these concerts. For High's 1975 concert at Rabindra Sadan — to host a rock show in the citadel of Bengali high culture was in itself an achievement — the background visuals consisted of pictures cut out from magazines on a projector Roy had convinced the director of the American Centre to lend. The next step was putting up posters. "The glue was made in my house by boiling maida," says Roy. "And then, you had five stoned guys jumping into a car and putting up posters at Loreto, at Jadavpur University, at Medical College; wherever there were potential customers." Even the lights were decidedly low-tech, with volunteers holding up individual torches.

What makes the story of High all the more remarkable is that their rockstar lives existed in parallel to their demanding work lives. Balakrishnan, a chartered accountant, used to complain that his job meant he couldn't grow his hair long. Bhatia says the band couldn't make a name for themselves nationally because they could never take the time out to travel to other cities, spending whatever free time they had composing, recording and performing. This improvised existence, Bhatia says, gave the band the hunger that distinguishes good musicians from great ones.

Balakrishnan died in 1990, succumbing to cancer. With him, the primary impetus behind High was gone, and the band split. But music still plays an important part in the members' lives. Bagchi is a math tutor today, as well as a food critic, but continues to perform with his new band, Hip Pocket. Hilt is still a popular sessions musician, collaborating off and on with a number of musicians. He's also tried his hand at Bangla films and TV serials. It's a good distraction, he says, from the loneliness of retirement life, sitting in his favourite chair and reminiscing.


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