Those Were the Days, My Friend

Kitto in his Alimuddin Street apartment
What was the magic of Kolkata's Park Street on Christmas, decades ago? The first performers of that great time remember

A sliver of light breaks the monotony of darkness, throwing into focus the bright purple panels of the door, and the silhouette of wires springing out of electric boards somewhere in the background. Carlton Kitto, in his shiny blue shirt, his red guitar resting on a well-worn heart-shaped cushion, seems at odds in his small Alimuddin Street apartment. A framed newspaper cutting, dated April 25, 1987, puts things into perspective: it calls him "Calcutta's poet of the jazz guitar", at home in Park Street's music-loving restaurants and bars. A dozen other similar cut-outs crowd two walls of the small room. Kitto, a young man in his 20s, quit his Railways job in Bangalore in the 1970s, came to Kolkata and took up his first job as a jazz guitarist in Moulin Rouge restaurant on Park Street. Nearly 40 years on, as Park Street is festooned with strings of light, and girls dressed in sequins queue up before Park Hotel for their annual ritual of hedonism, it's a bit difficult to place Kitto and his jazz ensemble in the picture. "Though I do play at Someplace Else (a pub in Central Kolkata) at times, it's hard to recognize the street that was once the mecca of Western music lovers across the country," says Kitto.

It's difficult to put a finger on what exactly put Park Street on the country's culture map the Big Mac generation would probably hold the restaurant Mocambo's devilled crabs responsible. Kitto's peers would rather vote for the "tea session" there that saw young college-goers and the well-heeled, and those with a penchant for Western music, queue up in scores. "I grew up listening to my mother's records and she had the most wonderful collection of classic jazz. In Bangalore, (where Kitto was born), they used to have jukeboxes in the '60s that would repeat the same Elvis Presely track or Cliff Richard hit 10 times a day. I never liked any of that. Someone told me, if you have to play jazz, the only place in the country to be is Calcutta," says Kitto. In 1973, Kitto came to Kolkata and, as his friend and singer Rubin Rebeiro, would say, "saved jazz in Calcutta".

As another year gears up to bury itself in confetti and Park Street-induced euphoria, 73-year-old Rebeiro looks half-amused. "I just see long queues in front of the eateries," he says. It's not difficult to understand why. Rebeiro's words reconstruct Park Street with the rhetoric of '50s Hollywood, each frame punctuated with a luxurious sigh. "I used to sing compositions of Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra. The audience was mostly informed enough to sing along," says Rebeiro. "One might credit New Orleans with the birth of jazz, but Calcutta, in the '60s and '70s, had enough talent to give it strong competition," he says.

Drummer Nondon Bagchi, who started his career in music in 1968 at Trincas bar, vouches for it. "There were at least a dozen, if not more, restaurants with live performers. While music formed a bulk of it, there were cabaret, ventriloquists, magicians and even fire-eaters. Entertainment was an art, not a side-kick of the liquor menu," he says.

"A French lady took my audition at the Moulin Rouge. I was asked to play along her rendition of Cyril Ornadel's Portrait of my Love. I presume she was happy with my performance as I was hired for Rs 600 a month, a princely sum those days," says Kitto.

Ornadel's classic seems a perfect backdrop for the visual reconstruction of the '60s and '70s in Park Street. "Rights of admission were reserved. You couldn't step onto the dance floor without a coat. If you didn't have a coat and were friendly with a server, you could probably smuggle one out from the restaurant's reserve. Ladies were turned out perfectly. You could see them change their gait if the music changed from waltz to tango or from jazz funk to ballroom," says Kitto. Bagchi says the mini-skirt must have appeared on Park Street within a week after it was invented, only half in jest."When Beatles used to come out with a new record, it used to be in shops on Park Street in days, and live renditions would be on within a week," says Bagchi. "The best part of music in Park Street was the absence of snobbery that stemmed from dividing music into genres. Something that is rampant now. Those were true performers," says Bagchi.

While some might revolt at the association of class with coats, lace gloves and pencil heels lived in perfect harmony with moustached mafia in expensive blazers. "Those were interesting times. Mostly the audience was delightful, but on some days there would be a thug in an expensive suit sitting and asking you to sing Mamma Mia," says Jenny, 55, who came to Kolkata as an 18-year-old from Bombay, and started her career here. "Now that I have seen bouncers chase rabble-rousers down Park Street, it's funny to think about what we put up with sometimes. I remember a man, a few drinks down, asking me to play Boom Boom, a big Nazia Hasan hit," says Kitto. While a bit of Broadway inside him died, the man fished a gun out of his pocket and saw to it that Hasan got her due in Blue Fox, then a jazz den.

Soon after, communism emerged as the city's trophy ideal and the Jyoti Basu government slapped a 90 per cent entertainment tax in restaurants. Hundreds of performers were thrown out of work, several left the city and some braved the bureaucracy to find answers. The tax was waived but the damage had been done. "The restaurants saw they were doing fine without us. People were still eating. They didn't need us anymore," says Rebeiro. A lot of them left. That was 1979. "Even if I want to sing now, I can hardly get good musicians to accompany me. They have not even heard of the music that I flourished singing. They can't even read notes," says Rebeiro.

As Park Street gears up for the festivities today, Rebeiro would be somewhere there. Quiet and forgotten. Much like the music he stands for.

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