Watch A Documentary On India’s Jazz Age
At a time when India has less than a handful of jazz bands, it’s a little hard to imagine an era when cities like Mumbai and Kolkata had strips of nightclubs that came alive every evening with the sounds of jazz. But from the 1920s to the 1970s, cities and some small towns in India swung to the tunes of some of the best jazz artists in the world, including a legion of homegrown musicians. Susheel J. Kurien, a 56-year-old business consultant who grew up in Mumbai and settled in New York, tries to capture the flavour of that epoch in his documentary, Finding Carlton: Uncovering the Story of Jazz in India, which will be screened at Godrej India Culture Lab on Thursday, October 18 at 6pm and at the Films Division on Saturday, October 20 at 4pm. Kurien spoke to us about finding the documentary’s titular character, Kolkata-based guitarist Carlton Kitto, and having the best biryani he’s ever eaten.
How did you find Carlton?
The short version is that I had a need to find a guitar player. I’m an amateur guitar player. Occasionally I take a lesson with Jack Wilkins. It’s like studying physics with Einstein. He said, “You guys don’t have this in India. How did you come to love this stuff so much?” So I started Googling and I found articles of jazz in India. But I was looking for a guitarist. I came across an article by (professor of music at California State University) Warren Pinckney about this guitarist in Calcutta who plays jazz and is the last of these guys who play. Amazingly one weekend, the New York Times (happened to carry a piece) in the travel section on Calcutta. The “What to do” (section) said listen to Carlton Kitto at the Grand Hotel. So I called him. He and I just became… in the old days there were pen friends; this was over the phone. I was full of respect and amazement that he was playing this complex music in Calcutta. The more I talked to him the more I got intrigued and I wrote a story. I thought I would go make a little film. Sunil (Shanbag, the theatre director and documentary filmmaker) then helped me on the ground in India. He’s been a mentor to me. A hundred and ten people made this film, including Louis Banks who overwhelmed me with his generosity of spirit. He helped to bring together musicians at his home and (served) the most incredible biryani the crew has eaten.
When you were growing up, the jazz scene in India was almost over. What got you hooked to jazz?
The local jazz scene was being killed by entertainment taxes. There was some jazz left (in the late 1970s) but it was scarce and not easy to get to. We were listening to Voice of America, a nightly jazz broadcast. If you couldn’t afford records and cassettes, you could listen to short wave radio. I watched Johnny Fernandes and Ursula at the Shalimar Hotel at Kemp’s Corner. I was entranced by them. I’ve heard Braz Gonsalves. And then there was the Jazz Yatra.
You grew up in Bombay. But you chose to focus on Calcutta’s jazz scene.
Historically Calcutta was very very important. It was the old capital. It had a lot of western influences. If there was a city that could be called a jazz city it was Calcutta. There were streets with nightclubs. I hope the film looks at jazz (across) India. The film does move to Calcutta and follows a character in Calcutta but also Louis Banks in Bombay.
The historical arc of the film is from 1926 to 1978. The first known jazz record in India was made in Calcutta in 1926 by a Canadian band. And ’78 is because there was this incredible event called Jazz Yatra in Bombay, which for the time was incredibly hard to pull off. It also is a bit of contrast because it was at a time when jazz in India was being swept into history. For any music to survive you need musicians, you need an audience and you need a venue. By 1978 the Left wing in Calcutta was very much in force. They had heavy entertainment taxes that killed the nightclubs. This film is not just a jazz film. It’s a story about music and musicians. And an understanding or insight into a historical world that has gone by.Tags: Carlton Kitto, FD Zone, Films Division, Finding Carlton: Uncovering the Story of Jazz in India, Godrej-India Culture Lab, Music, Susheel J. Kurien
LocationGodrej India Culture Lab
Godrej Industries, Gate 2
Opposite Jaslok Hospital
Relevant DatesGodrej India Culture Lab: Thursday, October 18; FD Zone: Saturday, October 20
HoursGodrej India Culture La: 6pm; FD Zone: 4pm
Ticketing & Price InfoFree