wax Poetics
Rupa and band on Canada TV in 1981. Photos courtesy of Rupa Sen.

Disco Time Capsule

Not until about three minutes in do we hear Rupa’s voice wash through the music. The song “Aaj Shanibar” is a showpiece off Disco Jazz, an Indian dance record with an array of influences woven throughout. Not quite disco, but it’s become a staple on many upbeat playlists. Nor is it jazz, but peppered throughout are sparkling solos and complex, shifting arrangements. Disco Jazz is also a capsule of yesteryear and daydreams, shelved in a dusty attic for almost four decades before a boy named Dedayan uncovered it while doing chores.

published online
By David Ma

“Throw it away,” said his mom, the featured singer on the long-forgotten album. But he was reluctant to discard this artifact from his mother’s previous life, made long before he was born. Not expecting to find much, Dedayan looked online to see if there was any greater evidence of his mother Rupa’s brief recording career. To the family’s shock, he discovered that Rupa’s recordings were being widely shared and celebrated. Music obsessives had sleuthed their way to bootlegs, uploading lo-fi versions on YouTube that amassed over a million views. For a record that sold a few thousand at best, it was now in high demand, with tattered copies going for hundreds online. At over eight-minutes, “Aaj Shanibar” was mixtape gold, filled with wide-ranging sequences and plenty of highlights to cherry-pick from.

A large part of the album’s worldly approach is due to Aashish Khan, descended from a long line of classically trained musicians and a prodigious master of the sarod—a fretless cousin of the sitar. A venerated figure in India, he’s considered on par with the likes of Ravi Shankar, though without Shankar’s lofty international status. Khan, who’d settled in Calgary, Canada, along with his family of musicians, met Rupa through a chance encounter.  She’d just graduated from Calcutta University and was visiting her brother, then a student in Calgary. Rupa, an experienced singer who’d sung regularly on India’s national public radio broadcast, All India Radio, had just performed at a campus event when Khan, a friend of her brother’s, approached her. Besotted with her voice, he asked her to be on an album he’d been working on, a disco project written with aid from his brother and his wife. Rupa said yes.

Khan and his brother Pranesh were joined by some Canadian musicians, and Rupa delivered buoyant vocals. Says Rupa: “There were so many instruments in the studio is what I remember seeing. I also remember I wore a red dress that day.” Disco Jazz came together in wintry Calgary in 1981 but remained virtually unknown for almost forty years.

In 2019, as curiosity about Rupa and the album intensified, archivist label Numero Group officially reissued Disco Jazz. There were articles about the fervor, and about DJs and producers who were taken by “Aaj Shanibar.” But little was known about Rupa, the mystery girl with a wide grin and big eyes on the album’s plain, reddish-orange cover. With some translation assistance from her nieces, we dig into the life of Rupa Biswas (now Rupa Sen), the rhapsodic voice behind the enchanting Disco Jazz.

Rupa's family and band. Photos courtesy of Rupa Sen.
Rupa's family and band. Photos courtesy of Rupa Sen.

There’s been a lot written about your album in recent years, especially with all the interest in “Aaj Shanibar.” But your origin story is still somewhat untold. How did your interest in music begin?

My love for music started at a very young age. I think I was four or five at that time. I was born into a music-loving family. My mother loved to sing. I would watch and listen to her sing many times. I wanted to sing like her, so one day, I asked her to teach me to sing. She replied, “Just hum with me,” and with her, I started to hum. Slowly, I started with words and then finally I was able to sing. My mom became my first guru.

Tell us about your early musical training in India. 

As I grew a little older, my mother took me to get classically trained under my next guru Sachin Chaki. At that time, we were living at Berhampur, Murshidabad [in the state of West Bengal]. Within the next few years, I started to take part in local competitions and was soon winning most of them. Due to my father’s job, we had to move from Murshidabad to other places. Finally, we came to Kolkata in 1975. At that time, my biggest source of inspiration was the radio. I would listen to many artists like [singers] Lata Mangeshkar, Manna Dey, and many others. That is why I dreamt of being a singer for All India Radio.

Tell us how you ended up on All India Radio. With such huge broadcast numbers, it surely got your name out there at a young age. What was that experience like for a young, aspiring singer in India?

In 1976, I auditioned and was selected as the Junior Artist for All India Radio. Only after a few years, in 1979, I auditioned for the Senior Artist but failed. I was very sad and disappointed. But I was eager to try again. But this time, a friend suggested using a different name. So, in this attempt, I used my nickname and auditioned. And I was selected. From then on, I was renamed “Rupa.” My real name is Sukla. I kept both names. 

There’s been a lot written about your fateful trip to Calgary and how that led to Disco Jazz. It was just a family visit that turned into so much more. Tell us about that experience from your perspective. 

Around 1981, I just completed my MA in music. My elder brother, Tilak, invited my parents, my younger sister, and me for a vacation in Calgary. So in August 1981, we took a long flight to Canada. My brother and his friends picked us up from the airport. They already knew that I was a singer for All India Radio. So they demanded that I sing for them that very night. So I sang. They loved me so much that they wanted to do a concert with me. So in the next few days, they organized a big show at Boris Roubakine Hall at Calgary University. I sang twenty-seven songs, all geet and ghazals [poems of love and separation, set to music]. It was almost three hours long. The concert was a great success. Many people had come to the concert, and it was at that same time [that] Aashish Khan and his brother Pranesh heard me for the first time.

Wax poetics
Wax poetics

Aashish Khan is another huge component to Disco Jazz, since he had almost all the music written before he met you. How did you two meet? 

Aashish was my brother’s friend, so after the concert, he came to meet me in person. He loved my singing and said we should practice together. So for the next few days, we would sing regularly at my brother’s place. Finally, Aashish asked if I would be interested in making a record with him. I agreed, and within two weeks, we made Disco Jazz record.

Those who aren’t familiar with traditional Indian music might not know of Aashish Khan and his status as musical royalty. What did he bring to the project? 

I met Aashish Khan right after the Boris [Roubakine] Hall Concert in 1981. He and his brother Pranesh [who played tabla], has come to my brother’s house the next day. He at that time was running his music school with his brother. When Aashish approached me for this album, he was excited but lacked funding. So both my brothers agreed to finance this project. Aashish is very important to this project, as the rhythms provided by his [sarod] laid to the foundation for all the songs. Without his masterful playing, I don’t believe that “Aaj Shanibar” can bring excitement as it has for all the fans with Aashish.

Did you keep in touch with the original musicians on the album?

For a couple of years, we were in touch. [Guitarist] Don Pope and [bassist] John [Johnston] also came to my house in Kolkata in the corresponding years after the music release in 1982. But after which we were not in touch.

Rupa. October 7, 1982
Rupa. October 7, 1982

When did you find out that people were rediscovering your songs?

I had no idea as to what was going on with my record, until February 2019. My cousin’s brother had just visited my son, Dedayan, and me. We were chatting and catching up when my son searched my record’s name out of mere fun. And he was shocked! He found that someone was playing my songs from the record on YouTube and that it had over one million views! Then he found a blog post written by Nate Rabe, about how the songs and artist was a hidden jewel and how he wished to meet the singer for an interview. So my son connected with him, and that’s when we got to know about the rediscovery of the Disco Jazz record.

Take us back to the recording session. What happened that day in Canada?

On the day of the record, I woke up early. We had breakfast and in the afternoon, all of us (mom, dad, sisters, and brother) went for the recording at Living Room Studio. There we met up with Aashish Khan and the rest of the band members. This was the first time I had seen a recording studio, out of India. It all looked great. Compared to All India Radio’s recording studio, there were fewer wires and Indian musical instruments. There were other non-Indian instruments like drums, guitars, and saxophone. Everything looked both shiny and fun.

After practicing the songs for some time, they handed me a mic, a wireless one. I had always seen wired mic, so when they gave me a wireless one, I was confused. I thought that I was being pranked. But then I tried to sing the first song, and it was working. Then we started recording the songs. It took us two weeks to sing and record all the songs. My dad was there all the time. At first, I sang without any music. It was difficult without any rhythm or tempo. The band members were very excited and always cheered me on.

What made you agree to do the album? The music was a big deviation from your work with All India Radio. 

At that time, [when] Aashish had approached me for this record, I was young and wanted to become famous and thought that having my own record will help my musical career further. Plus, at that time, making fusion music with Indian classical, disco and jazz was unheard of, so I decided to make this record. That increased my excitement to do this project. Around that time, I was listening to Indian classical music, Hindi-Bollywood songs, Bengali-modern songs, Bengali semi-classical songs, geet, ghazals, bhajans, and others. Also, I heard music from Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, George Harrison, and the Beatles. 

Rupa rehearsing with Aashish Khan, Pranesh Khan, and Don Pope, 1981. Photo courtesy Rupa Sen.
Rupa rehearsing with Aashish Khan, Pranesh Khan, and Don Pope, 1981. Photo courtesy Rupa Sen.

Do you remember what the reaction in India was when the album finally came out?

In 1982, when the record was finally released at the time of [the Hindu festival] Durga Puja, by Megaphone Company, the reaction was very disappointing. I expected my songs to be great hits and people would be lining up to buy my record. But that never happened. I eventually had to go to the store and buy my own record. Actually, at that time, another song had [been] taking over the market. Disco Deewane by Nazia Hassan was released at the same time as my record. And so the people did not get a chance to listen to my music or even get to know me.

Afterwards, you returned to school and received a masters in music. Did you continue to perform?

I still did live performances in Kolkata, Orrisa, and even in Mumbai. In 1984, I got married and then I traveled to Java, with my husband, due to his job. There I performed too.

Where do you live nowadays? Are you still involved in music in any way?

I currently live in my hometown, Kolkata. Yes, I am still active with music. I practice every day.

It seemed like the record was bootlegged and traded online for a while before it was properly done by Numero Group. Had you received any compensation for any of the music on Disco Jazz?

I hadn’t received any money from anyone reproducing my album prior to signing with Numero Group. We, my son Dedayan, and nieces, Rimi and Rima, reached out to Numero Group. Once they were satisfied with our identifications, then we made the contract. And now, yes, we are finally getting properly paid.

Almost forty years later, what comes to mind when you hear the songs on the record? What has the reaction been from your fans? How have you made sense of this entire experience?

Of course, now, thanks to the internet and many of my fans, people are getting to know me more. Fans have recently been messaging me to tell me how my music has helped them through lockdown; all over the world, including Italy and Spain where Covid-19 has hit the hardest. I am very happy and honored. I really hope all of my fans are safe and in good health. Before 2019, I thought I was lost and even I didn’t think anything about my record. But the sudden discovery and with the great fan response, I was overwhelmed. I feel very blessed and humbled by this experience. I am very happy when my fans write to me. I try to reply back to each one, but I am a bit old, so it takes me time to go through all the messages. I feel very blessed and that they find me worthy for their love. At first, I did not believe it at all. My son and nieces were excited, but I was very skeptical. But as I started reading people’s comments, posts and likes, shared videos of fans enjoying my music, then I realized that my music was really making some impact.

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