Gentrification hasn’t quite reached Kolkata yet. Properties that would be lapped up by industrialists, bars and heritage hotel chains in other cities languish idly here. Since 2014, Border Movement Lounge – a cross-cultural music initiative undertaken by Goethe-Institut – has been hosting electronic music gigs in these beautiful, abandoned and under-utilised spaces.

Burdwan Palace

“I think Kolkata definitely has a lot to offer when it comes to architectural heritage.” said Friso Maecker, the Institut’s Director. “We had our first event in Burdwan Palace, a 150-year-old property. Other editions were held in the Hooghly Jute Mill, on the roof of a 100-year-old commercial building and in the Gem cinema hall, which was abandoned after a fire.”

Maecker added that the reason the Institut was able to access these buildings, was because of the generosity of those who owned them. “I met incredibly open people, such as the Maharaja of Burdwan and Lata Bajoria, who immediately liked the idea of showing these incredible buildings in the city.”

Burdwan Palace. Credit: Amartya De

While similar events, like the Grime Riot Disco are organised in cities like Mumbai, Pune and New Delhi, they usually have a strict guest-list or an entry fee at the door. Border Movement Lounge, or BML as many know it, hosts these experiences for free.

Since the venues are off-beat, they tend to keep the cocktail-and-Jagermeister chugging crowd which usually frequents Kolkata’s nightclubs away. There is also a distinct lack of the mouth-grinders – the ones who won’t stop talking about Koh Phangan full moon parties and magic mushroom milkshakes.

Deep Brown, a Kolkata house DJ and BML regular said he preferred the Institut’s parties to Kolkata’s nightclubs. “You can come dressed as you wish and nobody at the door will stop you.” he said. “This creates a sense of freedom amongst people, who can let loose and have a good time”.

“The focus here is completely on the music and space.” agreed Varun Desai, whose company Littlei is the local partner for BML. “We are doing this to expand the cultural content of the city, as opposed to making a statement against it. I still feel a sense of overwhelming astonishment that we’re able to find these venues for BML. A lot of cities have converted their industrial spaces and warehouses into permanent commercial establishments, but a one-off showcase like BML is a unique phenomenon.”

Gem Cinema Hall. Credit: Shailpik Biswas

Border Movement was started by the Goethe Institut in Sri Lanka, as a way to encourage interaction between the electronic music enthusiasts of South-East Asia and Germany. The aim is to introduce South-Asian artists to Germany and vice-versa.

As Maecker explained, “If you look at contemporary culture in Germany, there is no way you can leave out electronic music. Some say that German groups like Kraftwerk actually started electronic music. The Love Parade festival and legendary clubs like Berghain furthered creation of artistically brilliant electronic music.”

While Germany has expertise in electronic music, initiatives like the Border Movement, Maecker said, enrich the process of creative exchange.

Gem Cinema Hall

A cross-cultural dialogue in an eccentric setting, makes for a memorable night for both the listener and the artists. Nils Thabo Getsome, a producer and DJ based in Berlin, recalled his first BML gig in Kolkata. “I saw the venue and was struck,” he said. “It reminded me of the 1990s in Berlin, where people set up events in abandoned places. Here I found an old cinema that burned down years ago, decorated with so much love for detail.”

Music events in India often suffer from excessive regulation. Fuzzy Logic, a Mumbai based house and bass artist who played at BML’s jute mill event, said, “I think this concept of taking over large, industrial spaces is something we have been seeing in parts of Europe but this doesn’t happen too much in India due to red tape and general mindset issues. Almost all the gigs I play in India, apart from festivals are in clubs or bars.”

Hooghly Jute Mill. Credit: Brain Shark

Aneesh Basu, one half of Kolkata duo Hybrid Protokol played one of their first gigs at BML and have seen their career and sound evolve since then. “Every BML is like a special electronic music concert as opposed to a regular club night where alcohol is the main show runner.” Basu said. “I don’t find any meaning or emotion in formulaic EDM music. Every track sounds the same, with a massive build up and drop. The artists at BML play genres such as techno, breakbeats or house, which rely on instincts, like a melody hook or bass line. There’s an ocean you can explore outside EDM.”

Sanam Khan, who has attended three BML gigs, said the music was a welcome relief from the predictable sound and crowd at Kolkata’s nightclubs. “When I was studying and working in America, I would sometimes go to these wild warehouse parties out in New York’s Bronx and Brooklyn districts.” she said. “I’m proud that my hometown is now doing something so interesting. Here, you can dance like no one’s looking and just be yourself.”

Hooghly Jute Mill

Maecker appeared optimistic when discussing the future of Border Movement in Kolkata, “I hope we can create more awareness about these great heritage spaces in Kolkata so that they get used for cultural production and thus get preserved.” he said. “We want to show the owners that it is worth protecting this part of the city’s identity.”

In the early 20th century, the freedom fighter Gopal Krishna Gokhale remarked “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.” A hundred years later, Kolkata and lost its erstwhile standing as the main financial port to Mumbai, and its tag as the cultural capital has been usurped by New Delhi. However, Kolkata has always been cosmopolitan. We still openly consume beef here while the rest of the country is examining each others’ refrigerators. Initiatives like BML give some hope to the city that its appreciation for the past is a welcome trait.

Border Movement Lounge 6 takes place at the Hooghly Jute Mills on Saturday, December 17. Entry is free.