The opening song of Suyasha Sengupta aka Plastic Parvati’s autobiographical debut album, Songs About Lovers, ends with the line “The best is yet to come”. The prescience of the words, in hindsight, is striking. This January, she won the Toto Music Award, beating Delhi’s Dhruv Visvanath and Bengaluru’s Akrti in the finals. Straight Outta Coshba, from the debut album, was one of the two tracks she had sent in her application.
With the win, Plastic Parvati joined a club that comprises some of the hottest Indian musical talent, such as rapper Prabh Deep, singer-songwriter Prateek Kuhad, electronic artist Disco Puppet and the band Peter Cat Recording Co. The 27-year-old from Kolkata is pleased at her achievement – she won over 14 other shortlisted contestants from around India – but remains unsentimental. She believes that when the independent music space is just “a bubble of 100 people in Mumbai”, there is “no scene” to be considered a part of.
“Do independent musicians even make money?” Sengupta wondered aloud, sitting in a cafe on Kolkata’s Park Street. “Apart from a tiny bubble, most indie musicians have a day job. To get bookings every year or do gigs every week, one needs to bring out fresh material all the time. A scene is a scene if it’s financially sustainable in the long run. It is if you play sessions in Bollywood.”
Her no-holds-barred style of speaking is mirrored in the rugged honesty and vulnerability of her music. Plastic Parvati, her solo project, emerged out of Sengupta’s urge to musically express her individuality. It embodies the earnestness of 1990s grunge rock while being an out-and-out electronic act. This is in contrast to her previous avatar as the singer for Ganesh Talkies, whose boisterous music punched Bollywood kitsch with rock, pop and electronica.
“She played her song You Don’t Care on her guitar a couple of times at my home [in 2016],” recalled music producer Miti Adhikari. “I found it brilliant and asked her if she has more.” Sengupta landed up later at Adhikari’s home with about 30 scratches of music – a lyric, a guitar strain and a drum beat, for example. Adhikari must have been impressed. The veteran producer, who worked with the likes of Nirvana, Foo Fighters and James Blake before returning to Kolkata in 2013, took Sengupta under his wing and fine-tuned what became Songs About Lovers.
The eight songs in the album that are now mainstays of Plastic Parvati’s live performances – some aggressive and fast, others moody and slow – revolve around mental health, gender, sexuality and lovers. The opener, Straight Outta Coshba, is named after the South Kolkata locality Sengupta lives and makes her music in.
Two contrasting examples of Sengupta’s musical universe are the songs, Floatation Device and Head. The bittersweet Floatation Device, cloaked in carnal warmth, has Sengupta wistfully singing of a torrid love affair. (“Stubble on your face, I trace, with my eyes closed. / We sleep like veteran lovers, under the covers. Familiarity feels like an overdose”). In Head, a harder electropop track, Sengupta self-deprecatingly wonders if she is good enough for her partner. (“Am I too young for you? Maybe too old for you?”).
“I asked if she is sure about releasing the songs,” said Roheet Mukherjee, Sengupta’s close friend and the bassist of Ganesh Talkies. “Not many would have the courage to write such songs, release them as an album, and finally perform them live.” Isn’t it difficult to present her inner life without inhibitions to an audience that can be judgemental? “Not really,” she said. “These were emotions I needed to flush out of my system. The older I get, the less I care about what others think.”
When Sengupta was younger, she would always try to be “one of the boys”. She was the lone woman in her first band Pseudonym, which she joined a decade ago, when she was in school. Mukherjee, who was in Pseudonym as well, left the band with Sengupta and formed Ganesh Talkies. There too, she was the only woman. “I’d try to be this manly cool chick carrying her gear and holding her own with the boys,” Sengupta said.
But now, she feels more comfortable with her femininity, she says, which shows in her songs. “Earlier, I’d nod or move my head away during locker room talk,” Sengupta said. “Now, I call them out because unless you teach boys what is right and wrong, they won’t realise.” As Plastic Parvati, Sengupta conducts workshops for young boys and girls, in which she discusses gender and sexuality and how to talk about them without hesitation.
“Porn is the most common answer when I ask these kids where they get their info from,” said Sengupta. “What could be more alarming than that?” For Songs About Lovers, she trawled the internet for material related to how women interact with sex and was startled to find what was passed off as women’s pornography. Finally, she found inspiration in Anais Nin’s erotic literature.
“Young girls looked up to, and men lusted after, figures like Madonna and Britney Spears, who were just manufactured role models objectifying themselves,” she said. “Where are the women honestly talking about what it means to be women, in music?”
Sengupta’s complaint has roots in her childhood inspirations that include 1990s rock acts like the all-woman feminist punk act Bikini Kill – acts that largely had women writing songs focusing on women’s issues. Growing up in a “typical Bengali household”, where Rabindra Sangeet and Nat King Cole were the musical staples, Sengupta tuned in to harder music. “A metalhead cousin had brought a CD of Nirvana’s In Utero, which blew me away,” she recalled. “From there, I discovered stuff like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden [and] Hole. Honestly, the ideal situation for me is playing guitar in a grunge band and singing.”
Sengupta estimates there must be 10 women for every 100 men performing in the Indian independent music scene today. This occasionally leads to patronising encounters. “Every time, at some gig, I am trying to set up my gear properly,” she said. “And some random guy comes from nowhere and starts fixing the amp with a ‘here let me show you how to do it’ attitude. Then, they message online and tell me how to sing. ‘Your voice is nice, why don’t you sing like Amy Lee [the Evanescence vocalist]?’ Why would I? That’s the most boring thing to do.”
“Being brazenly hit on is not even problematic,” she continued. “But what do you do when musicians you looked up to get sleazy and try to cop a feel at after-gig parties? You can’t have your guard down at any point.”
Personal but darker
How does an artist like Plastic Parvati stand out when new players are mushrooming in the electronic space every day? The low cost of producing music from laptops, and consequently, the low rates at which such acts can be booked for gigs is good news for Indian electronic music. But how does one separate the wheat from the chaff? “This is an issue with any genre,” Sengupta said. “Ultimately it boils down to whether you have anything new to say or you are just riding the wave.”
One of her pet peeves is the surging popularity of hip-hop. “There’s just so much hip-hop now,” she said. “Everyone’s an emcee and a beatmaker.” She is all about championing her peers from the local scene, and recently collaborated with a local electro-hip-hop act, Park Circus. “I don’t relate to gully,” she said. “What is gully’s relation with me being in Kolkata? Kidderpore rap is just as legitimate,” Sengupta said, referring to a nascent hip-hop scene in the city’s streets.
Meanwhile, she continues to work on her second album, which she promises will be “darker and more personal”. This album, Adhikari feels, will finally set her free from being known as “The Ganesh Talkies vocalist”. Sengupta was selected to attend an electronic music talent programme in Berlin in 2018 as part of the Goethe Institut’s Border Movement project. The experience, Adhikari says, helped Sengupta “become a more competent electronic musician and [she] will need me less this time around.”
Sengupta’s songlets, as she calls them, are available on her SoundCloud and Instagram profiles. They give a peek into what lies in store in Plastic Parvati’s future. The sounds are certainly grimier and the lyrics gloomier than the tracks in Songs About Lovers. In one of them, the lyrics go: “I sing pretty songs about boys and stuff” while “my country is a wasteland / my country is a hell”.
“My songs observe me and my immediate surroundings,” she said. “And they make me unhappy. Though I find Kolkata relatively safer compared to the rest of the country, which has been gripped by madness, even Kolkata has begun to change. And as an artist, I can’t help but take a stand.”