When Pam Crain died last week, she took a larger part of Calcutta’s cultural history with her than she could have imagined. She reigned in an era in which the fin de siecle Raj legacy jostled uneasily against the grim pall of decline that subsumed the city from the late seventies. Till then, Calcutta had been the kind of cosmopolitan catchment area only vibrant commerce and the globe-girdling British empire could have created. Britons, Baghdadi Jews, Armenians, Parsis, Marwaris, Punjabis, Keralites, Tamilians, Bengalis, Brown Sahibs, Chinese, Anglo-Indians, Iranians, Nigerians, and even American Marines were part of an eccentric, ecletic social whirl that converged on, but was by no means confined to, Park Street. It was a culture that was unabashedly western, of course, but coexisted comfortably with the rich vein of Indian theatre, movies, dance and song that flourished alongside (yes, Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak were making their films at the same time and crowds flocked to the annual Dover Lane concerts of Indian classical music). But it was unique to Calcutta: slightly Flower Power in its proclivities, deliciously risqué. And Pam, impossibly hot, was its uncontested diva.
Like her, there were scores of artistes performing in the city boasting talent way ahead of the times for India. Pam, in a slinky black dress and blonde ponytail, belted out standards accompanied by Braz Gonsalves on sax and Louis Banks on keyboards every night at Blue Fox. A few restaurants down, Usha Uthup (or Iyer as she was then) sat on a bar stool at Trinca’s to rest a slightly game leg, dressed in full-sleeved shirt and trousers and flowers in her hair and created a sensation with her smoky voice. At Mocambo nearby was precocious Little Desmond, a creditable copy of Donny Osmond, and many others.
But away from the Park Street epicentre, in the college and club grounds and theatres you could hear the rock music of Great Bear with Devdan Sen and John Brinand or Dilip Balakrishnan’s peerless group High (the drummer Nondon Bagchi still plays in a group in what is now Kolkata, as does bassist Lew Hilt). Later, there was Jayshree and her husband Gyan who fronted for a band called Sugarfoot (it went through several avatars thereafter) and a Parsi singer whose name I forget with a voice like Freddie Mercury.
But they were the last of that world. The Left Front’s preoccupation with the villages from where it derived its powers thanks to its land reform plus growing labour militancy, a legacy of the Naxalite violence, ensured that the big business that gave the city its personality exited in quick time. Changes in forex and company laws drove away the storied managing agencies and plantation companies along Clive Street, and Calcutta’s global links withered.
In some ways, Pam’s life reflected those changes. Entirely self-taught, her voice developed over the years the versatility and range that jazz singing demands. She briefly married an expat working in a British company in the throes of its terminal decline, and she, with her abundant talent, was ill-suited to the restrictive life of the Company Wife. In those years, people remember her singing to lunch-time crowds on Park Street and begging her audience not to tell anyone she’d been there!
But already, the times were a-changing. Usha, whose rendition of Fever outdid, in my humble opinion, the popular Peggy Lee version by miles, moved on to a different kind of act. Brinand and Sen had emigrated long ago, Balakrishnan died tragically young, Jayshree and Gyan remained ageing standard bearers in a city where that life was, increasingly, elsewhere. The Mercury sound-alike went off, I heard, to sing jingles in Bombay.
Too young to frequent Blue Fox in Pam's heyday, I heard her sing in gigs around town after Banks and Gonsalves had headed to Bombay, where more money and brighter lights beckoned. This was an era before electronics could correct vocal defects and I was amazed at Pam’s virtuosity. Someone uploaded on YouTube a song she sang called No Amount of Loving from an album called Raga Rock with the Braz Gonsalves 7. Complete with the scratchy background sound of a much-played vinyl record it captures her original talent (not to forget Braz's cool sax).
The last time I heard Pam was in the late eighties at the American Centre, which ran a splendid informal jazz club to which annual membership cost a princely Rs 10. She was on the programme for the evening -- older now, slightly raddled, but still interesting with improbably strawberry blonde hair, magenta lipstick, pedal pushers and stilettoes. She was, she announced, going to sing Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, the Charlie Mingus number. It is a fiendishly difficult song with its oblique tonality, and I wondered if Pam would manage. Did she!