ODE TO THE AGE OF AQUARIUS
A definitive guide to the rock musicscape of India in the 1960s and ’70s, Sidharth Bhatia’s India Psychedelic is an essential read for any music junkie
Shone Satheesh Babu Delhi
India psychedelic: The story of a rocking generation
AUTHOR: Sidharth Bhatia
Anyone attempting to trace the history of rock ’n’ roll in India has encountered a small problem: besides pseudo-hippie dinner stories of your NRI uncle, or the odd surviving newsletter from a college library, a written record of it is hard to find. For a lot of young Indians today, including journalists, tracing the origins of an Indian band that fits the description of a Western rock outfit almost always begins from the 1980s. To chronicle anything before that means relying on hearsay, and there is the iron curtain of the Emergency that seems to obfuscate matters more.
But thanks to veteran journalist Sidharth Bhatia, we can take a pretty good peek into what could be the golden epoch in the history of rock ’n’ roll in India. This may come as a surprise for many who don’t even know of such an epoch, golden be damned. But in his recently released book, India Psychedelic, Bhatia chronicles the half-lives of many a rocker in India in the 1960s and ’70s — stars in their own right in their own galaxy. More important, he also throws light on the milieu that gave rise to the many beat groups in India, their rebellious acts and aspirations in a rapidly changing country.
One unchanging aspect of music in India is that from the day it was established, Bollywood has vanquished all competition. It’s true today, and it was true back in the ’60s. Jazz was on an upswing among Indians, a leftover of the colonial era, which could be sampled if one tuned in to Radio Ceylon, Voice of America, or the BBC. But it was the rock ’n’ roll musicians who stole the thunder, according to India Psychedelic. Between 1962 and 1975, dozens of beat groups formed all across the country, led by the troubadours of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras.
In the late ’60s, tobacco company ITC launched the popular competition, Simla Beat Trophy, to popularize its menthol cigarette brand, called Simla. Beat bands were invited to perform, and LPs were cut out of the winning tracks. The Simla Beat LPs of 1970 and 1971 are still quite popular and in great demand among record collectors all over the world. They can be accessed on YouTube and, besides this book, are the best way to sample the musical styles that reigned in the ’70s in India.
But a large part of the narrative from this era is not to be found even on the Internet. In that sense, reading India Psychedelic is an absolute must for any music-lover in the country. From the scrambling romps of The Jets, to the musical geniuses Of Human Bondage, Great Bear, or The Fentones, or even the stratospheric rise of jazz and blues singer AshaPuthli, the book is packed with storied gems.
While describing the ethos that spurred youngsters across the country to take up music — often a combination of engineering student rigour and the schmaltzy prose of an amateur poet — Bhatia paints an iconic setting. Of musicians bristling with talent, and dreaming of escaping to Western shores to make it big. Of sojourns undertaken by many musicians to the Mecca of pop music back then, London, as Indians had just begun tracing back the land route preferred by hippies to come to India: Turkey-Iraq-Iran-Afghanistan-India. In fact, there is a good anecdote about a legendary musician who made it to London via a Haj ship that took him to Basra in Iraq. This same musician, Biddu, after battling huge odds, would one day launch the careers of (Pakistan’s) Nazia Hassan, and Alisha Chinai of “Made in India” fame.
Then there’s the nail-biting legend of the Calcutta-based The Flintstones, who received a letter from Apple Records, in response to their request to meet the Beatles in Rishikesh. Apple Records were looking to promote an Indian band, and they liked the sound of The Flintstones. This could have been a turning point for not just the band, but the rock scene in India as a whole. But the Lord had other plans.
The Flintstones were about to disband as two of their members had fallen for the great Indian emigration dream. But if they had said yes, who knows what course rock ’n’ roll would have taken in India?
One of the biggest stars to have come out of India from that era was undoubtedly Puthli. The present generation may hardly have heard of her, but Puthli was a roaring sensation to her peers. As far as singer-songwriters of Indian origin are concerned, she belongs at the very top of the league. Puthli was trained in Indian classical music, but she was too fabulous and provocative to be contained by a country in the throes of social change. After she wrangled a dance scholarship to New York, she became a regular fixture at Studio 54, the most infamous nightclub of the time. She hobnobbed with no less than Andy Warhol, being photographed by him and other legends like Richard Avedon, David Bailey, Mick Rock and so on, whilst also acting in movies by Louis Malle and Merchant-Ivory.
However, it was her singing prowess that brought her a global fan following. With her four-octave range, she could straddle avant-garde jazz and the blues with effortless ease. Her music was rediscovered in the noughties by hip-hop artists such as Jay Z, while some of her old stuff still sounds golden. In any case, it’s a darnn shame that India never saw her perform.
The book reveals the cosmopolitan ethos of the bands, how popular Western numbers were dismantled and covered within months of their chartbusting release by enthusiastic youngsters listening to record players on loop. Unlike musicians of today, who’re geared up in the latest accoutrements, bands had to rely on local Ahuja amps and use DIY methods to obtain reverb and echo on tape recorders. But the lack of resources didn’t imply lack of talent, as the Simla Beat LP 1970 and 1971 would readily show. In that sense, Marx was right. We are living in a farcical version of that history.
But why is it that for those of us born in the 1980s — the Gen Y, if you will, also soon to be half of India’s population – there is no recall factor when it comes to Indian rock ’n’ roll of the ’60s and ’70s. One chief reason the book cites is the persistent indifference with which mainstream media treated the beat groups. Only one publication—the Junior Statesman, edited by Desmond Doig—dedicated its pages to covering this phenomenon. Every other media house simply thumbed its nose at the antics of this ‘brash, abrasive’ lot.
This was an India still being shaped in the Nehruvian mould, with the triumvirate mess of social inequality, wars, and famines. It’s a wonder the country survived, let alone produced revolutionaries of a different kind. Bhatia captures it best in his introduction to the book:
“The 1960s and ’70s were a turning point in many ways. That was when the nation was establishing itself and it was in the 1970s that our commitment to democracy was shaken. But that was also when a new generation, unhindered by the baggage of the past and determined to be heard, burst out into the open, rebellious and eager to change the world. Rock bands were but one expression of that resolve. This was the cohort that discovered, even practically invented, the idea of the modern teenager, echoing the fashions and music but also the spirit of angst and rebellion of its counterparts everywhere in the world. Young Indians were determined to strike out on their own paths. They left their cosy cocoons to travel the world, to become leftist rebels, to sing and play music, occasionally, they also destroyed themselves, but at all times their effort was to express themselves in their own way.”