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Pop psychology

An exhaustively researched book pays tribute to a bunch of brave 'self-contained, westernised' Indians who kept rocking through the gloomy '60s and '70s

Soutik Biswas 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Pop music was breaking new ground in the West, but it was tough being a performer — or fan — in India. Equipment was basic, import duties were stiff, the stodgy All India Radio turned up its nose at pop, and the domination of Bollywood was complete. The British New Music Express bemoaned in 1973 that “putting together a rock band in India, bless their chapattis, is much akin to bashing one’s head against a brick wall.” Rock’s freshly-minted rebelliousness did not impress many at home. The venerable and popular Illustrated Weekly of India ran cover stories with headlines like: ‘Attitudes of Indian Youth Today/Down with God, Country, Parents, Everything’.

Sidharth Bhatia’s book is a heart-felt tribute to a bunch of brave Indians who kept rocking through the miserable ’60s and ’70s. It’s a breathless romp through a time when Indians largely lived gloomy lives.

All was not lost, though. There was a music contest, named after a menthol-tipped cigarette called Simla, which promised “heart-throbbing beats of the top beat groups from all over India”. Radio Ceylon, BBC and the Voice of America compensated for the absence of pop music on the local airwaves. Beat groups — bands with three guitarists and a drummer — thrived in the cities of Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Bangalore.

They had names like Fentones, Purple Flower, Eruptions (from Cuttack!), Dinosaurs, Pop-pets, Silencers, Combustibles, Frustrations Amalgamated, Negotiable Instruments, Genuine Spares and WAFWOT (which stood for What a F@#$%^& Waste of Time). While some shone, others ranged from the indifferent to incompetent.

Bhatia’s history of Indian pop is sometimes loaded with a lot more information than a reader can digest. But it is the anecdotes that make it a valuable record of what is a largely forgotten part of the history of India’s urban culture, when pop music was a form of self-expression by urban young “in the small and self-contained world of westernised Indians”.

There were the Fabulous Bartlets, an Anglo-Indian family from Mumbai with seven children, who were called India’s Von Trapps. There were hit songs with names like I Married a Female Wrestler and Love is a Mango. A Calcutta-based band called the Flintstones missed an opportunity to work for Apple Records. A Delhi-based Simon and Garfunkel clone was a duo called Sealy and Lugg who sang folk music at a disco — Sealy was the novelist Irwin Allan Sealy. Singer Susmit Bose, auditioning for a gig at Calcutta’s Trinca’s, was thrown out after he sang Richie Havens’ Freedom —“we don’t want any communists here,” growled the owners. Iqbal Singh was the Elvis Presley of Mumbai and the Haslam Brothers from Mahim were known as the local Rolling Stones. Ahmedabad-based Black Beats — which is apparently still rocking — claim to be the longest surviving band in the world after Stones. Also, believe it or not, Somalia was among the most sought after international destinations for India’s pop acts — trendy locals there thronged night clubs to listen to soul music. And there was a southern band called Great Garuda which even got an opportunity to back Ike and Turner in a Munich club.

Bhatia also recounts the visit of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin to Mumbai in October 1972, which is part of urban legend among India’s rock music fans. As he tells the story, the security at a disco was loath to let them in because they looked like hippies before a local music events organiser recognised them and took the duo in. After taking in the “hash-scented air” of the disco, Page reportedly said, “Back to sanity at last.” Plant later told JS magazine that it was a “lovely feeling when one recognises you and you can groove and do what you like”. Did they sing anything? Some said Plant sang Whole Lotta Love, others insisted they sang a “bluesy number with some jokey lines about Bombay”.

Bhatia’s hard work shows in the research. There are profiles of long-forgotten bands like Mustang, Great Bear and High, and The Savages, the top Mumbai-based act in which Asha Puthli and Remo Fernandes cut their teeth, and which put Protima Bedi as a go-go girl in a cage on stage dancing to their music. Puthli — the girl from Baroda who made it to Manhattan’s Studio 54, got photographed by David Bailey and Andy Warhol and claimed that she gave Warhol the idea of the Stones’ famous Sticky Fingers zipper cover art — leads a pithy and warm tribute to a handful of women rockers.

There are few much-deserved pages on JS, India’s first magazine for the young somewhat “elitist and disconnected from the larger concerns of the country”. It had funky covers, popular blow-ups, good writing and spawned a generation of fine writers. Germaine Greer apparently refused to pose in a bikini for its photographer saying “it’s a political thing”.

There’s a fair bit of rock n’ roll, no sex and a bit of drugs in Bhatia’s telling of our pop history. He recounts some of the drug-addled times after the arrival of the hippies. At a Mumbai concert in 1972 “the air was thick with smoke from scores of spliffs and beer bottles were being emptied with regularity” even as Amjad Ali Khan took the stage and a lungi-clad emcee asked the crowds to behave. A newspaper report later called the concert a “poppy plantation on fire” and reported that most singers “staggered on the stage high on pot and quite drunk”. Not surprisingly, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh demanded a probe into the “hippie event organised by the CIA and missionaries”. Some things haven’t changed.

Soutik Biswas is India Editor with BBC News’ website

Sidharth Bhatia
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 153
Price: Rs 599

First Published: Sat, April 26 2014. 00:06 IST