In The Shoe by Gordon Legge, a novel about a pop music fan in Scotland in the 1980s, Archie, the central character, remarks: “How could people get so worked up about relatives and cars when there were records? Records cut so much deeper.” The folks lined up outside Shanmukhananda Hall in Bombay for the Simla Beat contest would have agreed. The year was 1971, the beats were steady and revolution was around the corner.
It’s not like the young folk who’d gathered at 10 in the morning were not in tune with the growing pains of a newish republic; there was no way to ignore the socialist regime they lived under, the lack of consumer choices, whether it was soap or the music on the radio. But in the cities and urban pockets of the 1960s and ’70s India, there was a sound so big, a rhythm so strong and heavy, there was no escape from the freedom it offered.
Sidharth Bhatia’s India Psychedelic begins after The Beatles released their first single PS I Love You in 1962. It wasn’t long before Beatlemania made its way to India, copycat bands mushroomed all over, and if the Fab Four weren’t headed to these shores, no problem sir, none at all — The Trojans in Bangalore, The Jets in Bombay, The Cavaliers in Calcutta were more than capable of playing the latest hits, just be prepared to let your hair down. By the time Led Zeppelin, Santana, Jimi Hendrix came to the scene, bands such as The Savages and Atomic Forest were ready and so was the Junior Statesman, India’s answer to New Music Express. They were not only going to make the music they liked, they were going to talk about it too, snappy and in vivid colour.
Bhatia’s nostalgic narrative doesn’t gloss over the personal or financial hardships, the famines and wars. But the urban music scene, mostly made up of middle class young folk, was removed from it all — the sounds were about forming an identity at a time when the world at home and outside was in frenzy. Music was a way out for those who could afford to look away — till there came a time when they couldn’t. But before the bad moon rose, musicians like Biddu, Asha Puthli, Jimmy Dorabjee, Arvid Jayal (whose chord sequences were corrected by Cat Stevens himself) had their moment in the sun.
This isn’t the last word on India’s rock scene of the time, but it possibly is one of the first. What we like about a particular genre of music says more about us than the artistes we are talking about. Our choices are reflective of who we are and sometimes, who we want to be. As somebody who spent his formative years in that period and watched the scene grow, up close and personal, Bhatia is revisiting a simpler time, almost trying to relive the innocence of growing up in young India. The book wouldn’t have been possible without the internet, almost all of the members from different bands in India migrated to the US, Australia, the UK, and Bhatia spent several months locating them across the globe. A handful remain in India and some of them like Nondon Bagchi in Calcutta, Susmit Bose in Delhi, Lou Majaw in Shillong and Vispi Siganporia in Ahmedabad, are still going strong. Cities too, have changed — Calcutta’s Park Street and King’s Circle in Bombay are no longer what they used to be.
But looking through the sepia-tinted photographs and newspaper cuttings about the scene then brings it all back in a rush, even for those who weren’t around then. Bhatia is telling the story about our beat generation, and there’s nothing left to do but smile and sway.