Rock and rockers are better when they are heard than read; yet India Psychedelic attempts to record the stories of a rocking generation.
From among the 11 chapters — standalone yet seamless — that comprise India Psychedelic: The Story of a Rocking Generation, there is one titled ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ that tells the story of a Calcutta that was; in its pages, Park Street — the go-to spot for cool and the gang — sparkles and dazzles with style and seduction; the chapter also traces the growth and the going-away of the Anglo-Indian community that once formed the nucleus of the entertainment industry of the 60s in Calcutta... the story tugs at your heart for it is as much about life as it is about loss!
In its entirety, India Psychedelic is a lot like that; in its attempt to trace the story of a generation of rockers (in India) in the 60s and 70s, the book overall is really a celebration of a life and of a generation that was; the book’s recurring refrain is a sense of the bygone, its riff, nostalgia...
The book is also an effort to happily meld form and content. Designed to resemble a coffee table book — square in size — with an LP record-like motif that displays page numbers, Bhatia employs a form he knows best — reporting and writing. As a journalist with years of experience under his belt, Bhatia is a chronicler — sieving through piles of material and hand-picking a selection of individuals and beat groups whose stories are worth reckoning, are meaty, and deserve to be recorded. In attempting to re-tell their stories — many fledgling but almost all fascinating — Bhatia allows us to sample and savour the Boho way of life vicariously but more importantly, the book is also an indicator of the existentialist angst of a generation. “For urban Indian youngsters,” Bhatia writes, “growing up in the restrictive economic and social atmosphere of socialist India, the hippies were a novelty and represented a kind of rebellious attitude they had never seen before... Hippies, anti-war protests, student riots, counter-culture: it was a heady time and there was no way Indians could remain untouched.”
The stories that sparkle are stories of norm-defying youngsters, inspired by Dylan and the Beatles, opting out of the comfort and shelter of their rich homes, setting out to Calcutta or Mumbai to pursue a passion — music — and with it, taste all its heady accompanying condiments — grunge, drugs, and a hippie way of life! The stories of people also allow us insights into the many by-products of this sub-culture — beat festivals, magazines for the urban youth, local versions of the legendary Woodstock festival and other such urban legends.
The book also presents an opportunity to meet some familiar names who once wore rockers’ hats or were in some way connected to the its culture. There’s a mention of Siddharth Basu, who volunteered at an event that organised Pastorale, a winter festival that was a local version of Woodstock in Delhi. There’s a fascinating story of a young sarod player, Amjad Ali Khan, who was invited to play at the same venue as rockers at a Woodstock festival replica in Pune. Legend has it that Khan was apprehensive about being asked to play at an event full of rockers. “In the end,” Bhatia narrates, “he (Amjad Ali Khan) was delighted because he got a fantastic response. Everyone heard him in pin-drop silence.”
Personally, among the most exciting of stories is one where the legendary Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin performed impromptu at Bombay’s “grungy and grubby” Slip Disc, a disco set up by Ramzan Patel and housed within walking distance of the posh Taj Mahal hotel. The story goes that in October 1972, when the two musicians visited India, stayed at the Taj Mahal hotel and finding its in-house disco — Blow Up — very “dull”, headed to the more happening Slip Disc down the road. The security guard, the story goes, was reluctant to “let them in because he was under orders to keep out hippies and suchlike, but Yusuf Gandhi, a musical events organiser, felt there was something familiar about them. When the visitors gave him their names, Gandhi’s suspicions were confirmed and he eagerly let them in. Page, taking in the hash-scented air, reportedly lay down on a bench and said, ‘Back to sanity at last’.”
Unfortunately though, as Bhatia himself writes, a lot has been lost in time; rockers have moved on to assume other, perhaps more, lucrative careers, and the lack of documentation and recording has forced us to rely most on people’s memories and their attempt at recounting them. Which is why it is worth acknowledging the creation of India Psychedelic — from an archival perspective, books like these are the need of the hour.
Except the book is a tad too staid and doesn’t really capture the wild headiness of rockers and the world they inhabited; some things, like they say, are better when they are heard than read!