If Rom hears a riff of rock music, he can tell you who played it, when, and the names of the band members. His memory includes musicals of the 1940s he had last heard as a little boy. His one big regret in life is his inability to play a musical instrument. He says if he had another lifetime, he would become a musician.
The love of music runs in his family. When Rom returned to Bombay from America in 1967 after a six-year gap, he found his kid brother Neel had dropped out of high school. Neel had taught himself to play the guitar, and spent 12 to 14 hours a day practising. He really wanted an electric guitar, and Rom, being the indulgent older brother, bought him one. Rom recalled, “It seemed like Neel’s goal was to turn the entire apartment into an amp [amplifier]. The music was loud and sometimes discordant.” I asked, “How did the family tolerate it?” “Everyone was supportive. Even Amma Doodles [Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya]. She loved the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and she realized Neel was an aspiring artist. A film producer, Akhtar Hussain, and his family lived in the top and ground floors. Akhtar’s son, Arif, was a singer who hung out with Neel. So that family didn’t say anything. But other neighbours complained.”
Neel and Arif played in a band called ‘Joint Collaboration.’ In 1971, they organized a rock concert in Bombay to raise funds for the World Wildlife Fund with Granddaddy Harin playing master of ceremonies. A year later, Neel formed a band called ‘100 Ton Chicken’ with bass guitarist, Keith Kanga. Later, rechristened ‘Atomic Forest,’ the band performed at a tiny discotheque called Slip Disc, behind Radio Club in Bombay, and grew to have a devoted following. Neel was called ‘the Jimi Hendrix of India’ by the media.
I think Rom lived the musician’s life vicariously through Neel. They may be half brothers and separated by a 10-year age difference, but they are as tightly bonded to each other as identical twins. Rom wrote lyrics for the band, but none was set to score. Here’s a sample -“Hermits pound at gravestones on that road/ Heads with minds oozing out everywhere/ I hitched a ride on a careening time-toad/ Salvation through a malevolent stare.Back to a sliding aluminum station/You know that you’ve been here before/Climb off the toad and get congratulation/You’ve made it; you’ve been through the core.”
Was it pretentious? Was I too boringly straight to understand this alternate universe of hallucinations? When Rom saw me leafing through the file of neatly type-written lyrics, he said, “That’s all nonsense.” However, Neel was generous with his praise, “They were really nice words. But at that time, we were not interested in doing melodies; we were more interested in jamming and playing our instruments.”
An album of vintage Atomic Forest, ‘Obsession 77,’ was released in January last year by Los Angeles-based Now-Again Records. Since it’s the only psychedelic rock album ever produced in India, it generated a buzz among music collectors. A terrible scratchy recording of Neel playing ‘Foxy Lady’ at a friend’s home provides a mere hint of his virtuoso. Have a listen on YouTube. A reviewer at thestoolpigeon.co.uk says, “I could name probably 100 current rock bands who would love to be able to reproduce Neel Chattopadhyaya’s warm, fuzzed-up guitar sound.”
I asked Rom, “Why the name Atomic Forest?” “Oh, I came up with the name. Obviously there had to be something related to the jungle and ‘atomic’ seemed to capture the flavour of the time.”Until then, I hadn’t realized Rom had left a mark on India’s rock music scene.
Nearly 40 years after the lyrics were first written, Neel is now setting them to music. If Atomic Forest ever stages a comeback, Rom may have a music career in this lifetime.