Journalist Sidharth Bhatia on his new book “India Psychedelic”, which tells the story of India’s earliest rock bands
The names of bands such as The Fentones, The Jets, The Mustangs, Human Bondage and Atomic Forest might fall on deaf ears today, but in the heady years of the '60s and '70s, they blazed a trail of rock music in the country. In his new book “India Psychedelic”, journalist Sidharth Bhatia tells the largely forgotten story of India's 'beat groups', who sought and found inspiration in the sounds of the West. Apart from the stories of these bands, the author also focuses on the venues, festivals and a handful of dedicated publications that sprang up around them, painting a picture of India’s emergent youth culture.
Excerpts from an interview:
Can you talk about the beginnings of the book? When and how did you decide to write it?
I had always felt there was a book to be written about the 1970s, when India was going through some very tumultuous times. That was a very significant period in our history.
I grew up in the 1970s and it was a different India, one of shortages, of socialism, of a lot of internal and external turmoil and yet filled with idealism among the youth. We were the earliest generation to be born after independence and we wanted to express ourselves in our own way. I thought there was a story waiting to be told.
I was not getting a hold on how to write the book. In 2011, I wrote an article on the visit of the famous band Led Zeppelin to a club in Bombay and it got a tremendous response—I felt I had got a good device to explore youth culture and through that, write about those times.
How did you go about gathering the material for the book?
Writing the book posed two very distinct practical challenges. Getting in touch with the musicians and getting archival material, including photographs etc. The musicians were spread all over the world, and most of them had slipped into obscurity. They were not stars or anything, so no one knew where they were; this was even more true of those who played in the mid-1960s. In fact people didn't even remember the names of the bands. But someone knew someone who had heard of something and people passed on these leads. Facebook was a good way to unearth some of them. Often they would wonder why anyone was interested in their life or their stories.
Getting old pictures and images was very difficult. Forget individuals, even institutions did not have good archives. A friend of a friend had a collection of old JS (Junior Statesman) magazines and old Delhi Dateline copies and she handed them over to me, just like that. The musicians had some pictures, usually in low-res, so these had to be cleaned up. But usually what I heard was, “I had pictures, but misplaced or lost them.” It was heart breaking.
What according to you were the greatest triumphs and failings of these bands?
You have to see the bands in the context of what India was in the 1960s and ‘70s. It was very difficult to get simple things like musical instruments, amplifiers, even LPs of foreign bands. There were hardly any venues and promoters and of course there was no money. And yet bands proliferated all over the country, from conservative Madras to rocking Bombay and cosmopolitan Calcutta. Bangalore was another place which saw the emergence of pop and rock groups, as was Shillong. It was an all India thing.
I wouldn’t call them failures, but they certainly had challenges—there was not much original music and that could be because no record company was interested in producing albums. But if you hear some of the original music of the times, you know these guys could have gone places.
Apart from the bands of the 60s and 70s, the book, through music, also chronicles the youth culture of the times in different cities. What was the scene like in Delhi?
Delhi had a very rocking crowd. The colleges held youth festivals where bands from all over India participated. It had its own groups of course, like Savage Rose and WAFWOT. But Delhi also threw up many folk singers who modeled themselves on American singers, like Susmit Bose (Pete Seeger), Arvid Jayal (Bob Dylan) and (Allan) Sealy and Lugg (Simon and Garfunkel). They were big on campuses. Delhi also had discos like Cellars and Wheels. You must remember that hippies were passing through Delhi at the time and they influenced a lot of the younger crowd of the time.
What, for you, would be a desirable outcome of this book?
I would like that we start taking our recent, post-independence history more seriously. There should be more books and films about our nation’s growth after 1947. What do youngsters know about the Emergency? Do we know what led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid?
Younger readers of my book have told me they were amazed to know what India was like at the time, when one had to wait for years to get a telephone or food was not available in abundance. And they have been surprised nobody told them.
Of course, I will be delighted if there is a revival of music from that period. I hope some record company takes it upon itself to bring out records of Indian groups of the time. It was a great time and we are still enjoying that music today. We should celebrate that.