Sidharth Bhatia’s recent, debut book India Psychedelic fools you with its cover of crazy colours spiralling wildly around a silhouetted guitarist. If this seemed like the story of sex, drugs and rock and roll blossoming in an India barely 10 years into Independence, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Rock and roll, yes. Sex and drugs, hardly. Struggle, guts, perseverance and some wild adventures, most certainly, yes! As the book’s tagline ‘The story of a rocking generation’ prophecies, India Psychedelic unearths the roots to the nation’s independent rock culture, born in the 60s, and reaching its fullness by the mid-70s.
It drew me into decades I’d only heard stories of from my parents’ generation, of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones seeping into the nation through Radio Ceylon broadcasts, of records bummed off hippies in the Himalayas and replayed to decipher chords frequently enough to scratch their surfaces dead, of bands put together from leather police-troupe drums, smuggled guitars and political rally microphones, and most importantly, of a music sprung from an ‘in between’ generation that neither knew the struggles of Independence, nor was caught in socialist, nation-building fervour. Eager to find their own voice, they found resonance in the hipster messages of the music that was sweeping the U.K. and U.S.
Thus, Bhatia hunts down in meticulous detail the origins and growth of our first independent bands, such as Madras’ Mustangs, Bombay’s The Jets and The Savages, Calcutta’s The Cavaliers, The Flintstones and Great Bear, among numerous others. What he finds is first a poverty of our commitment to historicising popular culture; few records remain of these times for the newspapers hardly documented this easily-dismissed, ‘aping the West’, marginalised culture. Beside the stories of individual persistence to passion, Bhatia also paints a narrative that mirrors the social and cultural history of the times, of how morphing national events shaped the music locally made. On one hand, he finds songwriters vastly disjointed from the turmoils of the times, happy in the bubbles of their own making, and on the other, he finds those like Calcutta’s Gautam Chattopadhyay and Susmit Bose writing deeply political lyrics spurred by the Naxalite movements and language politics.
The book concludes in the mid-70s, where these young movements of rock are eventually bellowed out by the louder, more lucrative trumpets of Bollywood and disco music.
As with all books of history, India Psychedelic ’s relevance lies in the echoes it spills into our present. Nationwide, devoid of the backing of large music labels and marketing agents, a host of independent singer-songwriters still write consistently of our times. In Delhi, Adil and Vasundhara sing of urbanity and its Indian quirks and in Kerala, White Sugar sings of corruption and injustice, while from Darjeeling Bipul Chettri bleeds Nepali folk strains into his songs about the hill town.
If there’s one takeaway from India Psychedelic, it’s to not let the voices of this generation die unheard, once again.