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Sunday, March 2, 2014

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A Review Essay: India Psychedelic

Disclosure: Sidharth Bhatia, the author of the book, India Psychedelic:  the Story of a Rocking Generation, is one phenomenal friend. His celebrated book is making waves. Many of the bands he’s written about and the circumstances of India in the 1960s and early 1970s, I have a personal experience of…because I grew up in Bombay. And as he says, many of us just wanted out from a hopeless situation. I was certainly one of them: Quit India in the early 1970s to make a life in the USA.

What Sid writes about and clearly declares is about a sliver of the population in the cities he includes. Nice thing he is not apologetic about it. He simply talks about the westernized lot, a segment that was and still continues to be dismissed as somehow not Indian, out of touch with the real India. Fact is they were in touch with the world, which people in the political and bureaucratic regime recognized only in 1991, when India was forced to open up for pecuniary reasons.

Sid’s book, above all, is a story of Bombay’s cosmopolitan culture. Only in that wonderful city you had access to the global mainstream, halting and stilted though it was. Globalization first happened in Bombay. As an example, I grew up in Juhu’s Theosophical Colony, going to a school founded by Maria Montessori, the Italian educationist, whose theories on child development were very influential the world over.

Growing up in Juhu and later in Byculla Bridge, I imbibed Western music. My early memory is of the Doris Day song, “How Much is the Doggie in the Window.” Beyond that, mercifully, there was Bill Haley and The Comets…I saw the film “Rock Around the Clock” at Shree Cinema in Mahim off of Cadell Road; then Elvis and Pat Boone and Cliff Richard. And Tony Brent, the old Byculla boy of Portofino fame.

But this is before Sid’s story, which really begins in 1962 after The Beatles’ first single “Love Me Do” in 1962. I remember going to a movie in Regal Cinema in 1964. The trailer was a short film called “The Beatles Come to Town.” The music seared my teenage soul. Soon after, I went to Rhythm House and asked if they had any Beatles…they didn’t. 
The bands that played in Bombay through the 1960s didn't really do the Fab Four…heard more of The Rolling Stones, Gerry and The Pacemakers, Herman’s Hermits, The Animals. Doesn't surprise me…was hard to play The Beatles with their complicated chords and their incredible harmony. Tell the truth…from 1964 to 1967, I never heard a band play The Beatles.

A legendary group in Bombay that Sid mentions is Reaction. One of my drilled-in memories is a plate of “potato chips” (aka French fries) slathered with Dipy’s pumpkin ‘tomato’ sauce and a coke at Venice on any given afternoon...listening to them do The Rolling Stones. All, I may add, was a little more than rupee a piece for the four of us who shared the fries and had individual cokes. We thought we were the cool crew. In the event, as Sid’s book affirms, we were totally that…cool, except we couldn't afford shades.

There is a reference in Sid’s book also to Jimmy Dorabjee. In 1968, I went to Simla with my parents. Didn’t like to go anywhere with my parents except I had never been north and the town, I thought, was cool; it gave its name to the legendary “Beat Contest,” in which selected bands did their stuff and got prizes. Met Jimmy performing at Davico’s, Bob Dylanesque: with shades, denim jacket, a harmonica around his neck and playing Dylan on his guitar. “The Times,” he sang” “are a-changing.”

What I did not know until later was that Simla referred to the cigarette brand, not to the town. In fact, these contests, as Sid writes in his book, were held in Bombay’s Shanmukhananda Hall in the conservative neighborhood of Matunga. I was once part of the audience there and was reminded of it when in a small private university in America I attended a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young concert a few years later
In Ahmedabad, in the mid 1960s, there was surprisingly a huge rock scene. Good bands, great music, sad technology. In Baroda, years later, we formed an event management company…as engineering students…that brought the bands from Ahmedabad (surprise!) and made some good money from organizing the concerts. We were four of us…it was the late sixties…and we made more money each event than we got from home in three months.

Beyond that, after I left Bombay reluctantly for Baroda, my girlfriend, now my wife, and I attended jam sessions in Havmor restaurants in Ahmedabad and in Baroda. New Year’s Eve I always went to Ahmedabad to the dance at the Rotary Club Hall where sometimes Scandal, sometimes the Xlents and most times Purple Flower sang.

Finally, for my friend Sid, who wrote this excellent book and made a thought-provoking presentation at the Oxford Book Store in Connaught Place, I want to agree the rock scene in the 1970s was ebullient but grim…peopled as it was by PLUs. My wife asked why there was no reference to Goans rockers in his book. Fact is, and she knows this, the Goans introduced rock music to Bollywood…and in the end made more money than the bands, plus gave us Hindi music to rock by.