Just 240 kilometres south-east of Mumbai lies the picturesque hill station of Panchgani. An idyllic spot that draws tourists from in and around Maharashtra for quick weekend getaways, hosting a variety of adventure activities, trekking trails and natural beauty. But what too few people know is that this small part of India also houses St. Peter’s School, an all-boys boarding school where the sounds of a young Farrokh Bulsara once echoed through the hallways. We’d later know this slight, introverted, buck-toothed Parsi boy as Freddie Mercury but here, he was simply ‘Bucky.’ A nickname he wasn’t happy with given his self-consciousness about his protruding teeth so it helped to have the alter ego that went on to earn him much more acclaim as Freddie.
For many years his ‘Indian connection’ was unknown – whether it was a conscious effort on his part to keep it low key, we cannot confirm or deny – with many of his own school friends and peers unaware of the fact that this man, one of the greatest singers of our time and flamboyant frontman of Queen was their childhood friend and schoolmate. They expressed these sentiments in their conversation with Anvar Alikhan, only learning that this Freddie of incredible fame was, in fact, the same Freddie they grew up with, a few of them learning of it only after his death.
Freddie was brought up in Zanzibar, now a part of Tanzania, with his younger sister Kashmira and was eight years old when he was enrolled at St Peter’s, near his parents’ hometown of Bombay. It was here, early on, that he cemented his reputation as a natural musician, a prodigy who could play anything, as Bruce Murray recounted. Panchgani had all the makings of a creative hub that let young Freddie’s talents flourish. The school itself was inclined towards a more conservative British culture, heavy on discipline and proper etiquette. But they did recognise and encourage the creative pursuits of its students and it’s something more recent students admit carries on within its culture even today.
He had a flair for picking up tunes he just heard, a great pianist with a powerful voice. Many remember him from his younger days as a loner who somehow retained an ability to show-off when it came to creative expression. It was a dual personality of sorts – a quiet boy, good student (for the most part) and sportsman who was happiest when sitting at the piano or painting. It is said that he started off singing in the school choir where his talent was spotted by a teacher who suggested to his parents that he sign up for special music lessons to nurture his gifts.
He quickly became a favourite of the music teachers that would flow through the school – a particular admirer of Mrs. Jay’s wonderful Jazz and Mrs. O’Shea who taught him the piano and really encouraged him musically. While Indian classical and Bollywood tunes would often amount to the songs he had access to, and Mrs. O’Shea made many attempts to get him to play more Western classical music, fans will be happy to know that legend insists Freddie was always a rock ‘n’ roll boy.
In a way, you can say that it was here in Panchgani that Freddie Mercury had his first ever ‘rock show’ – a starting point that would lead him to countless venues and theatres across the world, taking him from a small audience of (screaming) schoolgirl fans at school fetes to millions of die-hard followers the world over. At 12 years old, he joined a school band started by Bruce Murray called The Hectics, as a singer, piano player and guitarist. Truly, the star of the show. They grooved to the tunes of Elvis Presley, Cliff Richards and Little Richard. “We did numbers like Yakkety Yak, Ramona, Girl of My Best Friend, Rock Around the Clock, and Tutti Frutti. We wore tight trousers, thin string ties, pointy shoes and Brylcreemed hair with big ‘puffs’, like our idols, Elvis and Cliff Richards. We really thought we were hot stuff,” Murray tells Alikhan.
Everyone who knew him could see the change in him when he was onstage – from an awkward quiet Parsi lad in person, he would transform into a confident, theatrical and commanding ‘Queen’ that ruled the stage. Even as a child he would scribble short poems and lyrics around, as his parents commented in an interview with The Telegraph. “Right from the start, Freddie was musical. He had it on his mind all the time,” recalls Mrs. Bulsara. Over the years, Freddie’s influence has spread out further than his music-dom to include LGBTQ people all over the world. In India especially, he’s grown to become one of our only queer icons. This despite the fact that his sexual orientation was never really addressed during his school days with people preferring to label him with comfortable stereotypes like ‘effeminate,’ and addressing other boys as ‘darling’. In truth, most people just saw him as a strange eclectic artist, and even according to his friends, this is probably something that he came to realise much later.
When he left school and returned to Zanzibar, a revolution was taking place. The Bulsaras fled to London where Freddie started studying graphic design. At that time, Brian May and Roger Taylor had played together in a band called Smile. Freddie was an admirer and would encourage them to be more experimental. He joined the group later in about 1970 and convinced them to change the name to Queen. He had formally adopted his new stage name, Freddie Mercury.
With Queen tribute bands, Freddie Mercury impersonators and statues around the world, he remains an icon that millions around the world look up to. It’s only a few days before his passing that he even spoke openly of his sexual orientation and HIV/AIDS, his death breaking hearts all over the world.
Today, Farrokh Bulsara remains a legend at the small Panchgani school with thousands of fans still flocking to the site as if on a pilgrimage to see the musical birthplace, of sorts, of their hero. There are even travel tours organised as a ‘Freddie Mercury in India tour’ to Panchgani and the school. He remains a legend at the school as well, where newcomers aspire to follow in the musical footsteps of the ex-student, carefully tracking his trajectory from Maharashtra to a global platform. Whether it was the fear of racism or dismissal for being of Indian descent in London, or just not something worth mentioning in his mind; none other than those close to him, and perhaps The Hectics band members and his friends could have suspected that scrawny Bucky would go down in history among the legends of English music. Not least of all for his magnum opus, Bohemian Rhapsody, one of the greatest songs and lyrical achievements of all time. Given the recent revival of his memory amidst the fanfare of the release of a film on the singer’s life titled by the same name, this little sliver of his humble history proves particularly poignant for fans who seek to piece together the marvellous mystery that was Freddie Mercury.
As sad as we were when Sacha Baron Cohen dropped out of the Bohemian Rhapsody movie, his replacement Rami Malek experienced acclaim for his performance. He brings Freddie alive in the released movie. Although it has been slammed for glossing over his sexuality, queer identity and HIV/AIDS diagnosis, the biopic makes for a good watch.
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