How India's 1960s Psychedelic Rock Revolution Owes Simla Menthol Cigarettes & Other Short Stories

How India's 1960s Psychedelic Rock Revolution Owes Simla Menthol Cigarettes & Other Short Stories

The period was of the late ‘60s & the early ‘70s. The Beatles and Elvis Presley crooned their way into world consciousness, the masses stood up against big powers and people strolled the streets with flowers in their hair. And tucked away in little pockets of India, were young musicians who remained anything but untouched, like one would have expected, by the sweeping craze. Some were dreaming, some were letting go while others almost succeeded in creating a mimicry of the aural trend, hoping for a grand welcome.

The Combustibles
The Combustibles

In his nouveau chronicle, ‘India Psychedelic’, journalist and author Sidharth Bhatia tells the tale of an India that grappled with changes of national interest through the fates of some young musicians of the generation. Their only preoccupation? Creating sounds the country hadn’t heard before. Not altogether dissimilar from the alternative music scene in the country today. We caught up with him to talk everything from the era, the music and the book, to the most important question of them all—just how much has India changed?

In conversation with Sidharth Bhatia:

I. What made you write a book on the rock music of a lost generation?

I had this kind of idea (very vaguely) in my subconscious for a long time. See, I’m a journalist by training, and by profession and we in India are very poor on our recent history. Say you want to know about the Indian Political History of the late 60’s-early 70’s, the information is available out there on google and Wikipedia, which is no way to read up on history. So maybe this consciousness was always there that there is a need to write something, although I never did anything about it.

Then in 2011, I wrote a piece for Timeout on Led Zeppelin coming to Bombay India, and playing a half an hour set in a disco. That got a tremendous response, got circulated all over Facebook and the internet, with many people actually referring it to me and having me point out that it was I who wrote it.

Somebody also put it up on a site saying it was the best piece on Led Zeppelin that they had read in a long time, which is when I realised that there was a strong buzz. There was a buzz about retro, about nostalgia. Somewhere this idea sunk into my head that why not marry these two ideas and write a book on the history of India.

II. The book has largely been marketed as a chronicle/ history of Music in India in that particular era though?

See, a lot of history was going on during this period; t wasn’t just the rise of music. The idea was to combine these two, and come up with a socio cultural history which talks about the nostalgic aspect. People who are now in their 50’s and 60’s read this and say, “Hey, cool man. This is what I remember when I was in school or college”. At the same time, newer readers come up with their own own inferences. One - Bombay was a cool city; India was a cool country. And two, it is also about what was going on.

India was a poor country, we were socialistic so it furthers their understanding. The other idea was it’s the history of my time. I have tried to not put too much of me into it, but a little bit of me has crept in.

III. Your book speaks of a generation which saw the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll. Considering the changes that happened in the country, as you spoke about, how did the young listener of that time keep himself abreast with such music?

We were a closed country. We were closed in several ways and you couldn’t get a hold of certain things. You couldn’t get the records; you couldn’t get the instruments and amps which I have written about. Consumer goods were one thing, but we were also closed in some other ways.

In the early 60’s, All India Radio played nothing but classical. This created an urge amongst listeners to not only listen to English music but also Hindi film music. So Hindi film music was coming to us from Radio Ceylon, which had a transmitter so strong that it would broadcast all over, and they played Hindi film music, in mainly sponsored programmes. They also played English music so you could listen to English music from Radio Ceylon, BBC, and Voice America who were delivering directly into your small radio set.

FM wasn’t around but you had short wave radio where you could listen to all this. So you had heard it but there was a need to hear it again when you wanted to hear it. So for a certain small minority who had a friend or a cousin, or some acquaintance that went abroad. There was this instance of a chap who moved to India from abroad with 200 records and instantly became the most popular man in the city.

Then some foreign magazine would land up in the city, an older issue, and then by the late 60’s, the hippies began to come and sell records because the word had spread that if you had some records, you could make some money. So one record was heard and played over by the entire city until the chords and the words were noted down. It was a case of making do. A lot of effort went into it, after listening to a band on the radio. For example, the radio would describe a new band like The Beatles and the effort showed, because how is it that the first photograph I put, The Trojans, were modelled exactly like the Beatles.

Another funny instance was this group which played Satisfaction because they managed to get the record before anybody else and for a long time, everyone came to believe Satisfaction was their song.

IV. How was the large number of changes at the national level affecting the individual performer or the listener?

It is quite possible that one was not affected by every small thing that took place. But people were affected by changes. I will give you one small example. A simple thing like a telephone not being available affected you. If there were food shortages, it affected you. If jobs were not available, and you were a young man, you had to get a job so it affected you. You were a citizen of the time.

It was not just the unavailability of records that affected people, but as a young person, in that situation with the violence of Naxalites, the food shortages, earthquakes etc. it was impossible to be a young person and not be notified about it. But whether that played into your life in significant ways? Some did. For example, there was a band in Calcutta, a bangla band, which was very much into political and social issues. Then there was an influx of folk singers who sang about peace and harmony. A lot of students at that time were very involved in politics in a more universal way. For example, they were not fighting against the war between American and Vietnam. They sang of peace, love and brotherhood so yes, it did play into people’s songs.  


V. Do you think there is a larger enforcement of so-called ‘morality’ on the rock structure today than there was before?

I will divide the question into two, the drugs part and the morality part. Drugs did not come into the Indian scene on a regular basis until the very late 60’s when they were brought by the hippies. I am only talking about weed, or marijuana, and I’m not talking about the serious drugs like heroine. There is a chapter on drugs which says how drugs were never considered a serious issue at that time. They didn’t affect the very young, and they weren’t available on the streets. Due to the hippies bringing it in, it started spreading inward but it wasn’t such a big issue, a little bit of marijuana in the air, no one even noticed. It was very much there, but in the larger scheme of things, it was harmless. Today, drugs is a major issue, a law and order issue.

Jets Mumbai

Now, while talking about morality, it involved a lot of things. Your lifestyle, and what one spoke about. The rock scene was a small bubble. When I went to college, I had long hair, and my father thought it was completely bizarre. He was of course being a father since there was a large generation gap at that point. People wanted to drop out, travel the world and work in villages. The way things are now where you say something and somebody instantaneously reacts, people are constantly getting offended and that didn’t happen. It was a much more liberal society, compared to today.

It wasn’t a paradise, as we were much poorer, but the whole idea of living in India which was a democracy was that you could say whatever you wanted to, and discussions happened. There were elders frowning on that kind of culture but there was no weight. The country is determining, socially, to go backward. The ordinary people are not like this, it is just a conservative older generation who have a grip. Today the conservative element is on the upstream. The worst part is when violence is allowed but I was watching something where period was beeped out. And a line saying ‘What sex is this person?’ had sex beeped out! It has become completely bizarre. It wasn’t as though everyone was having drugs but it was a much more liberal set-up.

VI. Would you be able to infer then, on a comparative scale, if it is easier to have a rock career now as compared to then?

Now, of course, the competition is on a much higher scale. But I think some of the successful bands of today - they have youtube, they have itunes, they have outlets even if they aren’t money making outlets. As opposed to bands 30 or 40 years ago, who did not even have outlets, what could they do? You played and no one heard you. It is quite possible now that you put something out on itunes and it is downloaded. They have concerts, gigs, weekenders, so there is much more going on. And there might be someone willing to make an album and there might be a sponsor. Most probably, you even have an audience. If you have an audience, you will have a sponsor. That time you probably had a restaurant to perform in, slowly you had the halls, and college socials. And sometimes a concert would come up, like Simla or Sound Trophy. But almost everybody had plans for other jobs so by the time they turned 21, they pushed off to study or work. So I would say that today, the opportunities are definitely much better.


VII. If you had to suggest a couple of bands of the earlier times for people to look up to, not just for their music but also for their stories, who would those be?

Human Bondage, definitely. - Very tight, very finely organised, everyone says technically perfect. Every time I mention Human Bondage to listeners of that era, they go in unison, “Wow man, those were the dudes”.

Atomic Forest. - Very troubled, druggie as hell, people kicked out and joining, definitely a great band.

High from Calcutta - In terms of interesting stories, they’re right on top because they were breaking into a scene which was readymade, yet not prepared for what they were doing.
I would recommend to any band today to read this book not because it’s mine, but it will give them an idea about succeeding against the most incredible odds. This is not just a story of a generation but it is about perseverance.

VIII. And what’s your take on the rock scene today?

I have not heard much. I was at the Rolling Stone India gig, and I heard some incredibly talented musicians. I’m also noticing that everyone is weaving in Indian elements. I happen to be a purist and I’m not a fan of that, but that’s me.

But if you talk only of rock, I have heard bands that are outstanding. I think within the next few years, India will produce an international act. It has to, the way they are going. In a country this size with a strong music tradition, of course we have a lot of talent. I have mentioned Bhidu in the book who is an international composer and producer. And Asha Puthli too, who could have been a much bigger name.

IX. How important would you say it is to chronicle the arts as you have done in the book?

This question is very close to my heart. Firstly, it is easy to record things, but very difficult to assess or assemble things. It is extremely difficult to recognise a trend because it is too close to you. The trend has perhaps not begun or ended, and you’re standing too close to it to assess or analyse it. On the other hand, archiving and recording and writing and storing are extremely important. You go to a concert or a movie; the producers must store the archives. Because we have a 5000 year old culture, and we do not give enough importance to contemporary history. History is not stories alone, it means posters, cutting.

Tomorrow if you were to write, ten years from today, a band from this moment which might have gone international, are you sure you would get all the tickets, the stubs? Would you get every one of their posters? And for me, there were fewer photographs in the book than I would have liked. Personally, many of them came to me in very low resolution, and personally, I didn’t want visuals to dominate. For example, a poster for Blow Up, a disco at Taj, no less. When I went there to ask for a poster image, they asked me what the Blow Up was and I had to tell them it was a disco that ran for 8 years, but they had never heard of it.

Some of them, like The Combustibles or The Mustangs kept high resolution images of their posters that I was able to collect. There was a lovely photograph I had of four girls in school girl pinafores, still in school and singing pop music but the image was in low resolution. I bet you the West have such organised institutions that record and archive scripts, posters, books, audios that it is very difficult to access whatever there exists in India. It is impossible to get a good poster of Guide, which was a huge movie. We are extremely low when it comes to chronicling our contemporary history.  

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