The untold story of Indian rock music, retold

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Guitarist Konarak Reddy, one of the veterans of Bangalore's Music Strip days, performs in Bangalore

Guitarist Konarak Reddy, one of the veterans of Bangalore’s Music Strip days, performs in Bangalore

The history of Indian rock music is a largely untold one. This is a subculture that has been mostly ignored by the mainstream media though, it emerges, its antiquity in India dates back to the early 1960s when it attempted to sing in tune with the beat that swept the West. Sidharth Bhatia has authored a new book, India Psychedelic, on this theme, which comes close on the heels of Naresh Fernandes’ Taj Mahal Foxtrot, a history of India’s jazz scene. Though I found Bhatia’s book interesting, I felt it confined itself to a narrow era – the decades of the 1960s and 1970s – and just about pays lip services to the years thereafter. My interest, on the other hand, has been focused on the 1980s and particularly the 1990s, when Internet technology paved the way for musicians and artists to assert their right to be heard sans borders. It dwells, also, on my area of interest: the evolution of the Bangalore rock music scene beginning with the Bangalore Music Strip.

This article, written for Yahoo Originals, attempts to colour in the grey areas left by Bhatia’s book, as well as etch a fresh canvas of perspective.

Full text:

In A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, Deborah Baker writes of how the preeminent Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, on an east-looking spiritual quest, sailed to Bombay in 1961. (It is another matter that Keith Richards of the world’s longest-lived rock band The Rolling Stones, in his 2011 autobiography Life, declares Ginsberg was an “old gasbag” who “sat around playing a concertina badly and making ommm sounds, pretending he was oblivious to his socialite surroundings.”) The Beats were a generation that took root in San Francisco in the early 1950s and set off a revolution in literature, performance, culture and art, and their creative voltage was fuelled by pot, mescaline, LSD and a panoply of mind-altering drugs – later the subculture of psychedelia in which Aldous Huxley, the Summer of Love, and the very experienced Jimi Hendrix leap to mind. And it didn’t take long for its reverberations to reach India, or for the counter-influences to take effect.

In 1968, the Beatles conducted their famous sojourn at Rishikesh in the company of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin stopped over in Bombay in October 1972, stayed at the Taj Mahal Hotel, and played on borrowed guitars with members of an Indian band at the Slip Disc club after reportedly negotiating with a doorman who had no idea who they were but had been instructed to keep hippies out. The last event is the flint that fires up Sidharth Bhatia’s India Psychedelic (HarperCollins, 2014), a book that disappoints on as many fronts as it delights. It’s a fast-paced telling of the story of Indian rock as Bhatia sees it from his cubbyhole in Bombay. 

Over the last few years there has been a curious groundswell of interest in the early history of Indian rock. Facebook pages, blogs and web archives are teeming with snippets, faded photographs from lost family albums, and scratchy samples remastered from ancient LPs. Bhatia has mined much of this material. His picture of the nascent ancestry of Indian rock history in the late sixties and seventies is especially fulsome: it is comically romantic to imagine our forbears in flared pants and wild hair, drawing on joints and grooving to whatever was considered groovy back then. 

The word Beat, unrelated to the Beat Generation of the United States, also described British bands with three guitars and a drummer, a popular arrangement in the early 1960s. Since upper-crust jazz ensembles had already cornered the higher-paying hotel gigs, Beat bands in big Indian cities found themselves more at home in rather plebeian nightclubs and bars – the kind that Led Zeppelin chose to play in. With kaleidoscopic names like The Combustibles, Confusion, Dinosaurs, Genuine Spares and Great Bear, they performed both covers of popular songs and original compositions. Since 1970 many of these bands participated in the Simla Beat Contest, sponsored by a cigarette brand named Simla, at Bombay’s Shanmukhananda Hall. Their music was compiled on vinyl records, a few of which survive in ancient collections. 

Then as now, bands that performed covers demonstrated skill, but those that performed original compositions invited curiosity and awe. Some toured clubs and hotels in major cities, attempting to live off the music they made. Luckier ones rode on the blessings of wealthy benefactors, cut demo records and raised enough money to break on through to the other side, taking the long, hard route to Europe where they busked, slummed about and chased the big break. 

The most successful was Farrokh Bulsara, a schoolboy in Panchgani who formed The Hectics with his school chums. Later the world would know him as Freddie Mercury and hail his voice as one of the greatest in rock-n-roll. There was Biddu (Appaiah), a Bangalore boy who started the band Trojans and eventually found his way to London where he became a songwriter and producer of note when, in 1974, his composition Kung Fu Fighting was performed by the Jamaican singer Carl Douglas and became one of the best-selling singles of all time. Deplorably, he is better remembered as an Indipop producer. There was Ramesh Shotham, drummer of the 1971 band Human Bondage who went on to learn the thavil, a temple music drum from Tamil Nadu, and became a sought-after World Music percussionist.

Psychedelic is absorbing up to this point. Then, the book loses rhythm and name-drops lamely. Bhatia’s canvas limits his exploration to the 1960s and the 1970s, so we are left on our own to understand how India’s Beat scene metamorphosed into the rock-n-roll and rock scenes of the 1970s and persisted into the 1980s. The burden of telling a pan-India story fragments the book’s historical perspective. Though Bhatia explores the vibrant Bengali rock scene in some detail, he does not lavish the same attention on the vibrant rock music movement in India’s northeast, which evolved in a microcosm from tribal musical roots watered with the influence of 19th century Christian missionaries from America and Europe. Of course, he names Lou Majaw – the Bob Dylan of Shillong – but that’s only scratching the surface.

India Psychedelic is gleaned from innumerable secondary sources and, being excruciatingly lacking in first-hand narrative, is full of dramatis personae that are unspeaking cardboard cutouts. Which is not to say the book is uninteresting. There are nuggets that Bhatia has unearthed painstakingly, possibly for the first time all in one place. To fresh eyes, India Psychedelic will appear to be an eye-opener on Indian rock. And since little formal documentation exists about most of our subcultures anyway, and since mainstream media cares little for them (the Led Zeppelin episode of 1972 was covered by only one mainstream magazine, Junior Statesman), Bhatia may even come across as a ground-breaking rock historian. 

No quarrel with that. Save that histories are contentious and invariably incomplete, and historians are partisan. My discomfort with Bhatia’s incomplete telling of this history is also oddly convenient, as my interest in Indian rock bubbles up in the very places where his account trails off. 

In 1988 I watched my first rock show, performed by a band named Shyam and The West Wind. Its frontman Shyam Sunder Damodar had been the lead singer of Frustrations Amalgamated, which had won three awards at the All India Simla Beat Contest in 1972. He finds no mention in Bhatia’s book. Similarly, Psychedelic overlooks the fact that the Bangalore music scene, which had ebbed in the aftermath of the Emergency between 1975 and 1977, received a boost with the Bangalore Music Strip in the early 1980s. It was a turning point for the city’s enervated music milieu and pioneered a fight for free expression that continued into the early part of this decade. Named after a grassy patch behind the Queen Victoria statue in Cubbon Park, the Strip was curated by Sunbeam Motha, a child of hippies and polymath guitarist of the late 1970s band Hot Rain, who died in 2009. Avant-garde musicians and well-known bands like Human Bondage performed on weekends and Bangalore’s music devotees and wannabe hippies gathered to watch. Peter Colaco, the late Bangalore chronicler, wrote about the Strip: “A mixed audience, united only by the music, listened unharassed from the fringes of the petromax lights. In semi-darkness, with snacks, drinks and ‘joints’. We used to be a free society.”

The Strip’s successor, Freedom Jam, carried the mantle into the 1990s, offering a stage for a multitude of Bangalore artists including the curiously named Bharat Mata Nach Kud Baja, Chronic Blues Band, Sarjapur Blues Band, Thermal And A Quarter, Raghu Dixit and others. After an infamous police ‘bust’ in 2001, it was wound up but re-emerged as Levi’s Sunday Jam. The sponsorship invited ridicule from many former participants but kept the scene alive.

My interest in contemporary Indian rock music was cemented with my long association with the rock group Thermal And A Quarter (TAAQ), a steward of ‘Bangalore Rock’, a self-defined label that, spelled out, stands for “non-Bollywood original music”. That laboured clarification was especially necessitated when Bollywood unleashed Rock On upon a generation that had neither heard of Woodstock nor attended Jack Black’s School Of Rock but nevertheless grew its hair, got pierced and tattooed, pulled on Metallica tees, and sighed “sahi hai yaar” when Farhan Akhtar appeared under the arc lights accessorized in a Stratocaster.

Until the late 1980s few Indian rock bands pursued original expression but for the odd ‘own composition’. Cutting an album was unaffordable even if they cared to, for recording equipment and production facilities were both substandard and prohibitively expensive. Television and radio didn’t air Indian bands. 

Ergo, Indian rock bands performed unlicensed cover versions of the western bands they idolised. In the early 1990s Calcutta’s Shiva and Delhi’s Parikrama built formidable reputations as college festival headliners performing Pink Floyd and Deep Purple note for note. It was technically illegal, but no one lost sleep over these petty transgressions. They earned a little money and local stardom. Record companies felt no threat from these well-heeled city boys (and a few girls) hung over on teen spirit. 

In 1988, Bombay’s Rock Machine, which started off as a cover band, bucked the trend and cut the first Indian rock album. Rock‘n’Roll Renegade (CBS Records) sold about 5,000 copies. A hit. MTV, then with the Star TV network, was awash with Indipop in 1992 but Rock Machine talked someone influential into broadcasting a few videos. In 1993, the band reinvented itself as Indus Creed.

Mainstream media continued to ignore Indian rock. The subculture got its mouthpiece in 1993 when Amit Saigal and Sam Lal, who had played in a 1980s Delhi band called Impact, published Rock Street Journal. The rag reported on rock performances at college festivals and mostly profiled bands from Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata, evoking disdain from rock fans in equally vibrant Chennai, Bangalore and Kochi. The magazine began to issue Great Indian Rock, an annual compilation of demo tracks by Indian rock bands on cassette. 

Playing at top-billed college festivals such as Mood Indigo (IIT-Bombay) and Oasis (BITS Pilani) offered the best opportunities for Indian bands to be seen and heard. Mumbai’s Independence Rock, started by Farhad Wadia in 1986, was promoted as a ‘rite of passage’ for Indian rock bands, though it later became more of a stomping ground for thrash-metal. Now managed by E18, a part of Network 18 Media, it has Wadia as CEO. In 1997, the founders of Rock Street Journal (later renamed RSJ) organised Great Indian Rock. Performers were not paid; the exposure was deemed incentive enough. Since 2001, when international acts came touring, Indian bands have fought tooth and nail for opening act slots. 

Prior to 1991, when the economy languished behind walls, the music fan was told without ceremony: ‘You can’t always get what you want.’ Forget imported musical instruments, which were heavily taxed as luxury items, even vinyl records, audiocassettes and CDs were hard to come by. Music piracy thrived then as now (nearly everyone owned a double-cassette deck), but live performances offered an alternative avenue for consumption. Aspiring rock stars imitated their idols but even the best form of flattery wouldn’t buy a meal ticket. A professional rock band, with a calendar chock-full of dates, was not the kind of thing you found in India.

In the late 1990s, Internet tech liquidated barriers for music-lovers. Peer-to-peer file sharing on platforms like Napster and Kazaa opened up vast archives of hitherto inaccessible music in the MP3 file format. Sharing compressed digital files between servers over fast Internet connections was a compelling alternative to investing in libraries of expensive CDs, cumbersome vinyls or Thomsun Original audiocassettes. The earliest gold-diggers were nocturnal software professionals who had access to their employers’ high-speed leased lines (and arguably no social lives). Incensed record companies launched a witch-hunt that eventually ground Napster to dust over copyright-infringement lawsuits but in years to come The Pirate Bay, Limewire and other P2P platforms flew Napster’s flag. Enterprising artists, enlightened to the reality that broadband wasn’t a synonym for an all-girl rock group, saw in it a potent vehicle for eliminating middlemen. 

Giving away music for free might have seemed ridiculous for serious musicians who had had spent a fortune on instruments, studio time and sound engineers, but some thought little of it. In our neck of the woods, the Karachi-based pop band Strings was quick to realize the potential of distributing its work digitally. Vocalist Faisal Kapadia, whom I interviewed in 2004 for rediff.com, told me that pop music of the kind his band played was one of Pakistan’s major cultural exports and piracy, for all its ills, had done it a world of good. 

“You can’t have distribution networks so strong that your music reaches your fans in all these countries,” Kapadia said. Seeding song files online allowed Strings to reach the Pakistani diaspora in the UK, the UAE, Scandinavia and India, and strengthen fan bases there. Invitations piled up, followed by the sweet jingle of cash registers.

The scene in India disillusioned Indus Creed, which disbanded in 1997. Frontman Uday Benegal and guitarist Jayesh Gandhi moved to New York and began to play the club circuit as Alms for Shanti. “We seem to be caught in a no-man’s land between world music and commercial music, in that the mainstream rock and pop labels in America would consider us too ‘world’ for commercial music and world music labels would consider us too commercial for world music,” Benegal said in a 2002interview.

That year, the duo released an eponymous album and its Hindi mirror image, Kashmakash. The puzzled and slightly dismayed fan wondered if New York had perhaps been too harsh on the boys, but it appears they were only testing the waters. “The English-speaking audience in India that listens to our kind of music is a small percentage but a large number,” Benegal told me then. “But it’s still considered a niche audience in India. Another thing you face, unfortunately, with the English-speaking crowd is that very often the anglicised Indian believes what is coming out of the West is necessarily superlative…With the Hindi speaking audience there’s a more sincere sense of connection.”

The connection didn’t endure. Neither did Alms for Shanti. Benegal returned to the scene with his side-project Whirling Kalapas with Rock Machine guitarist Mahesh Tinaikar and they put Indus Creed back together in 2010. 

Worldwide, rock music has lost the lustre it enjoyed until the 1990s. Yet, after cable television became a household fixture in 1991, MTV and Channel V unearthed an audience for old-fashioned rock (now served by VH1). Event managers such as DNA Networks, bankrolled by big hitters in the liquor lobby, flew aging rockers to India. In 2001 came Deep Purple featuring a superannuated but still luminous Jon Lord. Roger Waters, estranged from Pink Floyd and still squabbling with his mates, performed in Bangalore in 2002. Thereon it has been a deluge – Sting, Aerosmith, Elton John, Scorpions, The Rolling Stones, Mark Knopfler, Jethro Tull, Iron Maiden, Megadeth, Metallica, Santana and Guns N’ Roses have all performed in India. Nobody keeps count any more. Most of these groups played in Bangalore, capitalising on the city’s lower rates of entertainment tax – 10 percent over Mumbai’s 49 percent. 

Searching for a stage to play on, Indian rock bands continue to struggle with police harassment, moral policing and bizarre excise laws governing performance and liquor sales. This is not a new battle. 

Bangalore’s Thermal And A Quarter, born in 1996, didn’t believe in waiting for the scene. They took their DIY obsession to a pathological pitch. In 1999 they invited Bangalore to a self-organised show at Rs 30 a head to raise funds for the families of Kargil martyrs. But for a few covers, The Potatoe Junkie Concert was an all-original set that attacked politicians, corruption, the ills of cable television, and Dan Quayle (look it up). TAAQ made Rs 25,000 from gate collections and just about broke even after the donation. Encouraged, it made a trend of such independently organised shindigs with music and BYOB, offering a platform for bands and artists in Bangalore. 

The Internet was their passport. In 2004 I worked on an online distribution strategy for TAAQ’s third album, Plan B, where a new track was released every week. A custom license accompanying each free track, prepared with friends from Bangalore’s Alternative Law Forum, declared that this was Copyleft: not piracy but legitimate distribution using the very channels employed by pirates. The download counter whirred along. National Public Radio broadcast an interview with the band and the publicity generated a sudden demand for TAAQ’s music in the US. Networking with friends, the band sold CDs and digital music through an online retailer, earning a little sum in dollars that didn’t quite pay the rent but bought the occasional beer. Yet, for the record, an Indian rock band had sold music abroad, independently, without setting foot on foreign soil. It opened, more than a revenue stream, the opportunity to build an overseas fan base. In 2012, TAAQ travelled to the US and played for the first time before fans who had waited nearly a decade to see them. 

Times have a-changed. Life remains hard for musicians but they have it easier than before. Digital recording technology allows bands to get on SoundCloud the day they are formed. Even as Bollywood rocks, raps and dubsteps unfazed, led by the enterprises of AR Rahman and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, rock bands are singing unapologetically in Hindi, Bengali and Malayalam and seeking out audiences and markets in India and abroad. India’s most popular band today, critically speaking, is the Delhi-based Indian Ocean, with its distinctive folk-rock style, a colossal following and a healthy international touring calendar despite the death of long-time band-member Asheem Chakravarty and the exit of founding member Susmit Sen. The Raghu Dixit Project has performed at leading festivals like WOMAD and Glastonbury. Avial, which sings in Malayalam, has a cult following among Kerala youth. Meanwhile, English rock finds reason to press on. In 2012, old-timers Indus Creed releasedEvolve, their first album in 17 years. Amit Saigal passed away the same year but the RSJ franchise soldiers on. 

Artist management has gone professional with former partner at the online music forum Gigpad Vijay Nair’s enterprise Only Much Louder, which runs the thriving multi-city, multi-stage festival NH7 Weekender. TAAQ, which played 26 back-to-back shows at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013 and returned with a couple of awards, has thrown its education from the road into Taaqademy. This ‘school for bands’, established in 2010, offers a space to rehearse and record music and has infused the scene with some surprisingly young talent.

It is seldom that history is allowed a chance to repeat. That privilege was reserved for The Combustibles, a Sixties rock band from Bombay that had made waves at the Simla Beat Contest. Last year, a UK record label discovered the band’s music in a clearance sale, restored and reissued two of their original songs on vinyl, and put them up for sale. But for the drummer, who is no more, the band members lived to realise a dream: they finally made money off their own music. It was well worth the wait. 

First published on Yahoo Originals

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