Go Your Own Way: A brief chronicle of the yesteryear rock scene of Bengaluru

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Go Your Own Way: A brief chronicle of the yesteryear rock scene of Bengaluru

An essay by Swaroop Kodur

It is sometime in April 1971. A large crowd has gathered outside Galaxy Cinema on Residency Road in Bangalore and is waiting restlessly for the doors to open – all considerably young, dressed appropriately in a fashion that’s funky, casual, and also reflecting a personal taste. Onlookers stare at them with a strange mix of worry and admiration but that doesn’t discourage any of them. In fact, if one were to trust the word on the street, they revelled in the attention because it gave them a sense of freedom. Their minds are focused solely on what was to come once the doors opened and the queues outside Galaxy are getting longer, and more chaotic, by the minute. Every caution’s been thrown to the wind – much like the fumes of the cigarettes, and grass, that is being smoked audaciously in the open – and since the film was going to be over 5 hours and 30 minutes long, it needed each of them to hatch a plan that’d help in lasting the entire length. Trying to keep up with this spirit, and wanting to make the night memorable, many have paid an obligatory visit to the Chin Lung bar down the road. The reason for the lively gathering is Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock – an unflinching and detailed chronicle of a three-day event in upstate New York that promised endless music, peace, and love!

But, according to those who were present that night, the film wasn’t the only reason behind the mania. Sure, it was the biggest part of the deal but as an ancillary offer, some of the best bands from the city were also scheduled to perform on that day. This was a time when cinema halls - in the cantonment side of the city - generally played American or British films and since the influx of such cinema wasn’t very high at the time in India, the places were instead utilized for concerts with a nominal fee as part of them. And during screenings, they would feature local talent – mostly rock bands – and get them to play before the film started and during the intermission period. On that day, it was Void and Hot Rain and for these bands too, it was an opportunity like no other to perform in front of a massive crowd that’s charged up like never before.

The earliest rock-scene of the city – which existed roughly between 1963 and 1975 – isn’t particularly archived very well and, except for an odd blog or photograph on the internet, one has to depend entirely on personal accounts (of either band members or first-hand witnesses) to get the stories out. My own journey into discovering the rich Bangalorean rock history began in the garb of a documentary when, in pursuit of compelling anecdotes about the old-city, I was able to meet Mr Rajashekar Ramachandran. Rajashekar is 69 years old and a retired advertising executive, who once at the peak of his own youth, managed a number of bands in the 1960s. Unassuming as he is, living in a hundred-year-old monkey-topped house in the suburban Frazer Town, his tryst with rock music began during college, or even before that he would say when he met a bunch of like-minded kids who had a zest to get out and explore a world that was beyond their supposed peripheries. A counter-culture of sorts had emerged in the previous decade – the beats came first and quickly morphed into hippies - and it had seeped into the Indian urban youth as well. This new breed defied convention and popular opinion so as to not endure the same inconveniences that its previous generations did and in the Indian context, it meant the rejection of conservatism they saw at home. The counter-culture movement, if one could call it a movement, was inconspicuous, not an in-your-face kind of phenomenon, but one could sense it slowly permeate into the Indian consciousness because of its relevance; especially in the more westernized parts of all the major cities. Bangalore, back then, was still soused with the cultural left-overs of The Raj and a very prominent anglicized culture was visible here more than anywhere else in the country. In the 1960s, India was still tottering towards a firm identity and its position on tradition and rights & wrongs was quite murky. A cultural change, now in hindsight, somehow seems obvious in this regard and Rajashekar and his friends were in the thick of it, with their music guiding and enabling them to explore a new kind of song - one that did not echo the old-world values but whose lyric addressed them directly.

One of the first things that Rajashekar mentions in our chat is the fact that almost every street in and around Frazer Town, and Richmond Town, boasted of a band back in the day. There is a certain nonchalance to him when he says this, with a hint of sadness, suggesting that the times are truly different today. He is well aware of how much Bangalore has risen over the years and being an ad-man himself, he also knows the extent of that growth. In the quaintness of his house, where he and I decide to faff about music and the past, his reticence shows up at first. But as time passes, his memory begins to slowly warm up and that prompts him to roll a cigarette for himself. Fiddling with the components of his soon-to-be lit smoke, he, now less anxious, shares a thing or two about the heydays. His experiences as the manager of most of the bands are at the tip of his tongue and each time he gets an opportunity to share a story, his life brims up. Not only was he a steady witness to most of the shenanigans, but he was also the bands’ consigliere who was asked of unreasonable things at times. On one such occasion, he recalls, The Spartans had urged him to source-up an iron box before their show began. The iron box was provided diligently but, since long hair was in vogue, it was used to iron out the curls in their hair. The clothes, however, remained fashionably wrinkled. At another time, Stoned Package, who was to perform at the Estrella Beat Contest held at The Lido, found themselves on stage with a faulty mic stand that wouldn’t stand erect to save a life. Rajashekar, the very man required at such times, slipped a small match-stick in the groove to hold the stand straight for the time being. The venue, which wasn’t particularly designed for such unparliamentary events, had brought the crowd strikingly close to the band and during the performance, someone pulls the matchstick out to light a joint! The stand would then gradually slide down towards Andy, the vocalist, who, in spite of not being at the peak of his senses, realized immediately that something was out of order. He would then bend backwards, adjusting to the stand’s behaviour and pretending to posture for the music. No prizes, obviously, for guessing the inspiration behind the band’s name!

The Spartans, Bristol Beat Contest, 1968. From left to right: Adolph on Bass and vocals, Suresh Shottam on lead, Ramesh Shottam on drums and Malcolm on rhythm guitar and vocals. Image Courtesy: India Sixties and Beyond Music
The Spartans, Bristol Beat Contest, 1968. From left to right: Adolph on Bass and vocals, Suresh Shottam on lead, Ramesh Shottam on drums and Malcolm on rhythm guitar and vocals. Image Courtesy: India Sixties and Beyond Music

The bands that came about in Bangalore during the 1960s and 1970s were a result of chance and convenience. They were essentially beat groups, a rank lower than that of a band, which consisted of three guitar players and a drummer and were formed on the basis of physical proximity and a degree of acquaintance. Most beat groups were aware of each other and had even grown up together in some cases, and though their tastes in music and individual temperaments overlapped, the names of their respective groups made all the distinction. Each group had its own quirks and eccentricities and an even more outlandish name. Koch and The Barbershop Harmony, a testimonial group born on the streets of Frazer Town in 1968, found its name through an age-old American phenomenon. The barbershops of Tulsa and other places in the region were seen as social centres by men (and women) who waited outside for their turn for a shave or haircut and spent that interim period by humming songs in a rough harmonic/acapella form. Though this particular Indian beat group wasn’t anything close to being an acapella group, and they had waist-length hair along with beards that could nest a few crows, the name somehow triggered an inspiration in the group which consisted of Koch on the vocals, brothers Albert and Jayaraj on lead and rhythm. There was also the Swinging Cockroaches, a modest school band that had the widely popular Shottam brothers (Suresh and Ramesh) with Sam and Beiram alongside. A couple of years later, the Shottams teamed up with the Fernandez brothers – Malcolm and Ado(lf) – to form The Spartans. The Spartans were a bona fide band who took Bangalore by a storm. Suresh, another wild Hendrix fan, played the guitar emulating his idol while Malcolm and Ado sang and twisted like there was no tomorrow. The group, which very soon qualified to be a band, knew how to put up a show and this very showmanship took them places with the tag of being “one of the best” attached to them throughout. The same two Shottam brothers were also responsible for the Bombay based Human Bondage, which also included Xerxes on bass and Babu Joseph on vocals and harp. Human Bondage was and still are, considered to be one of the best in the entire country.

Human Bondage, circa 1969. From left to right: Vinti Bundu Banyan on bass, Ramesh Shottam on drums, Babu Joseph on sax and Suresh Shottam on lead guitar
Human Bondage, circa 1969. From left to right: Vinti Bundu Banyan on bass, Ramesh Shottam on drums, Babu Joseph on sax and Suresh Shottam on lead guitar

The early days of rock music in Bangalore saw beat groups like The Trojans and The Devil Beats come to the fore. The Trojans, featuring Biddu Appiah (or Biddu), Ken Gnanakan, Jeff, and Goutham as their core make-up, could well be regarded as the game changers in the scene. They are the oldest beat group in the country – although a slightly contestable fact – and were instrumental in paving the way for others to tread on in the coming years. The group was a successful cause – both in terms of monetary exploits and cultural influence – and a lot of this could be attributed to Biddu’s strong desire to be known as an international pop-star. In hindsight, Biddu could be seen as an odd-ball creature in the mix for he was always determined to be something beyond a local rocker. The Trojans began their journey modestly in 1963 and would perform at local clubs and institutes along with an occasional show put up at nightclubs (which were also cabaret bars). Once, while performing at the Three Aces on South Parade, they were spotted by an affluent man who wanted them to play at his niece’s wedding in Hyderabad. The band took up on the offer and started out on a journey that would almost change the landscape of Indian rock. After the success of the gig at the wedding, the band – now consisting of three instead of four members – took a chance with Calcutta which at the time was a booming cosmopolis for nightlife and fun. They played a number of times at the very popular Trincas and received overwhelming responses almost every time. Returning to Bangalore on that note must have seemed like a backwards-step for Biddu, and it was quite apparent that he had bigger plans on mind. He would then move on to Bombay as a solo artist in early ’64 and re-introduce himself to a city that had its own small rock scene sprouting by now; The Jetsand The Mascots can be considered as The Trojans’ contemporaries. But the seed was sown back home in Bangalore and groups like The Devil Beats, Flamingos, and The Mustangs had risen to the occasion already. This was the golden period of rock in India – 1965 to 1971 – and though the bands weren’t celebrated like their western counterparts, the fanbase was still petit and very strong. They were unfiltered, candid, and most importantly fresh in terms of perspective.

The Devil Beats - in their Beatles mojo. From left to right: Chippy Briggs, Romain Hayes, Allan Fintzel and Ronnie Rikh. Image Courtesy: Gussy Rikh
The Devil Beats - in their Beatles mojo. From left to right: Chippy Briggs, Romain Hayes, Allan Fintzel and Ronnie Rikh. Image Courtesy: Gussy Rikh

By the late 1960s, each major city in India – along with cities like Shillong, Ahmedabad, Lucknow, and Trivandrum - had its own range of beat groups and once a year, they would all meet at beat contests. These were battle-of-bands-sort of competitions that featured some of the best, and the not-so-best, groups with a purpose to bring together a bunch of music-frenzied youngsters who were also potential customers of whatever product (mostly cigarettes) that was being advertised (printed in big bold letters on the stage backdrop). There was the Simla Beat Contest (1965-1972), organized and convened by the Imperial Tobacco Company - Simla was their brand of cigarette; a menthol-tipped “light” cigarette that was sold as the perfect choice for a young smoker. Estrela Beat Contest belonged to the battery company and Bristol Beat Contest was put together by another cigarette brand. The contests had an array of titles to give away each year – best drummer, best original composition and the most coveted of the lot, best band – and it was a big deal for a lot of the groups because winning not only meant a handy amount of cash, but also a possible record-deal (which was a rarity then).

The Dinosaurs performing Sinister Purpose at the Simla Beat Contest, 1970. The beat grup was one of the finalists that year and their song You Cant Beat It is part of a compilation titled Simla Beat 70/71. Image Courtesy: India Sixties and Beyond Music and Robert Xavier.
The Dinosaurs performing Sinister Purpose at the Simla Beat Contest, 1970. The beat grup was one of the finalists that year and their song You Cant Beat It is part of a compilation titled Simla Beat 70/71. Image Courtesy: India Sixties and Beyond Music and Robert Xavier.

For the groups from Bangalore, the contests were an opportunity to step beyond the confines of their “sleepy-town” and get a taste of the real world outside. Access to other bands in the country was almost non-existent in those times and it was through beat contests that they were able to meet people from other cities and indulge in something that was purely theirs alone. Also, the contests were far more open-minded wherein girls were actually encouraged to participate. Much like in the west, there was a groupie culture emerging in Bangalore as well – although completely platonic in nature – through which a greater number of girls began to appear at shows. One of the earliest female-centred beat groups, Angel Beats, was brought together on the premise of wanting to be treated equally as men. Louisa ‘Topsy’ D’Silva, the main force behind the group and daughter of the revered Eddie D’Silva, was introduced to rock music at a very early age and the blaring resound of bands practicing in the neighbourhood had set off her own desires to want to be part of a band. With her own sister Vivian on rhythm guitars and their neighbour Angela on the bass, it was up to Rusi Dystur – Eddie’s student – to be the lead guitarist. They were a peculiar bunch who weren’t just a rebellion but also a step forward towards a slightly darker form of rock; by now Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath had created waves. Topsy could sing, almost growl at will, and her caveman-ish drumming only fuelled her singing. The girls hung-out with other bands jammed with them and moved around with a sense of pride that was unseen before.

A beat group that’s part of almost every discussion regarding the subject is Void. Void had the exceptional Gussy Rikh on the lead, brother Sudhir and Ravi Rao on drums and Fiaz on the bass, and are often regarded as one of the best bands to ever grace the Bangalore rock scene. The band had come together purely on incident with all the members, barring Gussy, being from the Central College and Gussy, being a St. Joseph’s patron, was summoned for an “audition” based on Fiaz’s (the two being long-time friends) recommendation. Gussy was an army kid who lived with his mother and older brother in a house off Charles Campbell Road that was nestled next to a railway track. Trains rushing in and out is said to have had an impact on his music and Gussy, on-demand, would sometimes match the high-note of a train honk on his guitar and the rhythm of the wheels would become a metronome! Gussy was an ardent Hendrix fan but while with The Devil Beats (along with his older-brother Ronnie Rikh), he wasn’t allowed to play his songs because the sound was considered to be too harsh for the band’s taste and energy. His inclusion in Void later was based on this condition alone.

Void, circa 1970, at The Bangalore Club. One of the best bands in Bangalore. From Left to Right: Fiaz on bass, Ravi on vocals and rhythm, Gussy on the lead and backing vocals and Sudhir on drums. Image Courtesy: Gussy Rikh.
Void, circa 1970, at The Bangalore Club. One of the best bands in Bangalore. From Left to Right: Fiaz on bass, Ravi on vocals and rhythm, Gussy on the lead and backing vocals and Sudhir on drums. Image Courtesy: Gussy Rikh.

By the time Void was at its prime, the culture of rock music had been normalized to a great extent and was even pursued seriously by a lot of the beat groups. Much like in the west, the groups needed a “manager” to either book gigs for them or get a few essentials arranged before shows. There were more hotels and clubs in the city now which would wilfully host both local talent and international bands (for example, The Graduates from Sri Lanka at the Stay Longer Hotel in Russell Market) as their marquee events. There was money to be made, sure, and even though most beat groups had no intentions of remaining professional post-college, they still had enough reasons to stay motivated. First, the shows were a lot of fun and the stage gave them an opportunity to present a more extroverted version of themselves. They were allowed to dress-up – the boys in batik sweaters, turtle-necks, bell-bottoms & jackets and girls flaunting their fishnet stockings, braided tops, mini-skirts, and flamboyant boots – and play upbeat music while an elated crowd danced to their tunes. Second, their music made them a buck or two and helped them be independent through college. The managers were, therefore, crucial as each group needed someone to be mindful of shows and openings in various avenues that were constantly springing up. But these managers were friends first – the fifth members of the band, per se – who were resourceful in many ways. Some of them owned cars, and could transport the entire band along with the instruments, and were therefore regarded as “transport managers”, others had contacts within the city to book shows for the band and also get their equipment needs to be sorted.

Another fascinating thing that Rajashekar points out is the significance of the radio in all of this. These were the days when All India Radio, the national broadcaster at the time, was allowed to play only classical Indian music and to get a taste of the latest western music, the general public was forced to depend entirely on foreign radio programmes that were being broadcast from outside the country. For the beat groups, there were a handful number of shows such as Radio Ceylon, The British Top 20, The Voice of America, etc. that filled the musical void and were also their main source of respite. The popularity of such shows caught on pretty quickly among the Indian audiences and this, in turn, encouraged Indian radio announcers and producers to use foreign stations to broadcast their own Hindi or western music programmes. It was a crucial breakthrough because the advertisers in India realized the potential of these programmes and stepped in almost immediately to sponsor them with Indian products!

(L): Vernon Corea, the golden voice of Radio Ceylon. (R): Ameen Sayani, the iconic voice behind Binaca Geet Mala - a Hindi programme that was a spin-off of the Binaca Hit Parade. Information Courtesy: Vernon Corea
(L): Vernon Corea, the golden voice of Radio Ceylon. (R): Ameen Sayani, the iconic voice behind Binaca Geet Mala - a Hindi programme that was a spin-off of the Binaca Hit Parade. Information Courtesy: Vernon Corea

The radio shows were also the only means to listen to western music because vinyl discs weren’t easily available and even if someone could source a few, the customs duties would graciously intervene. In an attempt to listen to a track and reproduce it later in front of an audience, according to Rajashekar, beat groups had to embark on a mission that would involve hopping home to home so as to listen to the same track more than once. Listening to a song on the radio wasn’t meant for pleasure in such cases, for the agenda was to take down notes diligently. Each member of the band was responsible for their own vocation and when a semblance of a song was available on paper, they went and performed merrily.

But it goes without saying that unlike in the west, the rock-scene in India did not spark things up at any point of its existence. It was rather a muted affair for many; something that took place behind closed doors instead of in large, open stadiums. Within a decade of its advent in Bangalore, it seemed as though it had run its course. Primarily, the issue was with lack of sponsorship and the onus was upon the beat groups to record an album if they were to impress any record-label; there weren’t many record-labels either which would invest in bands that played western music - except for Polydor which brought out albums of some of Bombay groups but not Bangalore. And even if a group took it upon itself to record an album, there wouldn’t be any suitable equipment around to record authentic-sounding music – especially the drum solos which needed the more-expensive trigger microphones. Equipment was indeed a major issue for groups in Bangalore (Bombay and Madras fared better in this regard); Fiaz of Void narrates a story of how he managed to get his bass guitar made – he had to first collect a few design samples from The Rolling Stone magazine and later etch it out on a piece of cardboard to create a mock piece. This was later left to the genius of Lewis – a well-known guitar-tuner in Frazer Town – who would then fit the fretboard on and assemble it all together. Some of the more capable groups like Human Bondage and The Unknowns would be signed-up by nightclubs such as Three Aces and Napoli and were thereby allowed to play on a daily basis. The gulf area had a night-life burgeoning around the same time and the groups began to trickle out in a hope of a better future and more pay. For the rest, it was clear enough that a far more realistic world suited them better and just as Bangalore, the city, geared up in preparation of its destiny, the beat groups too would blend-in with the change without much fuss.

Image Courtesy: Rajashekhar Ramachandran
Image Courtesy: Rajashekhar Ramachandran

In the long and vibrant history of music in Bangalore, the rock scene features as an anomaly – one that burst onto the scene when the country was indifferent to most things foreign and yet, was individualistic and unconstrained till it lasted. While many of the beat groups may have faded away into obscurity, their memory and legacy still echo strongly in certain minds. For Rajashekar, and many like him, this was their coming-of-age and they had spent the entirety of it in figuring out chords and ways to avoid being part of the status quo. “There are many more stories,” he reminds me, and that each one promises to be as exciting as the previous one. He fondly recalls how, while at one of the anti-Hindi agitations in the city, a friend of theirs (a future minister in the Karnataka govt.) almost got electrocuted because of a faulty microphone but was instead picked up by the cops later and forced to spend a night in jail. Or the fact that the student body at Central College came up with a magazine named ROT – a spoof of the original college journal named RETORT (with a tagline that went When ROT retorts, RETORT rots!). Rajashekar went on to join the advertising agency MC&A after college but was still an active part of the music scene in the city. He would form a collective – sometime in the 70s – that would book and organize shows for not just his musician friends, but also bands/artists across the world; Larry Coryell, Wishbone Ash, and Oja Temiz to name a few. Today, Rajashekar designs maps for the Indian Military and several private agencies but his own personal territory is marked by the memories of the days of rock and an occasional “roll”.

Note: The article has borrowed a small amount of information from the book India Psychedelic. I would like to thank Mr Sidharth Bhatia for his efforts in bringing together the “rockology” that truly represents the earliest rock-scene in India and also regards it with the casualness and wonder that the subject demands.

***

Swaroop Kodur is a 29-year-old filmmaker/screenwriter from Bengaluru. He started out as a software engineer but somehow gradually drifted towards writing and filmmaking over the years. Swaroop likes to explore mundanities through his writing - be it cinema, sport, or fiction.

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