Tune in, turn on, drop out

INdia Psychedelic

When Sidharth Bhatia contacted me about a year ago armed with a bunch of probing questions about my life as a rock’n’roll singer in the band Human Bondage some two centuries ago (well, I exaggerate, it was in the mid-70s), frankly, I was astonished. “I’m writing a book about rock’n’roll in India, back in the 60s and 70s and a bit of the 80s,” he explained.
Who cares about that I wondered. Most of it was a dim memory. I couldn’t really recall any specifics. I remembered having a lot of fun, being surrounded by cool-looking men, being in the spotlight, which was great. And best of all, I didn’t have to go to college.
But if I remembered nothing much (I don’t think I gave Sidharth anything concrete to go on), the opposite is true of the people who came to listen to us perform. It is almost 40 years since I rocked out, and I am always taken aback when people recall which song I sang at what show back in 1975 and even what I wore. I am shocked that they even remember me.
We must have made an impact because night after night there were hundreds of people listening to us and recording it in their brains.
But all that fan-following and adulation didn’t lead to fame and fortune. This was India. Rock’n’roll bands were competing with Bollywood while reproducing Jimmy Page’s guitar solo on Stairway To Heaven, and Carlos Santana’s wail on Evil Ways and producing perfect reproductions of Hotel California.
Bhatia has patiently contacted dozens and dozens of bands from way back in the 60s, like the band Savages. He points out that while the going may have been tough for them back in the day, one of their records, Black Scorpio, sold for a whopping $3,000 on eBay in 2011. I guess that’s why the word “fan” comes from the word “fanatic”.
Bhatia correctly concludes that of all the rock’n’roll musicians and bands that tried to “make it” in the big bad world in India, there’s been only one person who has succeeded. He of course is Biddu (he doesn’t like to be called by his last name, Appaiah), who boldly went where no Indian had gone before, to the West, where through perseverance and luck he created Kung Fu Fighting, and went on to do much more. Biddu is also a writer, and besides his autobiography, he’s written a novel. Biddu put India on the map in terms of pop or rock’n’roll while most other Indian bands either faded away quietly into corporate India or the grave, because the drugs were a-plenty.
Bhatia captures the ambience, the mood of the era in his book India Psychedelic impeccably — the parallels between the zeitgeist (which was basically to tune in, turn on, drop out, as decreed by one Timothy Leary), the bands that lapped up Leary’s diktat and the music that was in turn exhilarating or downright awful. It
didn’t matter. It was heady and unreal.
I loved reading India Psychedelic. Bhatia rekindled many memories that I’d completely forgotten.
Like the one about C.Y. Gopinath, a friend and writer for Junior Statesman or JS (the only magazine that ever covered the activities of rock’n’rollers and even put our pictures on their pages), had done a story about the life of a beggar by dressing up as one and actually living on the street to write a first-hand experience. At a time when reality journalism was unheard of in India, he was unique. It made him famous.
But since he was a family friend, my mother (who didn’t give a single naya paisa for journalistic accomplishment) ordered him to accompany me in an auto each night to The Cellar (a disco in Connaught Place where I had just begun singing with the Human Bondage) and bring me back, because she didn’t trust me on my own.
CY would amuse me on those rides. He told me that he could make people do whatever he wanted merely by concentrating on the activity with all his focus. “Watch now, I’m going to make the auto driver scratch his left ear with his right hand,” he’d say and screw up his face real hard, as if his gallstones were acting up. And damn it if the auto guy didn’t oblige. In a few minutes he’d be scratching his ear, unaware that a superior human being had taken control of his mind.
This happened very, very often, yet I don’t know if CY was a psychic or not. He lives in Thailand now and I wonder if he’s learned enough Thai to control minds out there.
I am sure that Bhatia’s book is going to bring back forgotten memories for a lot of people who lived through that era. I know the musicians who read this book will certainly enjoy reliving some of their antics.
It’s a bit strange to review a book where you know so many of the characters, share a history with many of them and can still call a few of them friends. It’s almost impossible to be objective.
My ex-husband Suresh, lead guitar player of the Human Bondage, refuses to read the book. He doesn’t think there was much of a scene, certainly nothing worth writing home about. This despite the fact that according to JS, “Suresh Shottam is about the best guitarist in the country. His guitar is heavily influenced by Indian classical music.” Suresh is contrary like that.
But there’s a case for recording and preserving Indian history, no matter how thin the slice or how irrelevant the subject matter is to the larger population. Art is art and Indian rock’n’roll (and jazz) artists don’t ever get the kind of recognition their hours of practice and heart-felt performances ought to command.
So we’ll take our 15 minutes, thank-you-very-much.
But I do have one complaint.
Sidharth, if you’re reading this, my name was Radha Ramchandra. Not Ramaswamy. History is now going to remember me as someone I never was. Boo hoo.
Radha Thomas, then Radha Ramchandra, was the lead singer in the rock band Human Bondage, before turning her attention to jazz. She currently has several jazz projects and performs all over the world. She is also a writer. Her first book was Men On My Mind, and its sequel, More Men On My Mind, will be released in June.

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