Where does the history of Indian rock begin exactly?
Does it begin in 1968, when The Beatles arrived in Rishikesh, Dehradun and wrote most of the songs for The White Album? Or between 1967 and 1971, in which five editions of the Simla Beat Contest were held to find India’s top “beat groups? Or perhaps, the 1990s, which saw the emergence of the music channels Channel V and MTV as the bridges between Western rock and its hungry Indian consumer, is responsible for India’s rock scene.
Abhimanyu Kukreja’s 79-minute Rockumentary: Evolution of Indian Rock goes back even further to trace the source of the Indian rock scene.
The story begins in the 1930s in Kolkata, when jazz groups brought to Indian shores the first traces of a sound that would evolve into Indian rock-and-roll. The documentary ends with a look at contemporary non-English rock bands – a symbol of how a country absorbed a foreign source of music and made it its own.
“This film was made as a pilot project or an introduction to Indian rock for an ordinary man who has no idea of what rock in India is,” Kukreja told Scroll.in. “The intention now is to continue the Rockumentary series to cover all that which we couldn’t fit into 79 minutes.” Premiered in India in December 2018 at the Brahmaputra Valley Film Festival, the film will be screened for the first time in Delhi on Sunday.
The story of Indian rock can either be told chronologically or sideways while simultaneously taking in the growth of the genre. Kukreja’s film attempts to do both.
The documentary is divided into eight chapters. It begins with The City of Joy, which covers Kolkata from the ’30s, when jazz bloomed, to the 1970s, when regular power cuts and the migration of Anglo-Indians from India killed the scene. Information for this period was hard to come by when the 35-year-old rock music fan began his research in the mid-2000s.
Among the songs in the film is I Take To You by The Teddy Weatherford Band, which Kukreja found on the Taj Mahal Foxtrot blog written by Naresh Fernandes, Scroll.in’s editor. It was among the sources Kukreja tapped into, as he was handicapped by the lack of footage and information covering Indian rock till the ’80s.
“My process was befriending and meeting musicians while I was on the job,” Kukreja said. During his days as a journalist, he extensively covered independent Indian music for news channels. Kukreja also made a 24-minute documentary, which served as a blueprint for this film. For the first chapter, Kukreja got Louiz Banks, the son of Teddy Weatherford Band member George Banks, and Shillong icon Lou Majaw, who began his career in Kolkata.
The well-documented trip of The Beatles to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh is the subject of chapter two, West Weds East. This episode looks at the influence of The Beatles on such acts as Mumbai’s The Savages, which was the first Indian band to record an English-language album with a major label. Fun fact: clips of The Beatles’s performances used to be played before films in Indian theatres in the late ’60s, according to Mumbai rocker Gary Lawyer.
Chapter threeThe Obstacles, covers the difficulties faced by Indian rock music fans in accessing Western music in the ’70s and early ’80s. Radio was one way. For example, the members of Abiogenesis consider themselves lucky to have been born in Nagaland, where their radios picked up signals from Myanmar’s Radio Rangoon, which played Western music.
Folk rockers who emerged in the ’60s and ’70s, such as Susmit Bose and Tapas Sen of Mohiner Ghoraguli (one of India’s first bands to make rock songs in a language other than English) recalled the resistance from their families to their preferred form of music. “I don’t blame them,” Lawyer says in the film. “Those were the days of drugs, Woodstock, hippie-dom and stuff like that.”
The chapter also notes the impact of the Simla Beat Contest, organised for five years by a brand of cigarettes produced by The Indian Tobacco Company (then The Imperial Tobacco Company). Tracks by the bands that participated in the 1970 and 1971 editions were recorded . This, said Abhinav Dhar of Delhi’s now-defunct group Collegium, was “the first document of the origins of Indian rock”. Once the brand left the market, the contest stopped.
Chapters four, Bombay Psychedelic, looks at the growth of psychedelic rock bands in Mumbai, such as Atomic Forest, who became a fixture at the now-closed Slip Disc bar and restaurant. When two members of Led Zeppelin visited Mumbai in 1972, this is where they held an impromptu jam session.
The next chapter, Bang Bang Bombay, looks at Mumbai’s rock scene in the ’80s and ’90s. The now-shuttered Mumbai venue Rang Bhavan, which offered a large open-air performing space to Indian independent acts, is fondly remembered by those interviewed, including a hawker who bore witness to the young crowds thronging the venue three decades ago.
According to Lawyer, the closing of Rang Bhavan impacted Indian rock severely, and any “evolution” of the scene that happened thereon only means contemporary acts finding performing spaces in small pubs, none of which can match up to Rang Bhavan’s expanse.
The chapter also looks at how Mumbai rockers of this period, such as Rock Machine (later called Indus Creed) and Gary Lawyer found fans nationwide, thanks to Channel V and MTV airing their music videos. Bangalore act Millennium, widely considered India’s first heavy metal band, is also acknowledged. Luke Kenny, synonymous with hosting rock music shows on Indian television, is featured as well.
These halcyon days of Indian rock ended in the latter half of the ’90s and early 2000s, as the music channels switched to Hindi pop, Bollywood music, and reality shows. Elsewhere, The Great Indian Rock Festival, the Independence Rock Festival, and the festivals at the Indian Institutes of Technology kept local rock afloat.
Chapters six and seven follow the rock scenes in Delhi and Shillong. Delhi’s veteran acts Parikrama and Indian Ocean speak to Kukreja, as do contemporary act Peter Cat Recording Co.. They shed light on a key difference between Indian rock acts of the past and the present.
“We write, record, produce the music ourselves, we make the videos ourselves, we make the artwork,” the band’s frontman Suryakant Sawhney says. “The times we live in, the concept of a band from the ’60s and ’70s doesn’t exist.”
In chapter seven, Shillong’s media-created persona of India’s “rock capital” is demystified. Lou Majaw says, “There are a lot of rocks in Shillong.... huge rocks, from that point, it’s definitely a rock capital.”
The final chapter, Raga Rock, looks into variants of Indian rock fused with Indian instruments, particularly bands performing in Indian languages. Among the bands interviewed in this section are Agnee and The Local Train.
Indus Creed’s Zubin Balaporia observes, “Cost of living has increased so much in the last 20 years, but rock and roll hasn’t kept up with that. So it’s difficult to make do unless one does non-English rock or dabbles in Bollywood music” – something many Indian artists do on the side.
Kukreja’s documentary has done the round of film festivals, including the Cannes Film Market this year. “We are clear that the film has to be out on a platform like Netflix or Amazon to recover its money,” Kukreja said. According to his estimates, production and publicity costs have raised the production budget up to Rs 1.65 crore and counting.
“We could make up a YouTube film that would get screened at a place like, say, Blue Frog, or make something for legitimate film festivals,” Kukreja said. “Just the daily travel, accommodation and shooting costs across India was a lot. Then, to make the film look like what it is, we needed thorough professionals.” Among its crew is editor Sattyajit Gazmer (The Tashkent Files, Buddha in a Traffic Jam).
The film is as comprehensive as can be within its 79-minute runtime, but it has its obvious blind spots. “We couldn’t include many interviews, such as one with Kochi’s 13AD,” Kukreja said. “We couldn’t cover a lot of South Indian rock. Likewise for Mizoram, which has a tremendous rock and metal scene. The idea is to cover all that in the subsequent films and then look at the rock of all of South Asia.”
The documentary doesn’t feature too many contemporary acts. (Time was a factor, Kukreja said). Newer sounds of Indian rock, which veer away from vintage in the direction of the experimental, are not explored in detail. Kukreja agreed that they were absent, but he spoke of rock as a thought rather than a single sound.
“Did Bob Dylan becomes less of a rocker when he picked up the electric guitar and ditched the acoustic?” Kukreja observed. “His original fans left him because of this, but he continued to defy traditions, and today he has the Nobel Prize in Literature. Rock is a philosophy. And sounds – they keep returning. Vinyl is back again and CD players are out. Who knows we might go back to the old sound soon.”