Next month a documentary goes live online to acquaint you with the names that drafted the nation's tryst with Western music
For Arjun S Ravi, this is as personal as it gets. Believer in a religion called rock, a music journalist and co-founder of indie music festival, NH7, he looks mostly unfazed behind the closed doors of the edit room at the Only Much Louder (OML) headquarters in Lower Parel.
Of the 10-person editing crew, six are manning machines as they ready the first episode of OML’s new documentary that goes live online on October 13. Ravi is on the phone with illustrator Sameer Kulavoor, who is designing a poster that includes a sea of 65 faces, all Indian musicians. A million niggling decisions, some terrifyingly big and some terribly mundane, have to be made.
Meanwhile, we have a quick run of the first episode. Ravi’s voiceover, still unmastered, announces this is “not the story of popular music in India. It’s the unpopular few who rocked out in the face of adversity.”
Co-founder of NH7, Arjun Ravi, with the OML research and edit team of Standing By, a new documentary on Indian indie Western music. Pic/Atul Kamble
Author of Taj Mahal Fox Trot, Naresh Fernandes narrates Mumbai’s romance with jazz. A brief archival shot shows dhoti-clad and bare-chested coolies transporting a piano on their shoulders. It is an incongruous vision of a nation’s tryst with Western music.
This is the first installment in a series of six. Beginning in the 1930s and running right into present day, the episodes are collectively titled, Standing By. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, it’s because you haven’t heard Zero electrify the atmosphere at open-air auditorium, Rang Bhavan. Indian rock band Zero, says Ravi, marked the birth of an era; the docu name is drawn from their track, PSP 12”. “Until that time, most of us were patronising fans. We always thought we weren’t as good as international rock and metal bands. ‘They were really good… for an Indian band’ was a common statement. But this slimy double-handedness stopped when Zero happened. I was mesmerized when Warren [Mendonsa] played the guitar,” says Ravi, 31.
The Lady Birds was an all-girl band that grew popular in 1967
For him, like many of his contemporaries, Zero’s music was decidedly ‘Indian’. Desi, unfortunately, was understood as mainstream film music or devotional bhajans. The idea behind the film was born because Ravi, who has covered Indian alternative music culture for 13 years, wished to tell a cohesive story about the country’s indie music industry.
Joe Alvares. Part of an urban legend, he rocked with Led Zeppelin when they played at Slip Disc in 1976
“There are hundreds of bands, all Indian. I wanted to turn what I knew into a book but, many abandoned chapters later, I realised I lacked focus,” he says. The result of this happy misfortune is that the documentary, better suited for a story on music, lets viewers into a delicious mixed bag. Following in the footsteps of OML’s previous productions like The Dewarists, Standing By is more weighty (Ravi describes it as “a historical document”).
Playing in the ’60s, Bashir Sheikh was the founding member and drummer of The Savages (extreme left), a band that went beyond cover versions and wrote original material. Pics Courtesy/Naman Saraiya
A hundred and 20 interviews are interspersed here with archival footage sourced from record labels and the Films Division, illustrations by actor Amrita Bagchi (animated by Sahil Amin) and worthwhile chunks of music. It is not just a documentary about musicians; it explores indie Western music as a legit industry, made by those with courage.
Uday Benegal. One of the founding members of the pioneering desi rock band, Rock Machine, later known as Indus Creed
But not all has been swell, producer Aniket Rao reveals. Acquiring rights to tracks and seeking permission from archives was the most time-consuming of efforts. Despite the struggle, rare footage of The Police playing at Rang Bhavan in 1980 could not be included, for instance. Shooting for 45 days in 2014 and sifting through 400 hours of footage, including archival material, to slim it down to a tight 150 minutes of run-time meant “going through a haystack, mining for gold,” says Rao.
Shillong’s blues rock duo Soulmate were shot by OML in the middle of a forest when it was pouring
The gems the team gleaned are in the form of interviews of India’s yesteryear legends including Suresh Bhojwani (The Jets, 1964-66), Farida Vakil (The Lady Birds, 1967-68), Usha Uthup and Manoj Pant (Collegium, 1971-78). “The film is as heavy as a textbook and about the true old-school hipsters,” Rao says.
Carlton Kitto. Synonymous with Indian jazz, he was guitarist for the Jazz Ensemble which played at Moulin Rouge, Kolkata, in 1973
The research team of six and Ravi unearthed stories of bands playing different genres across the country, each doing its own thing, largely oblivious to others like them.
Roger Drego. His credit — ‘Sound by Roger Drego’ —appeared larger on posters than band names
Standing By joins the dots.
Vinay Venkatesh. Vocalist for Bhayanak Maut — a Mumbai metal band that shares its name with a B-Grade Hindi horror flick
Before the Kolkata post-punk band Supersonics became big in the 2000s, there were Super Sonics who played at hotels in Ernakulam, Kerala, in the ’70s. That decade also saw the rise of Bangla rock, when Rabindra sangeet and Baul was fused with electric guitars. One such group, Mohiner Ghoraguli influenced a new generation of Kolkata fusion rock names like Fossils and Krosswindz.
Shooting across five cities — Mumbai, Delhi, Shillong, Kolkata and Bengaluru — Ravi says, “Shillong — what a place, what a location. Snow White, a khasi rock band, were shot on the footsteps of their home. It started pouring and we were getting soaked but we kept rolling. Then there was Plague Throat, who jammed at an outhouse toilet turned into a room. They represented India and won at the biggest metal battle, Wacken, in 2014,” says Ravi.
Radha Thomas. Accomplished vocalist and author, she started her career with raga rock band Human Bondage in the late seventies. Pics/Naman Saraiya
The end is not near. Ravi wants to interview “the next 120” and bring them the recognition that they deserve in ‘the untold chapters of India’s music history’ (the descriptor for the title). Chatting with several bands and musicians experimenting successfully across genres, the documentary asks the question: What is Indian music?
Sahil Makhija. Vocalist for Demonic Resurrection, he is better known among heavy metal fans as The Demon-stealer
The answer for Ravi, is simple. “Music made by Indians.” Perhaps, we’ll now stop looking westward for our rock heroes.
Nondon Bagchi. Why play forgettable originals, when you can make memorable covers? With Kolkata’s Hip Pocket, Bagchi does just that
Post October 13, Standing By episodes will be available for viewing on www.StandingBy.in in the form of a timeline (along with vignettes, articles and video shorts) as well as on the Red Bull YouTube channel.