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The Rockstar: A tribute to Mumbai's rock legend Nandu Bhendu

The city’s iconic figure on the 1970s rock scene, Nandu Bhende died of a heart attack yesterday. Talented, unconventional and energetic, Bhende was an inextricable part of the music in Maximum City

It was one of those friendships that started instantly, spurred by our common passion for a music group. I first met rock vocalist Nandu Bhende in May 1995, when I was doing a feature on Mumbai’s early rock musicians for this paper.

Despite the age difference and the fact that he rose to fame in the early 1970s, Nandu never struck me as an old-timer. The moment he began to talk about the Beatles, there was so much more to learn.

At the Jack Daniel’s Rock Awards (L to R) Sidharth Bhatia, Suresh Bhojwani, Ashok Daryanani, Prabhakar Mundkur and Nandu Bhende. Pics/courtesy Sidharth Bhatia
At the Jack Daniel’s Rock Awards (L to R) Sidharth Bhatia, Suresh Bhojwani, Ashok Daryanani, Prabhakar Mundkur and Nandu Bhende. Pics/courtesy Sidharth Bhatia

By some turn of fate, a Beatles tribute at D’Bell, Mumbai, was the last major show Nandu did in January this year. Yesterday morning he breathed his last, leaving behind scores of memories.

Nandu Bhende performing with Ebony
Nandu Bhende performing with Ebony

Yes, Nandu was Mumbai’s quintessential rock musician of the 1970s, singing for the bands Velvette Fogg, Atomic Forest, Brief Encounter and Savage Encounter, and remembered to this day for his rendition of the Moody Blues hit Nights in White Satin.

Nandu Bhende at an awards function
Nandu Bhende at an awards function

He was also cast in the musicals Jesus Christ Superstar, where he famously played Judas in the 1974 Alyque Padamsee version, and Tommy, besides Jabbar Patel’s Marathi musical Teen Paishacha Tamasha.

From the Nandu Bhende album
From the Nandu Bhende album

Apart from this, the versatile son of theatre personalities Atmaram and Asha Bhende was involved in TV serials, Marathi private albums, Hindi film songs, music production and voice training. His maternal uncle was the great poet Nissim Ezekiel, who once wrote lyrics to Nandu’s Simple Love Song, which had music by Leslie Lewis.

Whatever Nandu did, he did it with a passion that reflected his love for the arts and quest for perfection. After that first encounter, our meetings became regular, often over vada pav and chai at his Juhu Koliwada studio.

Nandu Bhende
Nandu Bhende

Each time, he made it a point to speak about the Beatles, and after a while I was convinced that he knew more about the band than the four of them put together.

He had other favourites from that era — The Doors, The Who, Moody Blues, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival — and he would love talking of each song of theirs. And it wasn’t only rock music. Anyone with a great voice held his attention, be it Aretha Franklin, Andrea Bocelli or Adele.

While I was too young to see him during his 1970s peak, one got a chance to see him often at Not Just Jazz By The Bay in the 2000s, playing classic rock beauties with a band that included the brilliant guitarist Keith Viegas.

Invariably, he would dedicate Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love to me. In 2002, a group of friends with similar musical tastes started an un-named, underground rock listening club, which I moderated. Some 70 members from various walks of life were part of this club.

Whenever our regular venue didn’t work out, we just had to call Nandu, and he would book the studio’s terrace. In these sessions, the club would choose a particular band or theme, and play CDs and DVDs accordingly. The sessions we held at Nandu’s place included the Rolling Stones, Traffic, Ten Years After and Velvet Underground, and how he loved hosting those evenings.

Whatever Nandu heard or practised, he ensured he would get into the deepest intricacies. His quest for knowledge was unbelievable, and he was such an articulate speaker he made the most complex subjects sound so simple. He also loved discovering young talent, never missing an opportunity to judge a school or college competition.

The last time we met over a month ago, he was excited about how his Beatles tribute in January exceeded all expectations. “We plan to do this regularly,” he had said. Sadly, destiny decided otherwise. We’re sure John and George will get to hear some great stories about the Beatles.

Narendra Kusnur is a Mumbai-based music critic

The Last Score

A couple of months ago I called Nandu Bhende to request him to play at an event at Blue Frog. My book, India Psychedelic Story of a Rocking Generation was being launched and I had interviewed him extensively for it. He was an important and inextricable part of the Bombay rock scene in the 1970s and it was befitting that he also be part of the launch of the book.

Who else will be playing, he asked me. I rattled off the names: Suresh and Deveika Bhojwani, the Savages, Joe Alvares, all the people who were Nandu’s contemporaries and fellow musicians. “Count me in,” he said, and that was it. No discussion of money, performance fees or even where he would fit in the line up. That was not Nandu’s style. He didn’t have a band of his own but it took him a couple of days to put a group of musicians together.

I can safely say that he blew the room away. He sang the Beatles, a medley from the rock opera Tommy, a number from Jesus Christ Superstar (Heaven on their Minds), and when the crowd screamed for an encore, he performed his signature number, Nights in White Satin, which used to make the girls swoon when he was the undisputed star of the Bombay rock world.

Sadanand Bhende, to give his real name, was the son of well known Marathi stage actors Atmaram and Asha Bhende. She was the sister of the poet Nissim Ezekiel and the economist Hannan Ezekiel. His parents had brought back several records of Broadway musicals from the US after a stint there and he picked up a love for western music listening to those records. As a college student, a friend heard him sing and suggested they set up a band, which was called Velvette Fogg.

I first saw him as a young, long haired singer more than four decades ago. That was his first band and it became very popular at socials and concerts; it was with Velvette Fogg that he won an award at the Simla Beat Contest in 1971. A year later, he was playing for a few months with Brief Encounter at the Taj Mahal Hotel’s disco Blow Up and when that broke up, he set up Savage Encounter with Bashir Shaikh and the others from the Savages.

Nandu was a draw at most performances, with his trademark kurta, denim flares and kolhapuri chappals-I was astonished to see a picture of his in a double breasted suit (with the hair as wild as ever) and he appeared a bit sheepish when he told me it was because the management of some five star hotel where he was playing insisted upon it.

Nandu’s pinnacle came when he was chosen to play Judas Iscariot in the Alyque Padamsee directed rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. The role of Jesus was played by Madhukar Dhas of Atomic Forest, another Bombay rock star of the time and both were perfect foils to each other. The play drew record crowds and Padamsee’s gamble of using rock singers paid off handsomely. Padamsee has been trying to revive the opera and Nandu was excited about possibly acting again.

After Superstar, Nandu worked closely with director Jabbar Patel who was directing Teen Paisa cha Tamasha, a Marathi translation by P L Deshpande of Brecht’s Three Penny Opera, playing the lead role of Ankush. Patel wanted him to come up with something totally different, so Nandu composed all the Marathi songs in rock music style; the play was a smash hit, especially with youngsters who found this departure from convention refreshing.

Just recently, after he revived singing in public, including performing a Beatles tribute, Nandu suggested the idea of a 1970s revival-he was quite excited at the response at Blue Frog and other venues. We agreed to talk about it in detail. Now he has gone off to the rock concert in the sky and is no doubt planning to sing, Nights in White Satin to regale everyone.

Sidharth Bhatia is a journalist and author of India Psychedelic: Story of a Rocking Generation

Voices

I know Nandu since the time I started working as a musician. We were together in the same band, Savage Encounter, and hence travelled together, stayed together and we were both foodies. He was a big influence, and I know his family very well too.

Leslie Lewis (right) with Hariharan
Leslie Lewis (right) with Hariharan

I wanted to go to study guitar in America, Nandu asked me, “What will you do later?” My plans were to work there, he said you will play Blues or Jazz or Rock, but they already have the baap of every genre.

So why don’t you do something unique, give to the world what is yours. This actually planted a thought in my head and is one of the reasons for Colonial Cousins (his band with singer Hariharan). - Leslie Lewis

We all performed a month ago at Blue Frog at Sidharth Bhatia’s book launch. My husband Suresh, Nandu and I were all there, we sang Let it be together. He was full of life, an amazing guy who used his talent to train others with the voice training school he started for youngsters.

Deveika and Suresh Bhojwani
Deveika and Suresh Bhojwani

My association with him goes back to the Jesus Christ Superstar days, when we worked together on this production by Alyque Padamsee. We have known each other for many years and this news is so tragic that I couldn’t believe when I first heard in the morning. - Deveika Bhojwani

As told to Dhara Vora, Maleeva Rebello

Who was Nandu Bhende?
>> A veteran rock star from the 70s, Nandu Bhende’s birth name was Sadanand Atmaram Bhende.
>> He was the front man of rock bands from Mumbai such as Savage Encounter, Atomic Forest and Velvette Fogg.
>> In the 1980s as a playback singer in Bollywood film Disco Dancer, Bhende received a Gold Disc for his singing.
>> Bhende sung playback for Hindi films for music directors like RD Burman, Laxmikant Pyarelal and Bappi Lahiri.

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