ABOUT A DECADE AGO, one of Nondon Bagchi’s friends gave him a CD of some four-decade-old Indian rock that was attracting attention on the internet. When he played the CD, Bagchi, a drummer based in Kolkata, heard what initially “seemed like strange music from long back.” But then he started to recognise some songs, and memories came flooding back.
The CDs featured music from the Simla Beat contests—national battle-of-the-bands competitions, held yearly between 1968 and 1972. The contests were sponsored by the Imperial Tobacco Company (now ITC Limited), and named after its brand of menthol cigarettes, Simla. After regional qualifying rounds, the best bands competed in a final round in Bombay. In 1970, when Bagchi was a 17-year-old with hair down to his waist, his band Great Bear won the Delhi round. In Bombay, they performed an improvised piece titled ‘Mist.’ It was later recorded and released on the LP Simla Beat 1970, which featured songs from that year’s finalists. ‘Mist’ had faded from Bagchi’s memory until, years later, he heard it again on the CD.
When I spoke to him over the phone in early February, Bagchi remembered the contest fondly. “We were snobs,” he said. “We looked down on [Bombay] bands playing The Doors while we were into the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan.” Great Bear were given one-way air tickets to Bombay, leaving them to make their own way home after the finals. The band took their music very seriously; their frontman, Dilip Balakrishnan, repeated a year of college to take part in the competition because the preliminaries had coincided with his exams.