The Beat Goes On

Musicians recall a groovy competition

01 March, 2014

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.

Simla Beat 1970 was followed by Simla Beat 1971. The two compilations were largely forgotten in subsequent decades, until they were reissued on LP in 1999 and on CD in 2000. Perhaps due to the novelty value of 1960s Indian rock, the albums are now prized by international collectors. Kingshuk Niyogi, a Delhi-based music critic, told me that the Simla Beat LPs represent the first flowering of original English rock in India. While some tracks on the records are covers of classic rock bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and Cream, these are outnumbered by original compositions. “The playing is rudimentary, the equipment poor, and honestly some of the songs are pretty bad,” Niyogi said. “Yet, when you consider how covers-singing bands are looked down upon, and the way Indian original rock music has emerged, Simla Beat certainly represents a slice of Indian music history.” The records show that by the mid 1960s rock had made inroads deep into India; the artists featured on the LPs hailed from as far afield as Bombay, Calcutta, Bangalore, Madras, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Darjeeling, Cuttack and Shillong.

Sherlock Giri, whose Shillong-based band The Fentones won the contest in 1971 and recorded two tracks for Simla Beat 1971, said the competition had been intense. He thought The Fentones won primarily because they “performed only originals and used a lot of vocal harmonies without relying on gadgets so much.” He recalled giving interviews and signing autographs after the competition.

As the first rock band from the north-east to win a national contest, The Fentones were felicitated at public functions across the region. After the competition, Giri started to teach music, and continued to play with The Fentones until they disbanded in 1997. He is now in his late sixties, and his voice quivered over the phone from Shillong. “Winning the contest was just the encouragement we needed as young musicians,” he said. “It set me on the music path.” As I discovered, it was a path Giri never left: our chat was cut short by the arrival of a group of young music students at his door.