Seventies Obsession: Mumbai’s Atomic Forest And The Original Hipster Era
With their 1977 LP being reissued, Mumbai rock band Atomic Forest lead vocalist Madhukar Chandra Dhas looks back at the original hipster era
Nostalgia seekers have a lot to thank eBay for. in 2006, Eothen Alapatt aka Egon, the founder of American independent label Now-Again Records chanced upon two LPs recorded by Atomic Forest, one of the most popular beat groups from Mumbai that was formed in the early 1970s. While Egon managed to buy just one LP, he was driven to rediscover the band. Egon, 34, jokes that Obsession, the LP of covers and originals released by the band in 1977, required him to take on the roles of forensic scientist, private investigator and music archaeologist. The label head tracked down Atomic Forest’s lead singer Madhukar Chandra Dhas in New York, and spent six years readying the re-release of Obsession on both vinyl and CD formats.
The album Obsession was a reflection of the time when audiences demanded covers and bands in turn introduced them to the classic rock acts of the West. Says 62-year-old Dhas, or Madhoo as he likes to be known, in an interview over the phone, “At that time, bands couldn’t perform in India so we did covers and the more you sounded like the original the better. That’s the way people heard the Rolling Stones, Deep Purple or Pink Floyd and how Atomic Forest got started.”
Obsession moves from earnest, quirky covers of the Beatles, Jethro Tull, Jimi Hendrix, and Deep Purple to overblown rock opera via the most funky, psychedelic garage rock you’ve ever heard. “Obsession 77 (Slow)” is a tough, rolling funk number, while “Butterfly Version 1” is noisy psych-rock replete with vibrating melodies and funky tablas. Dhas’s vocal range, and mimicry, is remarkable, but what really stands out is the album’s crackling energy, DIY feel and the wild experimentation.
Dhas, who joined Atomic Forest in 1972 when he was 23, was spotted when he was on stage essaying the lead in Alyque Padamsee’s adaptation of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. “I’d work all day at an ad agency until 6 p.m., finish work and go straight to Birla Hall for Jesus Christ Superstar. I would finish the show covered in fake blood but had no time to wash it off then cab it to the Taj to play two gigs with Atomic Forest until 1 a.m. Oh jeez, they were fun days,” recollects Dhas.
Nandu Bhende, lead vocalist of The Savages, another Seventies beat group, describes Atomic Forest as “the only major competition of that time.” The band’s line-up included Dhas on lead vocals, Neel Chattodpadhyaya on lead guitar, Keith Kanga on bass and Valentine Lobo on drums.
Bhende too briefly joined Atomic Forest in 1976 as its lead vocalist. “The band had many versions and it was quite chaotic being a part of it also because the band members were heavily into drugs,” adds Bhende, referring to a side of the band that led to Dhas distancing himself from it as well. The band would jam and hang out at Jony Castle, a crumbling mansion in South Mumbai, where Kanga lived with his grandmother. Music was hard to come by and extremely expensive to buy in the Seventies. Perhaps a holidaying friend, travelling-on-business family member, or an Air India airhostess girlfriend may have been able to smuggle a handful of tapes, explains Dhas. Access to equipment was even harder, which led to bass player Kanga becoming Atomic Forest’s main man. Kanga could afford the equipment, thanks to his doting grandmother (he was orphaned as a child).
The mansion also housed a brothel and soon turned into a den of nefarious activities in true rock & roll tradition. Kanga and the rest of the band began experimenting with mind-altering substances. Says Dhas, “I didn’t take drugs. I didn’t even smoke. I was brought up in a staunch Christian family where everything was taboo. I was too scared to play Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar because I thought something bad would happen to me,” explains Dhas.
Dhas recalls a night at the now defunct South Mumbai nightclub Slip Disc when the band was in the middle of covering Joe Cocker’s “Bathroom Window.” “Neel had a solo, but was so out of it he just stood there. Neel took Speed and then Mandrax to bring him down and would become incoherent. Keith went up to him and said, ”˜Play your solo,’ and Neel slapped Keith and his false teeth went flying. Keith decided Neel had to go and I had to tell him. I really wept that day and never spoke to Neel again,” says Dhas.
Eventually, the hedonistic chaos took a heavy toll on Atomic Forest. “It didn’t matter whether we got paid because Keith took all the money and blew it on drugs,” says Dhas. Kanga eventually lost his battle with addiction and passed away in the early Eighties, according to Dhas. “Keith would do anything to pay for drugs. We had a contract for the Blow Up club at the Taj and a Vietnamese band came to Bombay, and asked if they could jam with our kit. The next day Keith told us that he had rented all our equipment to them because he would get more money, so we were out of a job, there and then,” explains Dhas, who moved on and began performing solo in 1975.
But Dhas’s journey with Atomic Forest was not without its highs. The vocalist’s chance meeting with Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page is one of the most memorable episodes from Atomic Forest’s glory days. “We hung out at Slip Disc, a dive bar underneath a whorehouse used by shippies, and one night Robert Plant and Jimmy Page walked in. They were staying at the Taj, but the manager there wouldn’t let them into the club because he looked at their kurtas and chappals and thought they were hippies. So they put on their best clothes and came to Slip Disc,” laughs Dhas.
Dhas was introduced to Plant as “India’s best singer.” He recalls Plant asking him, “What kind of music do you do?” “I stammered ”˜We try to copy you.’ I don’t think he was impressed. He then went on stage and did “Honky Tonk Woman.” Dhas, who stood merely 10 feet away from Plant, found himself right next to him when Plant broke into “Whole Lotta Love.” “Plant broke the microphone during “Whole Lotta Love.” I was next to him and hearing him screaming into my ear is one of my all time highs,’ he says.
Dhas remembers that there was a tape of the delirious set at Slip Disc that night. “It’s lost now,” he says, “Keith sold it to buy drugs.”