Amma Rolls into a Rock N Roll Band
There was once upon a me in 1967: At Stella Maris College, Madras. Sari clad always, blouse neckline dipping to only a demure three inches, hair braided into a single plait, five feet seven tall, beanpole skinny, bespectacled ...the average B.Sc student, majoring in Math.
Who would have thought this is the rhythm guitarist for a groundbreaking, all-girls rock band?
Certainly not me. I did not see it coming.
I grew up in a family who greatly valued training in classical Carnatic music. I went through Carnatic vocal and veena classes for 12 years. To my mother’s sensibilities, western Pop and Rock were cacophony she endured only because I was so crazed about it.
I was addicted to Radio Ceylon’s Hit Parade, and Listener's Choice ever since I can recall. At ten, I learnt to play by ear popular tunes on the mouth organ. Soon thereafter, once I perfected the pro technique of “vamping” the harmonica, there was no stopping me. I yearned to play it along with a guitar and drum strapped to my back, like Bert (Dick Van Dyke) in Mary Poppins. And went so far as to rig up a harmonica frame with a wire clothes hanger. My next conquest was going to be the guitar.
How was I to convince my mother to buy me a guitar? A GUITAR ??! OMG. An instrument she associated with male, pony-tailed n’er do wells! I complied to veena lessons more to appease, and show my solidarity with her on stringed instruments. Meanwhile I assiduously cut out pictures of guitars from American magazines and trade glossies, and pasted them (minus any pony-tailed band members) on the wall facing my desk, with much the same fervor as youngsters who plaster their rooms with posters of their favorite celebrities.
Between doing school homework, I’d stare mesmerized at the images. For hours. Such visible obsessive homage paid to an instrument, I think made my mother relent. On my 16th birthday, I was allowed to order a custom-made acoustic guitar. I was delirious. The guitar was at my side at all times. I’d go to bed with the guitar. On waking up - I’d stroke it in the morning, stroke it in the evening, stroke it at supper time. ( As the song goes.)
Having made the big leap of having acquired a guitar, I knew I was on my own for any further progress. I bought myself a teach-yourself guitar book, and shut myself in the kitchen pantry, which served as a storeroom at home for rice, oils, dhals, vats of dried mirchi, pickles, spices, and the like. The closed confines of that windowless, stiflingly aromatic, six by six feet ‘room’ became, in my romantic view, a musician’s studio in the months that followed.
I deemed its reverberating hum acoustically superior to airy open spaces. Also, let’s face it, I wasn’t going to have family poke fun at my rookie guitar-playing. So, out of their sight and hearing, parked on high ground (quite literally) - on gunny sackfuls of hand-pounded rice in the storeroom - I’d practice till my left index finger and middle finger got cuts and bled, and eventually developed a layer of skin tissue at their tips that made pressing down on the frets - finally! - pain-free.
I had now acquired not only a proud pair of guitar-worthy fingers but also a repertoire of about ten chords that I’d hum to. Mostly major chords. I left Diminisheds, Sevenths, and the rest well alone. Much to my delight, I found I could get by mastering only a few chords -- like C, F, G, D, E minor -- if I kept humming only in one key! I’m no operatic singer anyway, and it is a limiting strategy - but hey, it got me going on chords.
Fast forward to 1967, to the Music & Dramatics Club Hall at Stella Maris College. I had just finished playing Beatles numbers on the harmonica to an enthusiastic, cheering crowd, when I overheard Lillian and Zilan discussing the viability of forming a beat group. Liilian it turned out was a keen guitarist; Zilan, being a hostelite, said she “could drum, if somebody could arrange to get drums”; and she knew of Brinda “who might be able to do rhythm”. So who will play bass? asked Lillian, evidently the more detail-oriented of the duo. Surprisingly, Sister David, the nun who headed the Music Department pointed to me, and said without hesitation, “Vepa here, can surely do it.”
Realize: I knew only ten chords. Was not familiar with a bass guitar, much less that it is four-stringed. More to the point, I did not own an electric guitar (...nor, excuse me, have a ready sponsor). “ Oh, that’s easy -- get your regular guitar fitted with a contact mic, for cheap And I’ll teach you bass on it for songs I’ll play as lead,” asserted Lillian, all agog and excited at the prospect.
That, sealed the deal.
We decided to name ourselves “The Uniques” because an all-girl rock band was truly novel in 1967, in Madras. For costume, we decided on black churidhar, black duppatta and white kameez, across the front of which we painted in black and white, a curvaceous, stylized electric guitar and a couple of dreamy, decorative treble clefs. (History buffs, note: At the time, not only were costumes like Madonna’s inconceivable, even a whisper of spaghetti straps was considered utterly scandalous.)
Sister David arranged the funds to get us a professional drum set and transport to venues where we called upon to perform. Trust me: Just being an all-girl band then was a draw. Or bait, if you will. Since none of us prided ourselves overly on our singing voices, we played instrumentals. Those of you born and raised in the ‘One Direction Era’ might be aghast - but, yes, there was a time when Rock ‘n Roll encompassed music without vocals. Groups like the Shadows and Ventures consistently reached the top of the charts, belting out foot-stomping, hip-shaking instrumentals.
We upped our tempo from slower-paced Sakura, Perfidia, and Greensleeves to the more upbeat Diamond Head, Walk Don’t Run, and Pipeline kind of tunes. A year later Brinda graduated and left college. I transitioned to being rhythm guitarist; and Asha, a junior, in turn, filled in on bass, the castanets, tambourine -- and more. With our backing and a voice as captivating as Karen Carpenter’s, Asha was a huge hit, wildly encored for her crowd-pleasing vocals: Boots, Lemon Tree, Summer Wine, My Baby Shot Me Down ...
And thus we jammed, foot loose and fancy-free, from one happy college event to the next.
So, what does it take to form a band? A level of musical ability, yes; but even more, a burning desire to make music together - as a group. Put together a motley crew of like-minded enthusiasts, some with great voices maybe, some playing instruments. If you don’t have drums, don’t let it stop you: grab a couple of skewers and drum on the dining table. See how awesome it feels, the energy, enthusiasm, and synergy of generating music collectively. Of having fun yourselves as performers, and providing loads of fun to an audience.
Experience it! Today, that’s what I urge my grandkids to do. There are no words to describe the high of playing as a band.