The Savages and the Summer of '69
Updated: Feb 20
The Calcutta Mail pulls into Howrah Station and four teenagers from Bombay stumble out the iconic red-brick-white-arch façade into the blistering heat of Bengal. It’s May 1969. The summer days are sultry and sweltering.
The Savages are going on tour: Bombay-Delhi-Chandigarh-Bangalore. Touted as India’s hottest new rock-act, they’re currently arriving in Calcutta. This is the mecca of live music in India and they’re playing at the most exciting venue in town – Trincas!
Suitcases, amplifiers, guitars and limbs are piled into two Ambassador taxis. The fare to Park Street is an exorbitant 5 Rupees!
Prabhakar Mundkur - fresh-faced, 16, a keyboardist, a singer, and currently absconding from school, is living the dream – music in the spotlight and gigs that pay money. This is the first time any of The Savages are independent and on their own dime. Bashir Sheikh on drums, Hemant Rao on lead guitar and Ralph Pais on base. They’ve been signed by Trincas for a 6-week stint as part of the Evening Cabaret show (7:30 to 11:30 PM).
“Cabaret”, before we imagine too much, is the term used for live floor-shows. The show at Trincas features music, magic, dancing, drama and of course fabulous food. There’s a showmanship to the entire affair – a master of ceremonies, a spotlight, costumes for performers, formal dress-codes for guests… think of an extravagant night in Paris, and you’d have a comparable scenario on hand!
A jazz band opens the show every evening, replete with trumpet, saxophone and piano. There’s sultry Eve on vocals who’s already broken innumerable hearts. The Savages play Wilson Pickett, Manfred Mann and Steppenwolf among other soul/rock numbers (now classics!). Their opening tune is The Savage by The Shadows.
Sam-The-Sham intersperses the musical performances with magic tricks, occupying the dinner audience’s attention while the stage changes over. From pranking the tall, handsome darwan at Trincas’ front door and (literally) hypnotising the audience, this IIT graduate with his ingenuity and self-taught tricks will go on in later years to establish India’s best known magic and novelty business - Funtime Magic.
Another famous act in the summer of 1969 is Ben Ryder who sings Engelbert Humperdink and Tom Jones for the ladies. He’s pitch perfect with his baritone and has a fan following to prove it.
The last performance of the night though, is the icing on the decadent Trincas cake. Flamboyantly dressed Holly White performs artfully choreographed burlesque numbers. Before the spotlight winks out into complete darkness, she removes one very last strategic piece of clothing. The audience is enthralled, aghast! Unbeknownst to most, Holly is actually a Mr Francis Fraser from Byculla, Bombay. This is drag in it’s 1960s avatar, and people are mad for more! S/he has them under her spell.
In the weeks spent performing at Trincas, Calcutta feels like a wakeup – from the seamier side of Freeschool Street (where the band almost spent their first night), to the enclaves of art and expression. It’s an introduction to sophisticated taste; to the urbane culture of the well-traveled and well-read; to the joys of being young, relevant, independent and in one of the most exciting times in recent history.
People in Calcutta are listening to Janis Joplin, Morrison and Hendrix – they’re way ahead of Bombay in 1969! At the late night parties in sprawling apartments sprinkled across South Calcutta - the boys run with a foreign prince, models, struggling artists and the sons and daughters of CEOs and industrialists. On Park Street, they meet a girl with short blonde hair in a suit who calls herself Valerie French and wields a mean knife; there are turbaned doormen with tales as tall as them; and a posse of girls nicknamed the vampires who prey on visiting bands - characters everywhere fill their days and could fill the pages of some exotic novel from an exotic time!
Towards the middle of June, with the monsoon sweeping in over the city, the skies fill with clouds. It’s the last show of The Savages’ contract. The audience rumbles to it’s feet, eyes fill with tears. It’s been an amazing summer… for the boys, for Trincas, for everyone…
The Savages will go on to have a successful musical run, cutting several recordings with HMV and Polydor Records. Prabhakar will leave the band in 1973, sell his piano and his guitar, complete his schooling and become a successful advertising professional. He’ll take up music again, multiple times in fact! First loves are hard to leave behind.
For the rest of 1969 though, there’s a new act in town… a girl from Madras, wrapped in a Kanjivaram saree, who sings like a dream… The show at Trincas must of course go on!
This story is part of the Trincas Timeline Project - an exciting community-based memory project aimed at collecting stories, photos, and anecdotes going back almost a hundred years.
It aims to cover not just Trincas’ storied history, but also provide glimpses of ‘the Park Street Scene’ and Calcutta/Kolkata as it has evolved over the last century.
The project focuses on history, culture, music and food by connecting with patrons, musicians, celebrities and historians.
Anecdotes, photos and interviews are converted into short blog posts documenting the personal connections that so many Calcuttans past and present have with this iconic institution.
The goal is to collect a living history of sorts under one virtual roof and create a cultural treasure-house for present and future generations.