I am a totally unreliable witness of India in the 1960s as I first visited India in 1981. My vision of India in the 1960s is imaginary, thanks to books, but above all to the films of the period.
The ’60s marked the end of the post-Independence Nehruvian Golden Age but filmmakers were looking even further back into the past, when Europeans had barely strayed into the lands of the Great Mughal. The narrator of the voiceover that opens Mughal-e-Azam is of India himself (no Bharat Mata speaking here), recalling a time when Muslims and Hindus mixed and intermarried and India was united, and the great Mughal, Akbar, himself worshipped Krishna.
A more critical self-assessment was forced on India by China, with the 1962 war, and two years later India’s great helmsman, Nehru, died. Kaifi Azmi’s and Madan Mohan’s Kar chale hum fida bring tears to my eyes for the end of what now seems like an age of innocence, when families sacrificed their young men and women even donated their jewellery in support of their new country. But pride is restored with Manoj Kumar’s unabashed nationalist paean, Upkar, as our soldier and farmer heroes herald the end of Nehru’s non-militarisation policy and the onset of the Green Revolution. Although the latter ended famine in India with its high-yielding crops and irrigation, it brought in overuse of fertilisers. Jai Jawan Jai Kisan (as my husband says every time he does some gardening). The ’65 war with Pakistan is not mentioned directly (1997’s Border is the first I recall) but must have been the campaign in which our hero fights. India’s new secular gods of the nationalist movement are celebrated in Mere desh ki dharti and no one had any idea that the ‘Gungi Gudiya’ was about to be a new charismatic leader.
Raj Kapoor’s Sangam takes us from this new militarisation – our heroine marries a man not out of love but because of his heroic sacrifices as an Air Force pilot – to the new consumerism. In his first colour film, RK whisks us to Europe, still in his military uniform, his bride in her sari, to prove to us India’s global standing and equality with the old colonial powers. His lover is more ‘forward’ than the girls in any Western nightclub – Buddha mil gaya.
In reality, foreign travel and foreign exchange could only be dreamed of and the West seemed far away. But the West was coming to India, whether as hippies seeking enlightenment, the new budget travellers or wealthy jetsetters. Goa finally joined India in 1961 though it did not become a travellers’ destination until later, while Rajasthani princes began to convert their palaces into hotels, notably Udaipur, visited by the First Lady, Jackie Kennedy, when still a private residence. Dev Anand played a guide in Udaipur who seduces a married woman, defrauds her, is imprisoned, then becomes a spiritual guru in the fully filmi treatment of RK Narayan’s novel, Guide. Domestic tourism rediscovered Kashmir as an earthly paradise, ignoring its simmering political discontent, while a whole host of films picturised it as a location for romance, conveniently populated by Hindus.
Shashi Kapoor became known overseas as the beautiful star of Merchant Ivory’s films, which picked over the conflict of modern and old India and were obsessed with sexual encounters and impossible romance between foreigners and Indians. Satyajit Ray, revered in the west after his great Apu trilogy, began to shoot films about urban Calcutta, its youth and its cinema stars as well as his costume dramas.
India’s new youth culture exploded on the Hindi film scene in the 1960s. Shammi Kapoor yelled ‘Yahoo!’ and gyrated exuberantly, while composers added Indian flavours to the twist and rock and roll. Indians experimented with informal Western fashion while the West discovered hippie chic. Bouffant hairstyles were in for women – and some of the men – and eyeliner was drawn almost to the ears. Sadhana became a style icon with her churidars, tight kurtas and fringes while others tied their saris dangerously low. Sharmila Tagore, the beauty first seen in Ray’s films, waterskiied and played a double role in An Evening in Paris, and shocked (and delighted) the public by wearing a bikini for a Filmfare photoshoot. By the end of the decade, she played a mother role (another double role) in Aradhana and married the peerless Indian cricketer, Nawab ‘Tiger’ Pataudi.
India’s beat poets were meeting and scribbling in coffee shops in then Bombay, and the Samovar opened its doors to the city’s bohemians. Bombay’s jazz performances ended before I heard them. In Calcutta, the gilded youths who weren’t joining the Naxalbari movement were playing Western rock in the nightclubs of Park Street. I missed seeing Calcutta’s Skyroom and Magnolia but did catch Olypub (earlier Olympia) and the Coffee House. Initially a little disappointed in the latter, my imagined participation in furious debate was rekindled when a student yelled, “I thought that too, the first time I read Hegel”.
The food my grandmother made me in ’60s Britain was preserved in India’s ‘Continental’ menus. Now that so many choices are available it’s hard to recall that there were only a handful of places like Spencer’s in Madras, Wenger’s in Delhi and Flury’s in Calcutta, even in the 1980s. Kwality restaurants were a luxury then, with their cold interiors so dimly lit that I invariably tripped when entering, probably suggesting I was a drunken and disreputable teenager rather than an earnest student of Sanskrit.I never heard Hamid Sayani’s Ovaltine Hour on Radio Ceylon but I smiled as if I had when Ameen Sayani read the credits of Tanu Weds Manu. All this belied what I read of ’60s India in Naipaul’s Area of Darkness, but I didn’t have a personal score to settle. My first contact with India was also in that decade. A Punjabi girl joined the all-white local infants school in Northumberland I attended for a very boring two years. I was fascinated with why she wore trousers and a dress (a salwar kameez). She and her mother made me chapatis, my mother and I baked her scones. I wore the glass bangles they gave me until they broke.
Portuguese rule ends in Goa after over 400 years. The last shadow of colonialism vanishes with it
The first Sino-Indian war erupts over a border dispute. Hindi-Chini are not bhai-bhai
Prime Minister Nehru dies. A nation is orphaned
India and Pakistan fight the Second Kashmir War. It finally ends in a UN-mandated ceasefire
Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and Pakistani President Ayub Khan sign a Soviet-mediated peace pact in Tashkent
Lal Bahadur Shastri dies of a heart attack a day after signing the Tashkent Declaration. Indira Gandhi becomes Prime Minister
Ravi Shankar teaches Beatle George Harrison to play the sitar. Shankar becomes an overnight star
The Naxal movement is born after a left-wing peasant uprising in Naxalbari, West Bengal
India wins its first overseas cricket Test match in New Zealand
The Government of India issues an ordinance to nationalise the 14 largest commercial banks
Congress splits in two – one faction under Indira Gandhi, the other, Congress O, under K Kamaraj
The views expressed by the author are personal
Rachel Dwyer is a Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London. She is currently finishing her 11th book, ‘Bollywood’s India’.
Next week, The Fifties by Ashok Vajpeyi
From HT Brunch, July 29
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