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Home / Music / Panchgani's wild strawberry

Panchgani's wild strawberry

Freddie Mercury - lead singer of the group Queen - learned to play the piano and first performed on the stage at St Peter's boarding school in Panchgani, Maharashtra. On his birthday today, we look at his life and his first gay contact in school. Barney Henderson writes.

music Updated: Sep 05, 2011 14:48 IST
Barney Henderson
Barney Henderson
Hindustan Times

Freddie Mercury - lead singer of the group Queen - learned to play the piano and first performed on the stage at St Peter's boarding school in Panchgani, Maharashtra. He also had his first homosexual relationship at the school, his teachers say.

India has, however, turned its back on the man that many claim is its only truly global superstar. Very few people now think of Freddie Mercury as an Indian Parsi man.

Listed as one of the 100 Greatest Britons in a 2002 BBC poll, there is a statue of Freddie in Switzerland, and a huge figure of him has looked down on central London, to promote the hit Queen musical, We Will Rock You, since 2002. In India, all that remains is the burnt-out shell of a Moutrie piano.

The beginnings
Farrokh was born to Parsi parents Bomi and Jer Bulsara in Zanzibar. The family surname is derived from the town of Bulsar (also known as Valsad) in southern Gujarat.

When he was seven, Farrokh moved to Mumbai where he stayed with an aunt and in February 1955, he was sent to St Peter's — a boarding school in the English tradition, high in the foothills around Pune.

There was an emphasis on etiquette at the school that remains, and cricket continues to be played in perfect, lily-white flannels.

Farrokh, they say, was a quiet child who excelled at art and music. He was a good footballer and also boxed for the school, although his left hook wasn't up to much. Academically, his strengths were English and history. At 12, he was awarded a Junior All-Rounder trophy for all his achievements.

Looking back at Farrokh
The only teacher at the school who has any memory of the prodigy is Peter Patrao, the school's ecological curriculum advisor and former maths teacher.

"He was a fairly nondescript boy with buckteeth," Patrao recalls. "The other boys called him 'Buckie', which he hated and that was may be how he came up with the name Freddie, to beat the bullies. (Freddie's famous overbite was caused by the presence of four extra teeth that pushed his incisors out. He never had surgery on it for fear of it affecting his unique voice).

Freddie formed his first band at the school with four other pupils and played concerts that were popular with the town's 3,000 inhabitants. "His band was called The Hectics, but everyone in the town knew them as The Heretics because they were so different and extreme for the time," said Patrao.

The Hectics covered hits of Cliff Richard, Elvis Presley and Little Richard, as well as more traditional Indian classical music and choir music. Freddie later listed Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar as his early musical idols, and it is not hard to spot the Bollywood influences on Queen's high camp splendour and ceremony or the baroque flourishes in their music.

Early gay days
It was around this time that the young Freddie began to explore his sexuality, and in the all-male dormitories, it is likely that he had his first homosexual experiences. "Homosexuality exists in any school and it was certainly did in St Peter's at the time that Freddie was a student here," says Patrao.

It is Freddie's sexuality that has led to the Parsi community and India spurning the musician who has become a hero to so many around the world.

"When he moved to Mumbai, he was apparently close to a boyfriend there," Patrao said. "His father would have been informed and I'm sure very disappointed. The family has a very rigid background going back generations, and Zoroastrians completely forbid homosexuality."

The signs were there early on.

"It was very obvious that Freddie was different from the other boys," Smith recalls. "He would run around calling everyone 'darling' and he often got over-excited. At that time we didn't understand things like being gay. I once asked my mother why he was like that and she just told me that some people are different.

"At school, I think he had a bit of a tough time. I think he was put upon a lot in the dormitory and my mother said that his escape route was the art room and his music."

For die-hard Queen fans from around the world, St Peter's is a Mecca, and there are many that make the pilgrimage.

"We do get Queen fans coming to the school quite regularly," said Patrao. "A couple of years ago, five Czech students broke into the school at night and slept on the school playground. We had always known Freddie was big but it is incredible that people still come from so far just to see his old school."

However, students at the school are not told about the famous former student.

A Mecca in denial
"It is a two-way thing in terms of rejection. He is not accepted in this school or in India because he was gay, and as Indians we are not yet 'cool' with that. But Freddie also turned his back on his Indian roots. He had a problem with it and never talked about it."

When Freddie arrived in London in early 1964, he was mocked for his colonial accent. He never publicly discussed his life in India and it is claimed that he wanted to pass for a white European pop star. Many critics agree that he could never have made it had his Indian connections been more prominent when he was at his peak.

Former Queen band member Roger Taylor told the ITV documentary A Kind of Magic: "He did play it down a bit (being Indian). I think it was because he felt people wouldn't equate being Indian with rock and roll."

Freddie saw himself as Persian due to his Parsi roots, according to his family, and that he never talked about his past because he was the kind of person who always looked to the future.

Back in Panchgani, Freddie has faded.

"Freddie Mercury is totally dead in this school and town," said Mathew Skariah, information technology master at St Peter's. "People do not talk about him any more."

All that remains is Freddie's old piano.

"Ten years after he died, in the same week, a fire devastated the school hall where he performed. I don't think it was a coincidence," says Patrao. The piano where he learnt to play is now a burnt-out shell — much like the man himself."

Freddie died in November 1991 of bronchial pneumonia resulting from AIDS.