With the passing away of Amit Saigal on January 5 (aged 46) in a drowning accident in Goa, the rock community has truly lost a friend. Amit used to strum a guitar occasionally, but was better known as an impresario who helped redraw the music map of young India. In the heady ’60s and ’70s there was the Junior Statesman—launched in 1965—from Calcutta which featured musicians and rock fests (both Indian and international) and gave music a push. After it folded up, came the ’80s, when music reached a dead end. Of course, there were some exceptions of musicians bringing out albums of their own compositions. But, in the main, many groups were reduced to playing a handful of college gigs and then calling it quits. So, several enthusiastic men and women gave up their first passion for more conventional jobs. Others played covers of Hotel California and Cocaine in restaurants. It was very few who saw Rock as a viable career option.
It was into this milieu that Amit first plunged in with his Rock Street Journal (RSJ) in the early ’90s. Driven by an unbelievable commitment and passion for music, he and his team began featuring upcoming local bands as well as reviewing albums of path-breaking international acts. The sceptics did not see the magazine going very far. But Amit was always brimming with optimism. He saw a rock band playing, lights and all, at the end of the tunnel.
In 1995, he organised the first of the Great Indian Rock (GIR) concerts. In the run-up to it, RSJ ran a talent hunt of sorts. Musicians/bands were invited to submit a recording of their own composition with the promise that the best tracks would be brought out in a compilation that would be distributed with the magazine. Amit’s constant refrain to musicians was: “Write your own material. Express yourself, be creative—and go into the recording studio and take a chance and see if it works”. His clarion call struck a chord from Shillong to Kochi. More than 150 demo tapes landed up at the RSJ office in Delhi. Then began the process of identifying the best work. In the first compilation, 14 tracks made the grade and the fledgling indie scene got a major fillip. Bands one hadn’t heard of suddenly could be played on the sound system at home. Amit used to refer to this music as the “Indian underground” and his effort the “beginnings of a revolution”. There were many who thought he was being presumptuous. But, over the years, he proved his detractors wrong.
Several bands from across the country, representing various genres—rock, metal, core metal, fusion and what have you—got exposure through the GIR CD releases. They went on to cut albums of their own and landed gigs at venues where they drew the crowds. Indie rock was suddenly being taken seriously and A&R managers of some of the record labels became interested in the groups. Some even got the opportunity to play at festivals abroad. Heavy metal bands from Europe began to headline at GIR concerts. What had started as a small beginning had grown. Rock was no longer a few concerts played in college festivals and forgotten. Amit changed all that. In rock circles, he was known as Papa Rock. He had his own fan following. Many saw in him a strong resemblance to the former Black Sabath frontman, Ozzy Osbourne. With his long, flowing hair, he was applauded everytime he came on stage to introduce a band. But it was not just GIR that he launched. There were the pubfests featuring groups that became popular across the metros and have now become a regular feature on the music calendar.
Amit had come to the Outlook office when the first GIR tape was released. Being a rather unassuming person, he just wanted the magazine to focus on the music and those who contributed to the album. “It’s not about me. It’s about the music,” he said. But one couldn’t keep him out, since he was at the centre of it all. Till his untimely end, Amit remained completely committed to his passion—that’s why the music fraternity will miss him.