1st December is World’s AIDS day and a release by UNAIDS on this occasion strangely brought to my mind images of two odd-ball icons of our teenage years. New cases of HIV infections have come down by 50% in India between in last one decade (2000-2009) – this is very much in line with other HIV/AIDS hotspots around the world, like most parts of Africa. This is mainly due to increased awareness about this deadly disease. First documented death from HIV/AIDS was that of Robert R – an Afro-American teenager, whose death in 1969 baffled doctors as AIDS was not ‘discovered’ until 1981. But the first time American public came to know about the disease is actually when Rock Hudson became the first celebrity to openly acknowledge it shortly before his death in 1985. Death or infection of a few more celebrities made Americans more conscious about various methods, through which this disease can spread. For instance it was the shocking announcement that their famous basketball star Magic Johnson has been diagnosed with HIV made a whole lot of people aware that HIV may be contracted due to multiple heterosexual partners also (up until then it was thought to be spread only through homosexuals). At the same time Magic Johnson’s heroic battle against HIV/AIDS helped spread the message that HIV could be successfully combated.
In India of early 1990s, AIDS was still a taboo subject to be mentioned in general newspapers or magazines let alone in family dinner table. Infections and subsequent death of two very odd-ball Indian celebrities from AIDS forced the mainstream media to at least mention it. I keep on saying odd-ball because we do not have much right to claim Freddie Mercury (1946-1991) - as an Indian celebrity and I doubt, how many Indians have actually heard of the other celebrity victim - Rohit Khosla (1958-1994). First time I learned that AIDS is a deadly disease and there is no cure for it is when I read that Freddie Mercury’s death (he acknowledged it only a day before his death that he had AIDS). I am never a regular music buff and my knowledge of all genres of music is very limited. But as a Bengali in Calcutta one is bound to be surrounded by all types of music aficionados and it is this passive listening which made me aware of Freddie Mercury’s existence as one of the leading rock stars of that time (he continues to be rated as one of the greatest singers ever even 20 years after his death).
Freddie Mercury was born Farokh Balsara in Zanzibar in a Parsi family from Balsar(Valsad), Gujarat. He spent his early years in Panchgani, where he studied in a boarding school and Bombay. When his family shifted to England, young Farokh at the age of 17, also joined them. For the rest of his life he remained a British citizen. A singer and musician since his school days, Farokh – who liked to be known as Freddie – became famous when he formed the band Queen with Brian May and Roger Taylor in 1970. It was then he changed his name from Freddie Balsara to Freddie Mercury. As the song writer and lead vocalist for Queen, Freddie became world famous. I did not know about his flamboyant stage performance then but what we all knew were his super hit songs like Bohemian Rhapsody, Little Thing Called Love and We Are The Champions. Later on I learned that Freddie Mercury was bisexual – don’t remember that being mentioned in newspapers and magazines I used to read. I also learned that not only for me or my friends, in the global history of AIDS awareness Freddie Mercury’s death was an important event as he was the first rock star to have died of AIDS.
Today’s generation will laugh at us but as teenagers we were greatly excited when a second channel of Doordarshan – DD2 or DD Metro was launched in late 1980s. There used to be a programme on fashion once a week around 7.30 PM in DD Metro– unfortunately I have forgotten the name of the programme - which much like Pop Time (Sunday evening) opened our window to high fashion. A number of fond memories are associated with this programme, not the least of which was seeing Aishwarya Rai as a ramp model in her initial days. It was in this programme I came across Rohit Khosla for the first time.
Rohit Khosla was India’s first fashion designer in the modern sense. He launched India’s first modern fashion store Ensemble (1987) along with Tarun Tahiliani and a few others and they were the first to launch their own names as a brand. Before them there were costume designers or anonymous shop-owner-tailor designers but haute couture had to wait till Rohit Khosla came back to India from the UK in mid-1980s. I hardly know anything about Rohit Khosla’s personal life apart from the fact that he studied at Doon School and went abroad for further study and a possible career there. As he told an interviewer in that programme, when he launched his fashion label the most frequent reaction from people used to be, ‘see this guy, he went to Doon School and abroad only to become a tailor!!’ Today as I search internet there is hardly any information on the life on India’s first fashion designer – there is a book by his sister, ‘Rohit Khosla, Vanguard’ – but the book is apparently not very easy to find. Not only he was a pioneer in terms of launching his own label, he also nurtured at least two generations of Indian fashion designers – Ensemble launched Tarun and Sal Tahiliani, Amaya, Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla. First batch of NIFT graduates also trained under him and the list includes, among others J J Valaya, Ranna Gill, Sonam Dobal, Aparna Chandra. As I said I don’t know anything about his personal life but I was stunned to know that he was dying of AIDS. There was hardly any detail or discussion about it. Rohit Khosla passed away in 1994.
Today a lot more people know about the disease and that has brought down the rate of infection – surely it is healthy sign and a tribute to NACO. But I cannot help thinking that had our media and society been open enough discussing these unfortunate deaths then Indians would have come to know the reality faster – much like what happened to Americans following the demise of legendary stars like Hudson or Arthur Ash or detection of Magic Johnson.
In 2007, India Fashion Week paid a tribute to Rohit Khosla. One of Rohit’s favourite models, Nafisa Ali – who famously modeled for his posthumous collection with a shaven head – today runs a home for HIV/AIDS affected people and she, according to her own admission, was moved by the memory of Rohit. Remaining members of Queen founded a trust in Freddie Mercury’s memory – Mercury Phoenix Trust - which has raised millions of dollars for AIDS charity.