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Death Metal and the Indian Identity

By
April 1, 2008

lowyindianmetal.jpg

Photography By Ben Lowy

It was near midnight on the eve of India’s independence, and I was at a concert called Freedom Jam, held at a club on the outskirts of Bangalore called only The Club. Watching the band perform from beside the stage, I noticed a girl with a nose ring. My grandmother’s nose was pierced when she married at thirteen; her nose ring was a sign that she adhered to a certain traditional image of Indian womanhood. For this girl, however, the ring indicated that she was not just westernized (such girls simply chose not to get their noses pierced) but a member of an alternative community that existed outside the mainstream of westernized Indian youth.

Essentially, the nose ring had traveled to the other side of the world, assumed a fringe rather than traditional meaning, and then come back to India, where it now has two different meanings. Such dual gestures exist in America, but they usually have one sincere and one ironic meaning—trucker hats on truckers, for example, as opposed to everyone else. In India, however, both meanings are perfectly sincere, both carry conviction.

Our group had left late for the show, stopping at a store on the side of the highway for a few bottles of whiskey. When we finally pushed through the turnstiles and found the promoter, all they could get was the 4 a.m. slot.

Pradyum was the band’s guitarist, and my friend. He had only slept a few hours over the past several days and I had been following my parents’ schedule, which involved getting up at 5 a.m, so we were both exhausted. The band on stage was playing a less-than-thrilling version of Roadhouse Blues, which had already been covered twice by two of the other bands. Pradyum and I decided on a nap before the show. Leaving the side of the main stage, we pushed through the immense crowd—ten thousand people all told—and made our way to a tiny red hatchback parked at the edge of the immense field surrounding The Club.

Pradyum fell asleep immediately in the backseat while I slapped at the mosquitoes. It was extremely humid. The bass from the concert faintly vibrated the car, and I could swear someone was playing Roadhouse Blues again.

~ ~ ~

I met Pradyum through my father. One summer, just before I was to go to Bangalore to visit my parents, my Dad asked if I was willing to bring something with me—a guitar, for a colleague’s son. I was out of college and could only visit them for a few weeks, so I had space for another piece of luggage. I agreed to bring the guitar.

My grandmother’s nose ring was a sign that she adhered to a certain traditional image of Indian womanhood. For this girl, the ring indicated that she was not just westernized but a member of an alternative community.

A week later, I got an email from Pradyum: “With regard to customs,” he wrote, “if I could only get one of your recent photographs, which your father said would not be a problem, I could arrange for a customs officer to have you escorted from the plane. Also, my band is called ‘Cremated Souls,’ may sound very morbid. We are a semi-pro death metal band.” He directed me to a website where I could check out his music.

The website was, mysteriously, in French. I muddled through it with the aid of a dictionary. The band was looking for a label and offered to send its demo to anyone who liked the mp3s they heard on the website. Par notre musique, they wrote, nous esperons capturer vos Ames…vos Ames incendiees. With our music, we hope to capture your souls…your cremated souls. There was a picture of four very serious-looking Indian boys dressed in black and posed in front of a cross in a graveyard.

The rest of the website was about the lack of appreciation for death metal in India—Nous avons souffert beaucoup, they wrote—which had forced the band to turn to the west for recognition. On the mp3 page, the band said that they wished to compose pieces that combined “melody and brutality.” The three songs on the website were named “Shattered Shield”, “Perceiving Resurrection”, and “Removal of the Fetus”. I tried “Shattered Shield”, which was identified as being about police and government corruption.

The song loaded. A single guitar played arpeggios on a slow, dark three-chord progression. The drums came in, and then some fairly complicated ornamentation from a second guitar. Wow, I thought, they’re pretty good. Then the drums started pounding bapbapbapbap, the guitars raged, and the vocals came in—grunts, growls, screams, all emerging from some place deep in the back of the throat. I couldn’t imagine what connection the words had to the Indian police force.

A few days later the guitar arrived; it was beautiful and black and, strangely, had seven strings. Remembering what Pradyum had said about the customs officer, I opened it to make sure it wasn’t stuffed with cocaine.

When I arrived at the Bangalore airport at two in the morning—my flight was hours late—all the Cremated Souls were there, waiting in the damp heat next to my tired parents. Pradyum was beaming. I handed him the guitar, and he gave me a box of Indian sweets with an invitation to come hear the band play.

A few days later Pradyum came to my parents’ house on a black Royal Enfield motorcycle, wearing a leather jacket. He was strong and well-built. I found out later that until a few years ago, he had been serious about track and field before a scooter accident had crushed his leg.

Pradyum would drop me off several times after this, but this was the only time he came inside. He was always afraid that he smelled like cigarettes (he smoked constantly) and that this would offend my parents. Once in the house, he complimented my mother on her beautiful home—and such a nice garden! This immense politeness was strangely incongruous. Looking just like James Dean, he had all the American gestures of rebelliousness, but without the appropriate American attitude.

Pradyum told me that most people in India were willing to listen to anything, that they didn’t believe in “identity music.”

After Pradyum had charmed my mother, we jumped on the bike and headed to his house to pick up some equipment for rehearsal. Pradyum wove around potholes while I hung on nervously to the back of the seat. I asked him why the website was in French, and he said that the Cremated Souls had sent their demo tape to a label in France. They hadn’t been signed, but another metal band had picked up the tape and liked it. It was this French band that set up the site for them.

“What does it say about us?” he asked.

I gave him the highlights.

Pradyum didn’t disagree with the site’s claims, although the band’s level of suffering and isolation had apparently been exaggerated. “We play all the time for many thousands of people. Delhi, Bombay. In the universities,” he said.

I asked him if there were many death metal fans in India, and he told me that most people in India were willing to listen to anything, that they didn’t believe in “identity music”—that is, they didn’t care enough about any one genre to build their identity around it. To Pradyum this wasn’t evidence of having an open mind, or enjoying as much as you could from a necessarily hybrid culture; instead he thought this Indian willingness to embrace everything was a variety of shallowness. The west was better in this way. Even playing to such large groups in India, he knew that he would eventually have to go to Europe or America to find a real audience. Pradyum bent the motorcycle into a turn; signs flashed by in four different languages.

Things that have been weighted down in the west with ironic associations—Scooby Doo T-shirts, hair metal, V-shaped guitars—had regained their innocence on the other side of the world.

When we arrived at his house, I discovered that he had painted his room black. “Don’t be scared,” he told me. His mother insisted that I sit down and immediately began bringing out plates of food. Pradyum, like every unmarried person around my age that I knew in India, still lived with his parents. A pretty, round-faced girl also started bringing me snacks. She introduced herself as Anitha and turned out to be Pradyum’s fiancée. Anitha said that she would come with us to the rehearsal but had to go to work later. She managed a call center for Alamo car rental at night, and then slept during the day. She was basically living on American hours. A couple of my cousins in Bangalore did this too, and they told me that entire malls and restaurants had sprung up in certain areas of the city to cater to people who followed these vampire schedules. One cousin told me that he went to such places after work to “freak out.” After much confusion, I discovered that this term has, like the nose ring, crossed the oceans to mean its exact opposite—in India, it means to relax or hang out.

I asked Anitha when she and Pradyum saw each other. She told me that there were always weekends and afternoons.

Pradyum called me into his room. “Do you want to see the guitar?” he asked. He opened up the case. “Look at these,” he said, pointing to the base of the strings. “These are Steve Vai’s pickups.”

I admired them with an expression of discernment.

“The pickups are the most important part of the guitar,” Pradyum explained. “I could not afford this guitar new. It was almost a thousand dollars even used.”

Pradyum, it turned out, was making some money from an Internet marketing business whose particulars I never quite understood. For a while he had done the call center thing too, which was how he and Anitha had met. But while Anitha stayed on at Alamo and became a manager, Pradyum had gotten sick of it and quit.

“Do they still make you change your names?” I asked Anitha.

“No,” she said. “We can be ourselves now.”

Almost all of Pradyum’s friends, most of whom were musicians, said that they had worked occasionally in call centers as well, taking jobs when they needed a little money and then quitting when they got tired. They all lived at home and didn’t need much. Generally, it seemed, it was no longer necessary to slowly build a career through extensive education and continuous professional diligence. A decent livelihood was available at any point, as long as one spoke English. This easy money allowed for a semi-bohemian lifestyle that hadn’t been possible or acceptable in India before. Until keeping a serious job was absolutely necessary, you could do anything you wanted with your time. This withdrawal of obligations was perhaps the first step in creating an artistic class outside the mainstream of a culture.

~ ~ ~

We piled the guitars and a few other pieces of equipment—amplifiers, pedals—into the car and drove to the band’s rehearsal site, a room on the roof of one of Pradyum’s relatives’ houses. There, I met the other members of the band: Ali, the drummer; Charlie, the vocalist; and Ganesh, the second guitarist. They were all standing outside smoking. Pradyum and Anitha went inside to greet the family.

The rest of the band wasn’t very talkative. Charlie was wearing a black shirt with something silver painted on it in jagged gothic letters. I looked at it: “Cytos…”

“Cryptopsy,” he said. Then he explained that it was a band he liked. He couldn’t find a t-shirt of theirs in India so he made it himself with red and silver puffy paint. Pradyum was wearing a History Channel t-shirt. I wondered if members of any American band would have worn these two items of clothing—a homemade shirt, and one that advertised for a television channel—without being enormously conscious of what they were doing, of aiming to produce some sort of effect. Things that have been weighted down in the west with ironic associations—Scooby Doo T-shirts, hair metal, huge striped V-shaped guitars like the one Ganesh had—had regained their innocence on the other side of the world. In India, they mean nothing more than what they are, and people either like them or don’t, but they never “like” them.

We went up to the roof and entered the band room—a dirty mattress, a busted-up acoustic guitar, and wires all over the ground. There was also an adjoining room I couldn’t see into, where the instruments were. The pedals for Ali’s two-bass drum kit were already set up, so the two of us talked while the other guys plugged in. He explained the world of metal to me. Like any fringe movement, it was prone to subdivision. There were different guitar and drum styles, every level of violence from low to horrifying, and various sets of subject matter—each one had its own genre. If you wanted to include dragons and castles in your lyrics, for example, that was its own genre.

All of the band members had their favorites—musicians, books, movies—and were excited to tell me about them: Pantera, Slayer, the novel Lost Horizon. This surprised me; most of the people I had met in India didn’t bother ranking the things that gave them pleasure. In fact, they were surprised and a little confused when I asked them to tell me their favorite anything. But Pradyum’s friends were like me; they naturally created hierarchies of value, building identities around pieces of culture, which necessitated ranking and exclusion.

In the other room, I could hear Charlie growling a few times to warm up his throat. “Ghraagh,” he said. “Bregkk.”

The band was ready. I walked over to the room with the drum set and realized from the pictures and statues that they were playing in the devramane—a small shrine that all reasonably devout Hindu families have somewhere in their house. There was a brightly colored picture of Parvati and statues of Shiva and Ganesha, along with oil lamps and other implements of devotion.

I looked around. “You’re going to play in here?” I asked.

Pradyum laughed. “Don’t worry,” he said. “The gods don’t mind.”

I was strangely bothered by this; they all found the old strictures rather silly and considered ignoring them a constructive, radical gesture. This seemed backward to me, since actually following them is a similarly radical gesture for an Indian in America.

Anitha took a brief drag from Pradyum’s cigarette, something I had never seen an Indian girl do before. “Can I ask you something?” she said. “My friend and I have a bet.”

“Sure,” I said.

“How do you pronounce this word? T-U-L-S-A.”

“Tulsa,” I said.

“I knew it,” Anitha said, smiling. “I was right.”

The band plugged in and started to rage. It was strange to see these quiet, polite boys pounding out music of such incandescent fury. But I envied the way Pradyum brought this intensity to everything he did, the way he committed entirely to whatever he was doing at the time. Before his injury, he had been devoted to competing professionally as a runner; music only became his passion after that.

Pradyum stopped them several times. He wasn’t happy with how the guitar runs were lining up. Once the practice was over, Pradyum picked up the cigarette butts littering the roof. “Let’s not make a mess,” he said.

~ ~ ~

Having barely slept, I woke up in the car, at Freedom Jam. Levis sponsored the concert, and the huge banners that surrounded The Club flapped softly in the wind, showing glimpses of female midsections of indeterminate race.

At the insistence of a label abroad that was interested in releasing some of their material, they had changed their name to Gorified—probably to ratchet up the level of brutality.

Pradyum was up too. There was still an hour until the performance, and we made our way back to the gate. On the list of acts just inside the entrance, I noticed for the first time that the Cremated Souls were no more. At the insistence of a label abroad that was interested in releasing some of their material, they had changed their name to Gorified—probably to ratchet up the level of brutality—and also switched to a new genre. Instead of “Death Metal”, they were now a “Grind Band”, but whoever made the board had listed them instead, in parentheses after their name, as a Grime band.

We walked through the crowd. Even at this hour the place was packed. Pradyum was meeting friends everywhere, speaking mostly English with slangy Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada thrown in. A tall, thin boy drifted by, face completely ashen, walking shakily with a strangely beatific smile until he fell hard, face down, on the concrete steps. His friends rushed around him and carried him away. “Ketamine,” Pradyum said by way of explanation.

We made our way to the main stage. A sizable portion of the crowd was chanting “Ozzy! Ozzy!” The band on stage obliged them by playing Judas Priest’s “Breakin’ the Law.” The Ozzy chants meant only, “play another song”. Two tall Indian guys dressed in black trench coats and holding guitars came on stage. It was the first sign of theatricality I had seen from any of the Indian bands, whose members had all worn ordinary clothes and shown no flair for the dramatic. “Alright,” the lead singer screamed, in a perfect American accent. “It’s time to wake the fuck up!” I felt a strange sense of vertigo at hearing him, as if I had flown around the world and returned to the same spot. To steady myself, I thought about something I had seen earlier. After a rather sloppy cover of Whole Lotta Love, the lead singer of a band had apologized to the audience for not playing the song better. They would try harder, he said. Nowhere but in India, I thought, would you get such courtesy from a rock band.

The two guys started to play; they were terrible. The promoter decided when each band’s time was up, and he gave vastly different amounts of time to various acts. The trench coats were removed from the stage after only three songs. I sat next to Anitha, who was incredibly lively since these were her usual hours.

Soon Gorified was up. While they set up, a few people chanted “Ozzy” again. Out came the replacement bass player, leaving his friend with the nose ring by the side of the stage. I thought about the original bass player, whom I had met with Pradyum one evening. An immensely shy, quiet person, he kept smiling and smiling. What was it that drew him to this music?

Gorified started with “Shattered Shield”, the crowd favorite. The loud screaming part of the song began. A few people were head-banging in the audience, but quite peacefully; there was no one jumping around hoping to slam into someone else. In fact, most people stood stock still. After two songs, Gorified was pulled. We had waited most of the night for ten minutes.

We got back in the car and drove through the empty streets, the blue coming into the sky. We reached my home just as dawn was breaking on Independence Day. I gave Pradyum a hug, and we promised to see each other again soon.

When we did, more than a year later, Gorified had broken up—the others weren’t serious enough about it, Pradyum said—and Pradyum had formed a new band called Infinite Dreams; their music was softer, more melodic. His band mate was headed to London for a six-month course in audio recording, and Pradyum would hopefully follow him there. Then they would try to really make it abroad. He and Anitha were married now, and she was moving up the Alamo chain. Pradyum was making good money too; he had started a real estate company that, he told me in an email, dealt in “total real estate solutions.” The rural land around the city was being bought up for office buildings, and Pradyum brokered deals with the farmers and secured the land for the companies, making sure, he assured me, that no one was cheated.

From the calls he took on his cell phone, I could already tell that he had the necessary combination of forcefulness and charm. I told him that he must be good at his job and he seemed offended. Music was his life, he said; this was just temporary.

We drove in his new car around this stretch of land, beautiful and green after the monsoon. We were heading towards the Nandi Hills, an hour outside Bangalore. There were buildings going up everywhere.

I asked him about the guitar, and he told me, half sheepishly and then with a smile when he saw that I didn’t mind, that he had sold it. It wasn’t right for his new band, he said. He had made a rather sizable profit on its sale.

I remembered what he had said about identity music, and wondered how much of your life you had to give to something before you could claim it as identity, and how you could measure the level of that allegiance. Was it in clothes and nose rings and how many hours a day you spent doing each thing? Or maybe all of that was irrelevant, and it was purely how you looked at your life, even while selling real estate or being an engineer or taking midnights calls from Americans.

Pradyum turned the stereo up—it was Judas Priest—and we headed towards the mountains.

G

Akshay Ahuja grew up in New Delhi and Bethesda, Maryland; his writing has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Econoculture, and Bookslut. He lives in Boston and blogs, occasionally, at The Occasional Review.

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