Metallic Identity

When I was in India in January, I ended up hanging out at Mumbai airport for about 4 hours while waiting for a domestic flight. In one corner of the terminal was a group of twenty-something year-olds – mostly boys and two girls or so — all dressed in jeans and tee-shirts, all with longish flippy hair. One of them was carrying a guitar and they were all sitting in a circle, close together, humming, strumming, and singing English songs that sounded like a cross between David Byrne and Bon Jovi. I tried to park myself near them and kept trying to figure out their story. I never did–it was the middle of the night and I was an unabashed victim of jetlag–but in my mind, I’d made up a story about them — they were college buddies traveling together (probably to Goa); maybe they were even a band, getting amped to sit on the beach around a campfire singing their songs after a full-moon rave at Anjuna Beach. …

I was reminded of this scene when I read Akshay Ahuja’s feature essay on the Indian subculture of heavy metal in the April issue of Guernica, a print and online magazine of art and politics. In “Death Metal and the Indian Identity”, writer Akshay Ahuja is asked to carry a guitar to India for his father’s colleague’s son. The guitar is to be delivered to Pradyam, who is part of “a semi-pro death metal band” called Cremated Souls (now defunct).cremated souls.jpg

A simple guitar delivery leads Akshay Ahuja into the vibrant subculture of heavy metal in India, as he becomes friends with Pradyam and his band members, many of whom work at call centers.

There are several sections in the piece where the author makes small observations about the little differences and nuances between India and America, cultural and otherwise. These gave me pause, not only because some of them rang true, but also because I enjoyed the way they were being articulated in a very specific context.

For example:

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.

Here’s another:

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.

And, this one:

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.

The piece was a fascinating commentary on an desi’s experience going back to India and discovering various subcultures that have sprouted up as a result of globalization – heavy metal and call center “vampires” are just a few:

Pradyum’s fiancee “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.”

In “Death Metal and Identity,” Akshay Ahuja proposes that “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.”

[As a sidenote, Amitabha Bagchi's IIT novel "Above Average" explores this subculture a bit -- his main character is a " middle-class Delhi boy with an aptitude for science and math but a yearning to be the drummer of a rock band .."]

Any metal musicians in the house? Past? Present? Wanna-bes? Is Akshay right? Has “easy money allowed for a semi-bohemian lifestyle that hadn’t been possible or acceptable in India before”?

70 thoughts on “Metallic Identity

  1. 47 · Suchi said

    Btw, do you read tamizhpenn.blogspot.com? I recommend it highly.

    I don’t know if this is a journal or fiction from the first few entries, but I love the way this blog is written. It reminds of RK Narayan done right(at least how critics adoringly characterize his work; although I’m not a big fan).

    Thanks Suchi!

  2. “I remember having this discussion with a “metal” musician in Goa who kept tell me bryan adams was a genius. I was not convinced :) .”

    Fundamental, Roger Waters played at Coachella!! The borders are blurred all over.

  3. Btw, do you read tamizhpenn.blogspot.com? I recommend it highly. Oh, I totally adore her.

    And here I was, thinking that The Asal Tamizh Penn was my guilty pleasure wonly!

  4. And here I was, thinking that The Asal Tamizh Penn was my guilty pleasure wonly!

    She is precious. A stranger I am to her, but my hopes for her future career are bigger than any I have for my own kid-sister.

    May the guy who gets to marry her be worthy of her and her talent.

  5. 51 · portmanteau said

    47 · Suchi said
    Btw, do you read tamizhpenn.blogspot.com? I recommend it highly.
    I don’t know if this is a journal or fiction from the first few entries, but I love the way this blog is written. It reminds of RK Narayan done right(at least how critics adoringly characterize his work; although I’m not a big fan). Thanks Suchi!

    Funny, RK Narayan was what came to mind when I first came across this blog… although, its recent melancholy twinged entry leads me to believe that its days are numbered.

  6. A question for you music mavens out there. Why hasn’t Chutney from the Caribbean become the next “DJ-Bhangra?” I have never heard it played at Indian parties, not even here. Anybody know? Or care?

    Sorry about going off the metal theme. Just thought I would take advantage of the musical expertise that has flocked to this thread.

  7. i thought they occasionally play chutney at soca and calypso clubs out in queens. i think that to non-trini desis the sound isn’t hard enough, sounds like carnival music..i haven’t heard a recently produced track tho, dont know how its changed..

  8. That article was really well-written; at least the excerpts you posted here were. Thanks so much for writing about it! I found it fascinating, and thought the “freak out” bit was absolutely hilarious. I’ve had that moment of confusion too.

  9. We used to have a music festival at my school called “Crossroads”, where bands from different schools would come and compete. Even some DBDs at my alma mater (Austin) started their band called “East India Band”. Though I am not sure if they are still there.

  10. That article was really well-written; at least the excerpts you posted here were…

    Even the part about the nose ring? I had a problem with that:

    … 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…

    I don’t think the nose ring ever really left India. It just took on a different meaning inside India irrespective of what it stood for elsewhere. I think that is what a couple of us tried to say in our own different, narrative ways– at least, that is what I tried to say in a round about way in comment 8. The modern nose ring inside India is neither traditional/subservient nor part of the alternative community. It is quite mainstream and very much voluntary.

  11. I don’t think the nose ring ever really left India. It just took on a different meaning inside India irrespective of what it stood for elsewhere.

    I don’t think it’s that simple…it took on a new meaning influenced by western sources…it didn’t just organically take on a different meaning, nor did it take on a new meaning via reinterpretation in an Indian context…

  12. a new meaning via reinterpretation in an Indian context…

    Thank you. I know you didn’t mean to, but you just articulated, most efficiently, my thoughts on this matter for me.

    Not everything that happens inside India can be explained via the (perception of) experiences elsewhere. For example, it would be ridiculous to say that the saree has suddenly taken on a new meaning inside India just because several non-Indian (non South Asian) UN employees of various races and ethnicities inside the UN building wear the saree occassionally to work or on a special occassion.

  13. Festember (Festival+September) was a college festival in REC Tiruchi (now NITT) that I remember from the mid 80s when there would be one night of western music competition for the college bands. Western acoustic would be during the day time. Of course, there were other sessions given to pop music (typically Tamil film songs) and classical (usually carnatic) on other days. A shoutout to any RECTians out there.

    Ganja (called thool, potlam or potli) was freely available along with the usual Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton and for some reason Hotel California from the Eagles (easy to sing?) was popular. College was when we small town or rural types picked up this ‘cool’ western music from the big city cool types and even watched Pink Floyd The Wall on rented VHS tapes, on the urging of the cool cats and were left scratching our heads over what was cool about that, while they raved about it! Before that chances are that most small town guys had never heard any vestern music and if at all it was the usual BoneyM or ABBA tape that came with the first purchase of a tape recorder by some rich neighbor or relative. Of course we all probably heard some LP of The Ventures (usually Tequila) somewhere without knowing anything about it.

  14. Wow – thanks for posting this piece. I think it’s a really exciting by-product of the cultural exchange between India and the west that’s always existed to a degree, but is only now growing exponentially. During a recent trip to Mumbai, I attempted to seek out this metal subculture but came up empty – didn’t quite know where to look and my friends who live there weren’t particularly into that scene. What interests me the most about it is that Asian countries – not just India – have a solid track record of amalgamating western musical elements with local sounds so as to create something wholly new. Examples abound in the ’70s farfisa-driven garage rock of Cambodia, the musical polyglotism of Kalyanji-Anandji and R.D. Burman, or even raging Japanese hardcore punk bands like Gauze and Lip Cream. They each used western ideas as a springboard for their own creativity, turning out music far more beautiful, extreme and interesting than the sum of its influences. I think in 5 – 10 years if this metal subculture continues to percolate, we’ll definitely see some similarly fresh ideas from the subcontinent. One band that leads the pack is Rudra (actually, some Tamil guys from Singapore), who play vicious, self-described “Vedic metal” – a fusion of Hindustani music and black/thrash metal. If globalization, for all of its faults, has to be a reality, it’s things like this that ease the sting!

  15. “Festember (Festival+September) was a college festival in REC Tiruchi (now NITT) that I remember from the mid 80s when there would be one night of western music competition for the college bands….” Just a small correction there, Festember actually started off meaning a ‘Fest to Remember’ and was not named because it was held in September. There have been years when the festival was held during the months of July and December. I say this as someone who has organized one of the fests and had a chance to check the records of the past events.

    Yes, but sadly, there’s no more all-night rock competitions and no more free flowing ganja(we call it ‘maal’ now) as it was then.:( On a more positive note, we do have bigger national level artists ( Shankar Mahadevan, etc ) and more established indian rock bands performing.

  16. bump

    Interesting thread. Metal as a genre is literally HUGE in Europe, almost all of the biggest bands from Scandinavia are metal bands. One of my exes was a metal-head, and I learned most of what I know about the genres from him. I myself never really saw much appeal in the music, though I like a few songs. The power metal variant with female operatic singers(Nightwish, Within Temptation, Epica, Lacuna Coil) is especially popular, Within Temptation has even entered the mainstream(though actually they’re not really metal). But eh, ladies as vocalists in a death metal band? That sounds highly unusual – to my best knowledge, death metal is the genre with lyrics about gore and pestilence. I haven’t come across any desi metalheads yet though I’ve heard Iron Maiden sold out in Bangalore. The few desis of my generation that live here are into Bollywood music and desi pop unfortunately.

  17. I haven’t come across any desi metalheads yet though

    cough

    The few desis of my generation that live here are into Bollywood music and desi pop unfortunately.

    Yep, things aren’t much different here, stateside.

    But eh, ladies as vocalists in a death metal band? That sounds highly unusual – to my best knowledge, death metal is the genre with lyrics about gore and pestilence.

    Yes it is that genre, but women can scream those lovely lyrics as jarringly guttural as anyone else. I always make sure to blast the Angela Gossow when using the skull of my vanquished foe as a wine goblet.

    Also, they weren’t death metal, but these grrrl rockers from your northern neighbor really knew how to be heavy. Tenuous desi angle: their biggest (read: only) hit was in a harmonic minor, and everything comes from India uncle will be happy to tell that scale’s place of origin.

    Nerdout over.

  18. Ah, but I meant in my parents immediate circle of friends :) come to think of it, I’m pretty much the only ‘alternative’ desi I know of in my desi acquaintance and family circle. I just rocked out to Radiohead yesterday in Amsterdam(who, by the way, were fab!). My ideal desi guy have an ideal combination of really broad tastes – from East and West!