SISTER's set had begun. A small projector screen was playing a bunch of short films on loop—the kind you'd naturally find revolting, but can't look away from. One was just an eerie car ride shot from inside the vehicle, soaking in desolate landscapes, sucking you in with each frame. Another was PIG, a bizarre short film by Dutch filmmaker Nico B, featuring the late Rozz Williams, in which a killer is doing terrible things to his victim. A third, if memory serves, had a penis being manipulated in various grotesque ways. The place, Exhibit 320, an art gallery in New Delhi, had been refashioned into a makeshift venue for an experimental, avant-garde gig. SISTER, or 24-year-old noise artist Ruhail Kaizer, had set up shop in a different corner.
The whole space was dimly lit. Art galleries are so often bright and welcoming, but this was an inverted, mutilated, inside-out doppelganger of one, and Kaizer—short, diminutive, dressed in all black, 65 percent of his face covered by his shoulder-length locks—was barely even visible. He was triggering violent, dissonant, abrasive sounds on a laptop and some MIDI controllers and pedals—seemingly free-form in nature, but often latching on to each other to form an internal logic of some sort—occasionally banging away on a floor-tom he had for assistance, or half-mumbling, half-growling through a distorted filter on the mic. Underneath it all, if I paid attention, I could notice a hyper-sensitive blob of surreal piano notes. During this whole performance art freakshow that I was either witnessing or a part of, the fear was very real—it was physical, and was all very funereal. My heart was racing; I couldn't sit still for very long. I didn't know where to look. Some people were staring at the screen peacefully, lying down on the floor for reasons best known to them. Others were frantically searching for the exit. "It's the underlying fear of the unknown that I like to chase," Kaizer tells me much later. "Something you don't confront… how you're scared of what you don't understand as a person. I want to bring people together and make them stare at their own dead bodies."
Kaizer is from Ladakh, way up in the Himalayas. The region, in the state of Jammu & Kashmir, has strong cultural (and geographical) ties with Tibet. (Ltalam, the name of a four-song EP Kaizer put out last year, means "the horse's path" in Ladakhi, the local language of Ladakh, which he tells me is quite similar in form to Tibetan.) He moved to Delhi a few years ago and, for now, he spends his days studying English literature at a college in Delhi University. For a little over a year, he's been writing and performing as SISTER. He also plays guitar in a death metal band called Vajravarah, and before that, used to play in a grindcore band called Bonefvcker.
The day we meet, Kaizer has a gig with Vajravarah, at a pub called Antisocial in Hauz Khas Village. The one-time village in New Delhi is now the victim (or beneficiary?) of much gentrification, first co-opted first by off-beat, hipster artists chasing cheap rents, and then by yuppies and millennials chasing cheap drinks. He meets me in that short period of restless disquiet between soundcheck and the show, when the place is only half-filled with black-shirted metalheads, and the bands and organizers are still getting all their ducks in a row.
"SISTER," he tells me, as we sit down at a table inside, "is an elegy to my stillborn sister, who was born a year before me." Kaizer only found out about her in late-2015, at a time when he'd been obsessively playing Sister, the third album by Swedish metal band In Solitude. "I've had dreams and visions about this sister of mine, who wasn't even named and passed away before I was born." A theme of death runs through his work, both as a mode of aesthetic expression, and as a philosophical motif. Kaizer, for as long as he can remember, has been obsessed with the idea of death. "In a way," he says, "the point is to worship death, and to conquer it."
Growing up in Ladakh, he lived only a block or two away from a Buddhist cremation ground, witnessing death up close at a young age. "That's where I grew up. You're always trying to chase your childhood memories in your songs; all these images you have in your head. But you can't quite put two and two together. Of course, the art of remembrance is remembering what you can, not what exactly happened," he says.
The music he writes has some semblance of structure—extreme noises that eventually find a loose rhythmic arrangement for themselves, with delicate notes of piano buried underneath. That simmering contrast between the dissonant roar of dystopia and the looming danger of a frail piano line, is a major theme running through his music. "I feel it's necessary to have a certain strain of melody, and disrupt that to create discomfort in the mind of the listener," he tells me. Sometimes he'll watch a film, and a particularly striking dialogue will make its way into a song. He uses field recordings, computer-generated noise, programmed keys, sampled sounds to compose. He explains: "The writing process comes in bursts, where you feel these creative surges and you're completely entranced. You want to put something forward: a piece of art affects you strongly — maybe a movie dialogue—and you want to articulate it in a different way. You take the climate of the scene, and put it in your music to create another atmosphere for it."
Dadaism and surrealism inform a large part of his musical forays, as does a recurring theme of the occult. A lot of it, again, has to do with the place he grew up in. Tantra and black magic, and the cultural influences he's absorbed from the local Bon religion, which has elements of shamanism, find their way into his sounds, as does a constant search for spiritual enlightenment. He compares the occasional transcendence of performing live—"you stop becoming yourself, you transcend your body and mind"—to the state of mind of oracles in Ladakh. The oracles meditate of eight months at a stretch, after which spirits are supposed to enter their bodies, leading to annual rituals which include bending of swords and cutting of tongues, rituals for which Kaizer makes it a point to visit Ladakh.
Kaizer has unbelievable reserves of knowledge about different movements of art and music, and he tends to head off in discursive expeditions into the critical nature of music often. While nominally reticent and a little reserved, he speaks with infinite enthusiasm about art, rattling off names of artists and bands that've inspired his work. He's comfortable talking almost exclusively in critical theory concepts and –isms —a benefit of studying literature—contextualizing his work and its place with clarity. There's a great deal of thought, of detail, that's placed into his music.
He cites the works of Poe and Lovecraft as literary influences, telling me how he's trying to achieve the sonic equivalent of that fear of the unknown. "What capitalism and our society pushes is this bubble of optimism. 'Everything is fairy glitter.' But, you know, it's not. This music is a representation of that reality. In a country like India, everybody's sad. People are just five minutes away from crying and breaking down each day. It's capitalism; it's nine-to-five; everybody's fucking pissed off 24/7. And if you know how to trigger that, if you can find that point, they'll break down. It's a sad world, and we have to recognize that. Music is kind of a catharsis to that."
Noise almost seems like a logical step in Kaizer's journey, but it actually came more as an awakening. He had taught himself how to play on an acoustic guitar. He couldn't afford an electric guitar, so he had to save up for a long time before he could get one. "I didn't know how to trigger the distortion. It was this small LED button on the amp that I didn't know about. One day I accidentally pressed that LED button. Feedback ran through me, making me shake. I was like, 'Fuck! This is amazing!' It was a pure revelation." The internet has made access to weird global sounds easy, but Kaizer in fact started the old school way, hunting through piles of what was essentially garbage at Sunday sales at a market in Daryaganj in New Delhi. "They used to sell all these international magazines; they had a huge collection. Stacks of magazines, compilation CDs, reviews. They were thrown out by the embassies, I think, so it was basically rubbish, which they would sell for cheap," he recalls.
There's no real harsh noise movement in India. Western music itself exists only on the fringes, with the mainstream space usually the sole preserve of the bubblegummy, easily digestible pop music offered by Bollywood. (There was a time when Hindi songs had big, bluesy guitar licks. Then came the EDM and dubstep phase, and now, the most recent trend mirrors the rise of the sound in the underground too—an infiltration of hip-hop verses.) It's not a rule as such, but for the longest time, independent artists would often have to make the shift into Bollywood to sustain a living as musicians, or they'd become bitter and give up altogether.
So noise, in that context, is a niche subset within a subset within a subset. Yet there's a tiny little scene developing, especially in the metropolitan cities in India, of which Kaizer is a part. New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Bangalore all have the occasional noise gig, featuring a range of artists trying out alternative sonic structures. The Listening Room, a regular series of gigs organized by New Delhi promoter Rana Ghose, has been in the spotlight of late, while the city also hosts a different series, called Disquiet, organized by Hemant Sreekumar, who has been dabbling in noise since the 80s.
The gigs tend to mostly be DIY efforts, free from the burdens imposed by the food-and-beverage demands of pubs and restaurants. Given the limited appeal of noise—and the other obscure, inaccessible sonic experiments on display—no mainstream pub will be caught dead hosting an obscure, occultist noise artist, so the people within the scene find alternative routes, and the DIY ethic becomes a necessity. "Putting out your own visuals, your own flyers… If you want your aesthetic to be sound and not diluted by outside elements, you have to do it all by yourself and keep it very controlled and organized," says Kaizer. "I think it would be a failure if anybody tried to regulate this or put in line what's going on. Nobody here is doing it for the money."
Production studios, defunct bakeries, abandoned buildings, garages in homes, they're all repurposed for the sake of a one-off gig. There's a small fee at the gate, usually 300 rupees ($4.5), and profits— if any —are split equally between the artists on the line-up. "Delhi is a shithole. There's this malaise surrounding us that's constant. It's all this unwanted noise, which is part of the mundane. All we're trying to do is channel that malaise. We're all outsiders and outcasts, who think in a certain way. You could call it a 'scene', but I guess it's more like a few like-minded people sharing ideas and pushing it on a platform. Now we have each other to sustain our art and music," he says.
Akhil Sood is making noise on Twitter.