• September 30, 2020 1:31 pm

Reporting From Delhi

Metallic resolve

ByMihir Srivastava

Nov 26, 2019

A docile boy who suffered from stage fright became one of the most celebrated metal vocalists in the country. He wants to hone and nurture talent, to help people realise their inherent potential

The story of Shashank Bhatnagar, 36, is no less spectacular than his dreams. A Lucknow boy, he lacked confidence, was introverted and  bullied by peers, mediocre in studies, laidback. He felt totally transformed by metal music, a complex derivative of blues-rock, psychedelic rock and acid rock developed primarily in the UK during the 1960-70s. He was introduced to it by his elder brother Mayank who’s now settled in the US.

He is now one of the leading metal vocalists in the country who has performed in more than 500 shows in the last 15 years — to be frank, he’s lost count — in India and abroad. He talks fondly about his performance at the Inferno Metal Festival in Norway.

He’s from a family of bureaucrats from Uttar Pradesh, his father retired as the sales tax commissioner. While he was pursuing mechanical engineering in Kurukshetra —he finished his studies in 2006 —he decided to be a metal vocalist. He was not one of those studious types, but his family knows very well that if he applies his mind to something, he has the ability to give his full. So when Shashank told them that he wants to be a metal vocalist, they actually supported him. His love for music was to guide all his future decisions.

A self-taught metal vocalist, he was barely 22 years old when he took a call to realise his dream. At that time, it was a fairly improbable proposition despite the support of the family. His path to realising his dreams was thorny, to put it mildly. But in his head, there was no other option.

This single-minded focus helped him through this testing phase. There were some serious issues, he had stage fright. He would just freeze in front of the audience. At this point in time, “I couldn’t even speak a single word of English,” he recollects. Odds were against his realisation of his dreams.

That’s history. Now he is most expressive when he’s performing, people’s energy invigorates him. But why metal music? “Metal has made me a fighter. It’s a release. It gives you insights into your own being, things outside and people,” he says with a certain gravitas. He’s a bundle of contradictions. And here’s one reason: metal, which has its origin from acid rock—which is a concoction of music and dope — actually helped him to stop substance abuse — drugs and alcohol. His only vice these days is smoking a cigarette. When he was fairly clueless in life, metal music gave him a direction, a goal.

It was not as easy as it seems. In retrospect, he had challenging times when doubt crept in, as his success is punctuated with failures. He founded many metal bands, initially, just out of college, that didn’t do well and he lost a lot of money in the process. He was forced to take up a job, but never lost sight of his goals. He worked for many leading event production companies for six long years and gained the necessary experience and time to conceptualise the realisation of his dreams.

Shashank speaks of his past with a sense of pride and is very deceptively transparent about his future plans. “Music and art are the only real connection between people of varied cultures,” he says and adds, “Metal talks with intensity about things people don’t talk about.” Metal has given vent to his inner reaches. He is at ease with himself and wants to spread the magic of music. “Metal is the kind of music Indian janata needs. They are suppressed, under-confident. Metal has the ability to open people to the best of their potential,” he explains. He is the greatest example of it.

Now that he has achieved his core objective, he wants to help others realise their dreams. He along with his girlfriend, Avibu Seyie, founded UnBolly Inc–the trend crusher. As the name suggests, “we promote everything which is not Bollywood, including rock and metal show,” says Shashank. His partner Avibu is a Naga girl who runs a popular joint by the name ‘A Naga Girl’s Kitchen,’ amongst so many things. He also curates public events. She is very good at using social media to publicise an event, idea or experience.

They have been together for more than three years and make a good team; UnBolly wants to change the face of the music and art scene by hunting and honing talent in a country of sub-continental proportions. They know that talent comes from most unexpected quarters in the most serendipitous manner.

In the middle of changing houses, dressed in all black, a t-shirt and harem pants, sitting across working desk in his office, Shashank looks into the eyes when he speaks. “I want to be popular,” he says. Their trendy office at Hauz Khas Village, on the second floor of a lanky building, is reached by a narrow flight of stairs, is a happening place. Young staff, mostly dressed in black, deal with ideas and find novel ways to realise them.

Shashank’s ambition is not oblivious of challenges, “We are not willing to make compromises because it makes some business sense,” he explains and adds animatedly, “We want to work with real people, real art, (dealing with) real issues.” One of the themes of his metal endeavour is mental health. “It will be a millennial issue,” he says with all conviction at his command.

He has a new partner in this venture: Bhuvanesh Manhas, creative director, Freeloader — a design and innovation firm. Freeloader and UnBolly have joined hands to realise their common objective of promoting music and talent. It’s not just about making money but making a difference.

Bhuvanesh, from Haryana, sits for a while listening to Shashank before he gives his own perspective. He speaks with a Vocal Timbre of a voiceover artist, each of the words resonates distinctly as he speaks with clarity of ideas. “We are a group of independent artists, illustrators, designers. There’s no business model as such,” he says. The idea is powerful: to create and grow a space where unique, coherent, may not be trendy, endeavours with new ideas and vision will be encouraged and developed. “No sellout. Only honing of talent. Our vision and our promise is our identity.” Bhuvanesh is wary of temptations.

What about revenues? “Whatever comes from the gate money goes to the artists. (For our upkeep) we charge curation fee from the venue,” explains Bhuvanesh. And he does it all from a position of strength, “I tell the organisers that we are here to perform art and not (solely as) crowd-pullers.”

Improbability is not a roadblock — on the contrary, it’s an inspiration, a challenge that will give meaning to life.