Adversity as opportunity

The pandemic has posed an existential crisis for Indian metal and rock music. Artists have withdrawn, spending the time to hone their talent and break new ground

There are a set of people who do things for the love of it, and in the process, make a living. Musicians belong to this breed. The pandemic has posed an existential crisis for musicians who are, as a matter of choice, distinctly non-Bollywood in the genre and identify collectively as Indian Metal and Indian Rock.

Shashank Bhatnagar, who has been active in Delhi for the last 15 years, runs the event company Unbolly–as the very name suggests, it is the very antithesis of Bollywood. While he clarifies that music transcends boundaries, and  audiences aren’t bothered as to which city is better, he appeals not to divide India’s music scene based on ‘elitist bullshit’, at the same time asserts that Delhi has given The Rock Street Journal, SkillBox, The Indian Music Diaries, Them Clones, Indian Ocean and global YouTube sensations like The Snake Charmer, to name a few.

In his typical forthright way of putting his point across he says, “Stop being a desi crab, stop pulling people down who can rise up. Your one sentence can end their potential careers.”

And as far as Delhi musicians like him are concerned, they do music “on their own damn terms, unshackled by those uncool, ugly chains of Bollywood. With the maximum number of#indie shows in the entire country, with practically housefull gigs.”

No gigs or events, however, have made the situation bleak, drying up all sources of earnings. There are some professional musicians who have other sources of earnings to support their passion. Shashank himself has made prudent investments in the past and has now shifted to his family house in East Delhi.

The last few months have been very testing for him, he lost his father. He now lives with his mother and is trying to piece together his life. So the mandatory halt due to the pandemic was a blessing in disguise. The last 15 years have been hectic — he has not just been a musician but also an organiser of events, and has worked at backend management. The Delhi music scene made his life very hectic and he was left with little time to work on his own music. “I haven’t jammed in years,” he says, “and the pandemic has opened me to myself. I was living in a bubble. That bubble has burst.”

Gurdip performing

And now he wants to get back to his den and do what he enjoys the most: making and playing music. His den is a small room, a converted servant quarter, attached to his house yet separate from it. He has transformed it into a studio space where he spends most of his time. He recently procured a few screens that will make sure the sound remains confined to the four walls.

His den reminds one of a beatnik hangout, a venue for counter-culture in the 1950s and ‘60s in the US. The walls and roofs are covered, floor to ceiling, even the roof, with pictures and CDs and cassettes, showcasing people and music that have inspired Shashank. There’s a corner dedicated to the family — slightly hidden behind the desktop screen.

So much is there in such a small space — his whole world — he employs the word “chaos” to describe it. Or one could use the cliche, “There’s a method in the madness.”

Sitting in his den, muscled Shashank, though an engineer by training, talks about the unique choices he has made in life. And it’s reflected in the way he carries himself, even the way he dresses up. All said and done, he is an emotional family man. “I have made my individual choices and society has little to do with it,” he asserts.

Money attracts people, but not him. And his strong convictions keep him going. Even the lean patch, like the past few months, seems an excellent opportunity to hone talent, make music, and be creative as he’s sick of “dealing with the stereotypes.”

Gurdip Singh Narang was planning a series of events in ten cities, Shashank was handling Delhi. This couldn’t happen and was a major financial loss. Fans and supporters came to rescue, organisers were able to sell a part of the merchandise. “Everything is in a mess. They (musicians, supporters and fans) are suffering a lot,” explains Gurdip, it’s not just about gigs and performances, but a cultural thing. Events, bar-lounges, regular shows were the venues where like-minded people met — friends and artists. “Everything has gone haywire,” Gurdip says. However, he also sees light at the end of the tunnel. Artists are working, concentrating on the backend and refining their skills, making new music. “Ultimately, good music will churn out,” he adds.

New avenues are opening, particularly digital streaming. “Lots of streaming is taking place online. And many podcasts are being made for the audiences in the US and Europe,” Gurdip adds. YouTube is full of #indie music.

Also, a hotelier, Gurdip’s personal life has not changed much. “We’re rushing and rushing–getting things done. There was not a free day,” he says and qualifies it by saying, “All my meetings, schedules have gone haywire.”

The pandemic has eroded the pockets of musicians but has fuelled artistic inspiration, the quest to create new music is stronger, and they are pushing new boundaries. Musicians like Shashank are using this time to break new ground — a personal revolution of sorts. It’s not the end, just a prolonged intermission. A lull before the storm. Something good will come out of it.

(COVER: Shashank in his den–personal studio)

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