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Escape Velocity

A Dead Future: Ruhail Qaisar Interviewed
Alastair Shuttleworth , February 13th, 2023 10:16

The Ladakhi artist speaks with Alastair Shuttleworth about his haunting debut album, exploring decay in his hometown of Leh and the turbulent recent history of the wider Ladakh region

On his debut album Fatima, Ruhail Qaisar presents a psychogeographic survey of Leh, the remote town where he grew up in the Himalayan region of Ladakh. Through unnerving, hauntological collages of drone, noise and field recordings, the artist explores how geopolitical conflict and capitalist exploitation have wrought the decay of his home. “We were a completely agrarian, self-sustaining society,” he explains to me. “Post-globalisation, we’ve seen everything destroyed.”

The history of Ladakh is, Qaisar sighs, “very complicated”. Currently contested by India, Pakistan and China, the region has been uneasily governed by New Delhi’s central government as a union territory since a controversial decree in 2019: the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act. Ladakh had existed until then within the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, which had its own lawmakers, but following the act it was reconstituted as a Union Territory largely controlled by India’s central government. With this loss of autonomy, Qaisar claims, “we have no protection for the landscape, our culture, our glaciers or our jobs.” Ladakh has joint capital cities, the Buddhist-majority Leh and the Muslim-majority Kargil, with tensions between the two religious communities often factoring into the region’s political disquietude. One violent riot between Buddhists and Muslims in 1989 resulted in the disappearance of Qaisar’s uncle, meaning that the histories of Leh and of Qaisar’s family are closely interwoven. He describes Fatima, a crushing, complex and destabilising album, as an attempt “to carry out the identity of my people – and our story so far – through music.”

In telling this story, Qaisar’s primary tools are sonic violence, defamiliarisation, and an ambiguous presentation of time, all of which are introduced in the opening track ‘Fatima’s Poplar’. Oppressive drone and a shapeless rattling – broken by sudden blasts of noise – underpin a compelling reading by Iben Lavinia Kajser from the philosopher Nick Land’s text Circuitries. This passage presents the dissolution of one’s familial and social environment in terms of a disrupted television broadcast: “There will be no repeats of daddy the doctor and mummy the nurse… The Western civilisation show has been discontinued.” Having stumbled across the piece in Land’s collected writings Fanged Noumena, Qaisar says it “resonated a lot with me, because I had this series of five VHS tapes from 1997-1998. My uncle somehow ended up buying this Panasonic camera off a tourist – it’s an interesting montage of that time.” Containing images of Qaisar’s hometown from during his childhood, this rediscovered footage fed into Fatima’s approach to presenting a world that – like Land’s in Circuitries – has been mysteriously disrupted.

Time takes on a strange character in Fatima. Field recordings capture moments in time (dogs bark, children chatter), which float amidst time-warped samples and alien, atemporal drone. Qaisar suggests this was influenced by the way Fatima’s creation took place in the contrasting environments of rural Leh and the claustrophobic apartment he keeps in New Delhi. “Urban life out there is very straining. When I get home to Leh and look at the landscape, it feels like time works differently.” The comparative silence of Leh also means that individual sounds from this environment seem highly distinct, reflected by their conspicuousness in Fatima. “Birds, a cow’s hooves on concrete, gates creaking – all these motifs don’t mean anything, but I try to find power in these quotidian mundanities.”

Qaisar was drawn to New Delhi by his musical ambitions, having only been aware of one Ladakhi band growing up – a group called the Checkmates. “I moved to New Delhi with high hopes to see a lot of bands. Once I got there, I realised the scene was in a form of stasis.” After his attempts to start a metal band fell flat, “I was lost and pretty depressed for a while.”

Qaisar’s ambitions were renewed by discovering “extreme music” in the form of Einstürzende Neubauten and the Japanese noise scene. “They don’t really give a shit about songwriting conventions; it opened my eyes, and made me realise I could approach writing in terms of sounds, textures and rhythms.” This all fed into Qaisar’s early experiments in harsh noise under the moniker SISTER, before arriving at his present ambitions to create more conceptual work. “I didn’t want the music to be without any context, after some point. I then thought of the concept of my hometown, my neighbourhood and my childhood.”

Central to Fatima is the rapid transformation Leh has undergone since Qaisar’s childhood – he was born in 1994. “The album is named after my great aunt – I grew up walking to her house with a pail to fetch milk from the cow in her backyard. It was a very wholesome, beautiful time to be alive.” As this once-remote place has become rapidly more connected to the outside world, it has faced incursions from gentrification, technology and drugs. Returning to Leh from New Delhi, Qaisar increasingly felt “the world I grew up in no longer existed in the same way.”

This transformation is largely blamed in Fatima on the influence of tourism, which has grown vertiginously since Ladakh opened to foreign tourism in 1974. “From the 1970s to the mid-2000s, tourism was never seen as something adversarial by us” Qaisar claims. His paternal family ran The Dreamland Hotel, and he has fond childhood memories of playing with the children of visiting Europeans. As hundreds of these hotels sprang up, however, it led to the production of huge landfills in Ladakh. In 2010, flash floods sent debris from these landfills hurtling into Leh: flattening infrastructure and leaving hundreds dead or missing. “We took a walk into town, and saw it was completely ravaged,” Qaisar recalls. “Everything was flooded, and you could see these bloated bodies being pulled out.”

Suddenly, Ladakh found itself the subject of major news coverage in India, followed by a run of successful Bollywood films depicting the region. “When I was growing up and I told people in New Delhi that I was from Ladakh, I’d be made fun of – people would say it was uninhabitable.” Qaisar suggests these same people began pouring into Ladakh – encouraged by its rising profile and a concurrent easing of vehicle restrictions – in a more damaging, untenable wave of tourism from the mainland. In Fatima, the decay wrought by this accelerated tourism is explored in ‘Abandoned Hotels Of Zangsti’, in which a mournful, elegiac arrangement is broken by a fierce, malevolent roar. Here, unsustainable tourism is presented as a violent force.

This exemplifies how Fatima presents other forms of violence in Leh’s history: less through changes in speed or structure than through fragmentary signifiers. The explosive distortion on ‘Sachu Melung’, guest vocalist Elvin Brandhi’s horrifying screams on ‘Daily Hunger’ and the blasting drums on ‘The Fanged Poet’ all emerge from Fatima’s opaque arrangements without warning, like bones rising to a cauldron’s surface. “As a kid growing up in Leh, I was subjected to a lot of bullying,” Qaisar explains. “Whenever I’d fight back, there would be this upward rush in my head – I don’t think I have it in me to be violent to somebody, so I’d just break down.” This prompted him to express violence through sudden blasts of noise. “It’s a heat rush, violence. These flashes of heat life throws at you when you’re not even looking – they grab you by the collar, shake your entire existence, and leave you in some corner.”

Lyrically, this notion of sudden violence is reflected in ‘Painter Man’. Amidst Lynchian clangs and a quickening heartbeat, guest-vocalist Dis Fig’s rippling whisper tells of a “little lost painter man” who is brutally killed. “My father used to make oil paintings – he tried to get his work shown at galleries, but it never worked out for him,” Qaisar says of the song’s inspiration. Several of his father’s paintings appear in Fatima’s accompanying booklet. “I wanted to put out my father’s work, which the world had never seen. I also wanted to write a song about fears we might have shared, of failing as an artist.” Qaisar suggests “Ladakh as a society doesn’t value art – it is only seen as a facet of entertainment” and that during Fatima’s creation he felt pressures to find a “serious job.” The murder of the painter presents “a failing artist, in a hometown that doesn’t support you.”

The relationship between time, memory and violence is highlighted in the track ‘Namgang’. “There was a foster home in my neighbourhood when I was a kid. It caught fire one night, and a lot of people perished in that fire,” Qaisar explains. “I remember rushing there with my parents to see what had happened,” reflected in the whispered lyric “I keep my pace like an animal.” This memory of violence is expressed through a low roar (like that of a raging fire), a high-pitched drone broken by noise, and ringing bells. “The bells are horses in the mountains chewing on grass,” Qaisar explains, “the sound of which reaches back through time to “this bell in our old locality, that we’d ring if there was danger.”

Fatima is described in Qaisar’s booklet as a “requiem to a dead future” – the future meant for Leh and its people. If the finality of this loss is supported by the album’s overwhelming darkness, Qaisar seems slightly more hopeful during our conversation. After all, inherent in his narrative of Leh’s decay is the notion that alternatives exist: “we’ve done this before, and we’ve done this much better.” He also notes the recent hunger strike undertaken by climate activist Sonam Wangchuck, demanding autonomy and ecological protection for Ladakh under the Sixth Schedule, an element of the Indian Constitution containing provisions for self-administration. “He mobilised people from all religious and regional backgrounds into demanding this, which was a historic feat. I don’t think my hometown has been as politically united in decades.”

In this, Qaisar acknowledges that Fatima is primarily an expression of his own outlook. “It’s not about everybody’s lost futures, because people do have their futures there – and they are not as nihilistic and cynical as I am” he smiles wryly. “It’s my own perspective of a future which I imagined as a child – and saw shatter.”

Ruhail Qaisar's Fatima is out now via Danse Noire