Fear, anger, and alienation have long been the dominant emotions in Ruhail Qaisar’s music. His early solo releases and live sets—under the now defunct moniker SISTER—married the blackened death metal of his short-lived band Vajravarah with power electronics, no wave, and post-industrial noise. A guitar-and-laptop-toting techno shaman harnessing the forces of cosmic chaos for a shock-and-awe assault on the sensibilities of Mumbai and Delhi hipster elites, Qaisar crafted music so brain-pulverizingly visceral that it drowned out all thought. A friend once called it a palate cleanser for the soul.
Qaisar, however, had higher ambitions than crafting sonic mind-wipes, and sometime in 2016 he shifted gears. On that year’s Ltalam EP, he pared back the redlining noise in favor of tense, eldritch atmospheres and mutated found sounds—spectral transmissions from a pre-modern Ladakh, the geographically isolated and geopolitically contested Himalayan region that is Qaisar’s home. He also started experimenting with analog photography and film, drawing these disparate endeavors into an overarching project of hauntological excavation meant to tease the phantoms of Ladakh’s past out from their hiding places in its late-capitalist, tourist-economy present. He carries that work forward on his debut album, Fatima, an uneasy chronicle of personal and generational trauma, and a psychogeographic survey of his homeland’s windswept granite peaks and shrubland valleys.
The Ladakh that Qaisar mourns on Fatima isn’t the mystical and isolated “last Shangri-La” of European imagination, nor is it the tokenized Himalayan fantasy of contemporary Indian tourists. Instead it is the hybrid culture of a polity set on the crossroads of the Silk Route, a land where Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and remnants of pre-Buddhist religion rubbed shoulders with each other—a society whose inhabitants, according to anthropologist Martin A. Mills, once saw themselves as part of a complex cosmology of spirits, protectors and itinerant demons. It’s a world of chthonic rituals, exorcisms, and possessions, of regular communion with the supernatural.
It’s also a Ladakh that is rapidly disappearing—its borders redrawn by 20th-century nationalism, the phasphun system of inter-religious harmony shredded by politics of communalism, its few remaining totems crumbling under the pressures of rapid technological change and what Qaisar calls the “soft-power subjugation of the tourism industry.”
Fatima is an elegy for this Ladakh, and for the futures it could not realize. The album’s discordant drones and atonal shrieks are inscribed with the trauma of recent history—both the external violence of colonialism and militarization and the psychic violence of industrialization and late capitalism. As we traverse this ruined, decaying landscape, we stumble upon echoes of the past—bucolic vistas of serene beauty, revenants of cosmological horror—that Qaisar has painstakingly resurrected through field recordings and experimental transmutations of traditional Ladakhi music and lore.
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