“There Was No choice But To Make Room”: Ruhail Qaisar On Centering The Spectres That Haunt Debut LP 'Fatima'

“There Was No choice But To Make Room”: Ruhail Qaisar On Centering The Spectres That Haunt Debut LP 'Fatima'

15 February 2023

Three years in the making, Ladakhi multidisciplinary artist Ruhail Qaisar’s 'Fatima' predates even its creator.

Rooted firmly in geo-personal histories, the noise album which happens to be the artist’s debut full-length offering, showcases the full range of his leftfield explorations that began with an extensive catalogue of singles on his SoundCloud, followed by the 'Ltalam EP' in 2016 and the 'Hounds of Pamir' radio residency in 2020.

At the heart of Ruhail’s practice, which ranges from sound creation to analog photography and experimental filmmaking, is an unwavering emphasis on identity and history.

For the indigenous artist hailing from one of the most controversial and unforgiving terrains of South Asia, Ladakh and its people – particularly the Skyayongs Gogsum community – are often seen in Qaisar’s works as straddling the dichotomies of a traumatic past and uncertain future, suffering from what’s colloquially described as perpetual stasis.

The 90s were a time of dramatic change, recalls Ruhail. From growing up in a two-room rented house “with 6 hours of electricity, no traffic, no telephones, to being swept by an accelerated existence with 3G smartphones,[...] an endless slew of terrible smartphone tourists,” the landscapes of his childhood had changed drastically soon after the turn of the century.

Yet, nothing could have prepared him for the climate of death, decay, and disease that was to characterise his hometown over the last decade. When he returns this time, after having completed his education in Delhi, Qaisar finds a self-sustaining community now completely destabilised, “battling chronic diseases or had passed away, others moved away, rented their old houses out, some squabbled over land in courts for their newly constructed hotel projects….” It induced in him a state of dysphoria, disconnect, and exile, even when home.

'Fatima', whose very title invokes the memory of a late grandaunt, rises out of this abscess, carrying over the leitmotifs and the “main characters” of Qaisar’s tight-knit Ladakhi community, from an intransitive loss-state towards posthumous life.

In Qaisar’s own words, the album is a “hauntological compendium of personal tribute” to these people who occupied those bygone spaces and eras, but also to “the pan-Ladakhi identity”, and the strife and struggle of all “indigenous communities in the Himalayas that are all suffering at the hand of unplanned industrialization and urbanization along with military atrocities”. Incidentally, 'Fatima' hits the airwaves at a time of mass unrest in Leh, over demands for Ladakhi statehood and cultural preservation under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.

Home videos and photographs as relics of an irretrievable past and a close-knit community | Photo from accompanying album booklet by Ruhail Qaisar

The idea for the record had fallen into place quite unconsciously upon the artist’s return to Choglamsar, Leh, during the pandemic in 2020, and was born out of a strong desire to rid himself of the muscle memory of traditional compositions - “I dispossessed myself of my own voice and shredded it only to a few whispers.”

As soon as the first COVID wave abated, Qaisar (stuck in Delhi during the lockdown) took off, carrying with him (he lists:) a university laptop on which he’d downloaded Moog apps, the cheapest Behringer sound card that he’d painstakingly saved up for, and a basic zoom field recorder he’d borrowed from a filmmaker friend. He documented everything: nightly hikes alongside the Indus, when he would go stargazing in Choglamsar with his younger brother and a neighbour; conversations with his granduncle, a Sino-Indian war veteran; stories of his uncle’s disappearance in 1989; the blitz of Indian military tanks during the recent Galwan valley incursion.

These voices and tapes, scaffolded by power electronics, frame ‘Fatima’, creating a somewhat minimal and rather tactile musical performance.

The Abandoned Hotels of Zangsti, Leh, stoic in the face of dereliction | Photo from accompanying album booklet by Ruhail Qaisar

A self-taught experimenter, Qaisar’s musical influences are a pastiche of works by Hemant SK, heavier emissions by EXHUMATION, Einsturzende Neubauten and Maurizio Bianchi, South Asian experimenters Senyawa and Raavan Kommand, contemporaries like Jamblu (aka Kartik Pillai) and KMRU, even the early works of AR Rahman. For 'Fatima', he mostly turns inwards, mixing influences of folklore traditions with experimental music and drawing sonic styles and guideposts from Ladakhi processional, funeral and tribal hymns.

The album masterfully orchestrates the dramatic highs and lows of sonic expression, borrowing heavily from the surrealist movement, oracle rituals and vernacular theatre tropes. It morphs into stretches of unsettling ambient static, injecting distorted field recordings with drones and silence into some cuts, and crystallising others with DIS FIG, Elvin Brandhi, and Iben KasJer’s “oracular dreamspeech.” Iben’s invocations on 'Fatima’s Poplar' in particular, reciting the vitriolic poetry of political writer Nick Land, not only sets the tone for the sensory experience that follows, but also invites us to reckon with Ladakh’s present “smog-laden loss-state” hollowed out by “the colourful promises of neoliberalism”.

Composed of nine microstories, 'Fatima' is replete with these spectres that “could no longer be ignored”, and with totems willed into serving as their placeholders. The poplar, for example, is a visual reminder of the titular grandaunt, whose cremation site is guarded by the fabled tree. 'The Fanged Poet' whose story bookends the album is similarly “a dispossessed spectre haunting the derelict sites of what was once home.”

On 'Partition', one of the record’s more serene and lingering tracks, Qaisar encrypts yet another dimension to his interactions with history. It is part tribute and part requiem for the powerful legend of another ancestor, this time his great-grandmother, who had undertaken the perilous journey from Glgit to Leh in 1947, with four young children in tow. Just as a refugee’s journey interminably connects their home and their destination, the sonic layers on 'Partition' mutate harmoniously into a hazy mass, so that the sum of its parts is indistinct, indistinguishable, and never truly separate.

In our email conversation, Qaisar talks about digitally restoring a series of home videos on VHS tape, describing them as “the last remaining phantasmic spectres that capture…the now long-gone characters and quotidian life of late 20th century Ladakh”. The fourth track, which originates from one of these videos documenting a relative Ramazan’s wedding, is his attempt to illuminate this lost memory with sound. (A visual from the video appears in the accompanying album booklet which holds other snapshots from the family archive and some of Ruhail’s own lens-based works).

Illuminating the generational trauma of partition with sound | Photo of Qaisar’s great-grandmother from accompanying album booklet

Recorded between Leh and Delhi, 'Fatima' also reinterprets the lexicon, exploring notions of the temporal, internal, and the inter-generational, that echo Qaisar’s experience growing up in a state that’s rapidly changing but not really improving, ravaged instead by the echoes of “old tragedies” and “present disasters”, wrought by late-capitalism, militarisation, and conservatism.

In one of the record’s most foreboding tracks, where the deceitful calmness is quickly corroded by drones and garbling samples, Qaisar positions the abandoned hotels of Zangsti as the totems for “three different waves of tourism in Ladakh”. Qaisar recounts strolling past these structures during the pandemic, “[of] old hotels built between the 70's - 80’s that were once the pride and glory of locality, [were now] totally derelict. New upcoming properties [were] halfway constructed…or devoid of any staff or customers, windows covered in newspapers from 2003, collecting leaves, insects, and dust,” explaining the stasis left by the pandemic, when the tourism industry in Ladakh went anomalously cold-turkey for the first time in nearly fifty years, leaving the sustenance of his community in the lurch.

Later in 'Painter Man', we’re placed in more intimate settings, with Ruhail’s attempt to connect listeners to the internal life of an artist, the fear of artistic failure and societal shaming in Ladakh, where creative endeavours are generally discouraged. There is a mention in the liner notes about musicians typically occupying the lowest rung of Ladakh’s social hierarchy, to the extent that the only two avenues to make a living, for Qaisar, were either in the “seasonal tourism industry or as a civil servant.”

“I wouldn’t change anything on the album…I would rather leave a composition vulnerable rather than overworked” | Snapshot from accompanying album booklet

Qaisar’s own politics are not divorced from the themes that emerge from his music. He works outside of binaries, untouched by the commodified logistics of indie music production and the demands of cultural logic, clout, or even the desire to be understood. “I frankly don’t care about that world…had no time to find comfort in its rot,” says Qaisar. “There was no choice but to make room.”

Challenging and disorienting at first, Qaisar has sure-footedly carved his niche through a series of self-designed, self-taught steps, which has involved unlearning, transgressing disciplines and mediums of expression, discovering the liminal spaces where leftfield artists can unreservedly thrive. One of these spaces certainly was the HKCR residency where Qaisar put out 60-minute selections of compositions improvised and performed live on a Moog Model-D for the better part of a year. (In fact, earlier drafts of 'Namgang', 'Painter Man', and 'The Abandoned Hotels of Zangsti' can be traced back to 'Hounds of Pamir' archives). It catapulted him to the international noise music “scene”, with a tour across Switzerland which allowed him to perform his new compositions before an intuitive audience, and later put him on Danse Noire’s radar.

A record label founded by Swiss-Nepalese producer Aisha Devi, Danse Noire is presently on the frontlines of decolonising experimental music (which is still typically viewed through eurocentric lens) and on a mission to support noise’s barebones-DIY economy centred around self-releases and underground blogs, with a space where acts like Ruhail have access to the same resources and infrastructure as mainstream global music. For Qaisar, working with Danse was also rewarding because he never felt he had to compromise his vision for Fatima.

Clocking in at about an hour, 'Fatima', all said and done, is about an artist’s temerity to document his and his people’s histories, about resisting oblivion by preserving it in whatever form - image, text, sound. It is beyond immersion or abstention, an incredible evocation of space and intimacy in a way not normally considered possible for music to communicate.

At the time of this interview, Qaisar was preparing for his debut at Berghain, where he performed shortly after, for the CTM Festival alongside DIS FIG. Unfazed by streaming figures, he reports being thrilled with the initial response to 'Fatima'. When asked about this journey and if he would have done anything differently, Qaisar politely declines, saying, “I see most aberrations as rewards, I welcome them, I would rather leave a composition vulnerable rather than overworked.”

“Only thing I can assure is that everything that was done on this album would not be repeated in the next.”



Words by Prarthana Mitra

Image by Adnan Zayed


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