Sonic Bardo: SISTER, Convulsions and Ladakh

I have spent seven days churning in a miasma of bodily effluent and discharge, punctuated by the imagined sound of my joints screaming to be freed from their cartilage moorings. 

Occasionally the fever hum in my room would subside, and from the darkness there would emerge a misshapen, elongated ephemera, only to snap back to normal and then withdraw into the darkness. 

As I would pass in and out of consciousness, the intermittent video static cast over my vision would cause all my surroundings to appear suspended at sea. Walking to my fridge to drink water or pass the orange memory of it were mapped on climbing horizontal planes tilted at 15 degree angles, regardless of which direction. 

Geometry was failing me, my vision lied, and it was always night. It was always right. 

This was the best seven days I’ve had in ages. 

In October 2015, I had been asked to make a ‘playlist’ for a friend in the US.  The exercise of trawling the internet for new music from South Asia that I could admire ended up changing my life. 

That was the best seven days I’d had in ages. Soon after, I found myself in a room in Pune with Karan and Kartik from Peter Cat Recording Co., geeking out on music as we sometimes do. 

They played me a demo of a band called Bonefvcker. I yelled with excitement 30 seconds into a track called ‘Ad Infinitum’. To this day, I still grimace and instinctively place my left hand on the fretboard of my mind when I hear those 30 seconds. 

I needed to know more about the music immediately. As I’m prone to do, I messaged a Facebook page, and asked if I could use ‘Ad Infinitum’ in the playlist I had been commissioned to create. The person on the other side agreed.

I then asked if he made music himself. He said yes, and pointed me to an artist called “SISTER” on Soundcloud.  The sound, arrangement, and overall clarity of the execution of this otherworldly music drew me in.

In March 2016, we were just starting a series of musical interventions across India. The location of our fourth iteration was a sort of natural amphitheatre that the vision of an architect with remarkable hair wrought forth; a series of connecting polygons slowly cascading towards a basement – the office of Madhav of the remarkable hair – and a stage area proxy.  We were to showcase a number of acts that day dispersed on various polygons over the landscape of that staircase.

I instinctively asked the person behind the Facebook page if he would like to perform as SISTER, and if so, what he would need from me. I didn’t hear from him for about two weeks, until he replied: “1 x floor tom, 1 x delay pedal, 1 x vocal mic with a stand, 2 x jack inputs”. His direction was as clinical as the precision of what his musical vision mirrors.

We finally met the day of the event. I was at the top of the polygon staircase. It was around noon, a very pleasant Sunday in the midst of a Delhi March – a slight rustle of leaves above, the detritus of their fallen glory under my feet, a particulate diffused light around me. 

I noted a gate opening from the corner of my left eye, and a figure, slightly hunched, obscured by hair, turn from closing said gate to walk towards where I stood observing; black jeans, black boots, black t-shirt, black leather jacket, five-and-a-half feet tall, slight build. 


He extended his hand to meet mine and clasped it in a firm shake. The presentation of this person began to form, his voice slight, his demeanour initially distant. We discussed some technical requirements, and he quietly began to set up. There were others beginning to arrive to do the same, and my attention veered.

At around 6 pm, my attention was torn asunder, rendered into multiple strands that began to weave into a new skin, one that I hang to this day. The staircase was rendered dark as requested, illuminated only by a projection of a 1990 film by American director E. Elias Merhige called Begotten. I’d not seen or heard of the film prior. Impossibly high contrast, destroyed film stock. A wretched figure of a man wanders a landscape, only to be impaled, wrapped in what appear to be intestines, vomiting blood, burnt alive, rape, beatings, some more blood and vomiting. 

Meanwhile, Ruhail Kaizer pummels the floor tom, moaning and yelling in tongues, while a loop plays of mid pitched voices yammering on in another language. He screams, there is viscera and death on the wall, each hit of the floor tom on some internal clock signalling the approaching of a new place I’m finding welcomingly inhospitable. 

I am disgusted and completely engrossed, but more than anything else, amazed by the anticipated clarity of his performance. Or at least, that’s what I’d like to think. I’ve never asked him. I’d rather not know if he planned it, or if it was improvised. I’m allowed to cling to my own romantic identification of visionaries.

When I interviewed Ruhail at length about his music earlier this year, he spoke at length about witnessing Muharram in Shia-dominated Kargil and the impossibly large sound of thousands of men beating their chest in unison. Of the occultist tropes of the Vajrayana and of sacrifice. Of his own Muslim upbringing and the community he felt drawn to within the Buddhist majority in his hometown of Leh regardless of family concerns. 

Of his father’s books, of how the transient nature his mother’s teaching job formed the deep respect and appreciation he possesses for the culture of his homeland. Of how his summers spent as a tour guide for his father’s tour company cemented the mind bending landscape of his cherished Ladakh forever in his identity. 

Of how his work is an urgent celebration of all that he knows will not last. 

His music is not a mere homage to a form, or a genre. It is a language he is developing to describe a yearning for a land under siege.

A Bathory song called ‘Satan My Master’ is canon for him. It framed a moment where he knew instinctively that there was something magic in that music and how it was now his.  It would never leave him. 

I’d been listening to Bathory for some time, but over the course of last week, the reference changed, forever. Their first four albums alone served to score my wretched body trying to eject the unwelcome influence of a sole mosquito that took advantage of my resources on a train between Chandigarh and Dehradun late one night. 

Choosing that music to accompany the gestation and ultimate defeat of my delirium and the exit of its incapacity was an exercise. The score was apt, and made the experience almost enjoyable; it almost become theatrical. The sonic celebration of flesh against mortality in the face of suffering became a score that could render memories and homelands perennial, regardless of the attempts of others to corrupt them – dengue carrying, fascist pandering, or otherwise. 

It allowed me the means to be at peace with violence. It became mine.

SISTER: Meetings 1989-1998 from Rana Ghose on Vimeo.

You can catch a performance by SISTER on September 22 in Mumbai. Get the details here.

Rana Ghose is a curator, economist, writer, and filmmaker. He steers REProduce, an event management collective that works with over 300 artists in India and beyond.

Artwork by: Adnan Zayed