The Peter Cat Penthouse and Other Stories

The Peter Cat Penthouse and Other Stories

By AKHIL SOOD | | 21 August, 2015
They write, record & produce their own music. They create their own artwork. They share homes and ideas, an aesthetic identity. They make their own videos, host their own gigs. Stemming (nominally) from Delhi’s Peter Cat Recording Co., Akhil Sood looks at this multi-discipline art fraternity doing things their own way.

Anyone who comes up to the "PCRC Penthouse" is invariably panting for breath. Way at the back in an unmemorable lane in Hauz Khas Village, a little away from the yuppie-infested Happy Hours and Ladies' Night pubs, lies this building a few steps from Om Salon — B87. Five (exhausting) flights of stairs later, you reach the apartment. It has two average-sized rooms and a biggish terrace (so not really a penthouse). One room is occupied by Kartik Pillai, the multi-instrumentalist (guitar, organ, melodica, electronics) of waltz/rock 'n' roll/jazz band Peter Cat Recording Co. (PCRC) and the frontman of Begum. Karan Singh, who plays drums for both these bands, lives in the other room, which doubles up as a jam room, and often triples up as a stage for live gigs. The last time I was here, a little over a year ago, the PCRC guys had organised a DIY, BYOB gig featuring eight bands. Some 200 people showed up — the terrace is big, but not that big. Halfway through, cops shut the whole thing down, not because the terrace was close to collapsing under the weight of all the people there, or because some drunk twit might tumble down five floors, but because of "licenses". (Pillai was recently arrested because, as PCRC vocalist Suryakant Sawhney tells me, complaints made by neighbours about the volume had been piling up for years, and the cops hadn't done anything about it until then.)

Those DIY gigs used to be a regular fixture, with the band playing inside the room, visible through two large windows, and the audience on the terrace watching them. The last one was on Independence Day last year. "I think that was a phase, not some long-term plan," says Sawhney. "It's not like we were like, 'This is it, guys, we've found what we want to do in life: Throw parties!' It seemed the most logical thing to do. The beauty of it was that it was a stupidly easy concept; it happens abroad — a lot of bands play at house parties as opposed to only playing in restaurants. If the 'scene' is ever going to exist in India, this is what needs to happen."

The first one, which saw a turnout of some 50-60 people, was organised following a realisation that they had an "awesome terrace" they could use. "First, we thought, party phenkte hain. Then it was like, let's make a gig out of it. Then we're like, let's make alcohol free." People got their own booze, and the band members decided to empty out all the liquor into a big bowl, throwing in some orange juice for good measure. They called it a "punch". Within seven minutes, everyone there was hammered, proclaiming it to be the best gig ever.

PCRC have released two full-length albums, Sinema (2011) and Wall of Want (2012). They recently contributed a song, Jaanam, to the indie-heavy soundtrack of Dibakar Banerjee's newest film, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy. They've been performing regularly, playing decent sized shows all over, but new releases have kind of dried down. That said, an untitled new album is in the works, currently in the mixing stage.

Beyond PCRC, Pillai, 26, works as a sound engineer, creating jingles, scores or sound designs for commercial projects. He's also part of a small arts collective called the Hundredth Monkey Initiative. We're in Singh's room, filled with music instruments, speakers and amps, tattered old guitar cables on the floor, a bow-and-arrow Singh made, clothes on the bed. And empty, multipurpose pizza boxes, always the mark of a single guy's pad. Pillai is slouched on the mattress on the floor, sitting next to Kshitij Dhyani, the bass player for Begum. Sawhney is sitting up, watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Begum's manager and freelance graphic artist, Anika Mehta, is hovering in and out, as are several unnamed faces who keep appearing. Our conversation is briefly broken by a guy from the local groceries store bringing that 20 litre Bisleri can of water. He carried it all the way up — had I been rich, I would have given him a thousand rupee tip and a hug for such a feat. But I did neither.

Sawhney, 28, formed PCRC in 2010, and only he and Rohan Kulshreshtha, the bassist, have survived from the original line-up. Singh joined after a slew of drummers played with them, and Pillai was the last to enter the fray. He was doing live sound at a PCRC gig when Sawhney, possibly drunk, approached him from nowhere and pronounced: "I'm gonna see you soon." He then walked off. Soon enough, he was a part of the band. Sawhney has never had a job in his life; he used to work from home designing logos for companies using Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator. He's stopped that now, earning a steady (if not lavish) income playing gigs with PCRC, with Gaurav Malakar from audio-visual duo BLOT, and as Lifafa, his electronic side project. He picks up the occasional commercial project, preferring to license out his own music whenever possible.

Pillai is in the midst of producing, or helping out in production, a host of bands from across the city. He also goes by Jamblu, writing ambient electronic music as a solo artist. In fact, PCRC are currently in the process of planning a tour of Europe following a booking in Berlin, after which Pillai — Jamblu — heads over to Switzerland for an artist residency.

PCRC's music has a swinging, folksy old-school quality to it: swaying guitar/organ melodies and a touch of the laidback, led by Sawhney's trademark drawl, and substantial old era Bollywood influences. They refrain from titling their sound "retro" or "revivalist", as Pillai points out that retro music is usually crafted with an intention and a purpose, as opposed to the natural songwriting process of the band. Adds Sawhney: "We share that taste in aesthetics. I wouldn't call it 'kitsch'. Frankly, it's interesting that people call our music 'nostalgic'. What does that really mean? Nostalgia means different things to different generations. The generation that grew up listening to jazz, for instance, in that environment, would feel the same way about that music. For us, now it's house music or EDM that may evoke nostalgia about that period. In our case, what happens is our fathers might have listened to something. As children, they played that to us occasionally. Then, that is our memory. A memory of somebody else's memories. A lot of what we do is diving into our past as opposed to responding. I realise I'm not really responding to my environment and what my contemporary settings are. With PCRC, it's been some romanticised version of something that's never really happened. That carries on in our video work as well. We're looking to create those feelings of forcing people to tap into a memory. We want to make sure we're triggering something, not necessarily memories. All of us sort of exist in a certain kind of bubble. We're not, like, interacting too much with what's happening around us; we're friends with musicians, but there's no real creative exchange happening, I think."

There's a slight dichotomy that arises here. On the one hand, their music has a lucid strain of reminiscence to it. But then, Sawhney's work as Lifafa, which retains his aesthetic but expands into Hindi lyrics, enhanced Bollywood tendencies and beats-driven electronica, is, in his words, an engagement with what's happening around him. "Lifafa is an outlet. I get rid of my insecurities about things going on in the world. After the last PCRC album, I was a little lost about what I'm supposed to do. Then, at some point, I looked out, peeked around and looked at what's happening in the world — what's going on, what are people up to, what are they creating. I immediately started diving into that, trying to find what I like." 

Besides playing drums for two bands, Singh, who specialises in industrial design, is also part of, an NGO working toward better public sanitation and currently in the midst of a project for Sulabh International. Kulshreshtha is a promoter who drafts experimental ideas for events, pitching them to clients and executing them. "He's a hustler, dude," laughs Sawhney. A gig sponsored by Budweiser at antiSOCIAL in Hauz Khas Village that Kulshreshtha conceived, saw the band design and set up an elaborate spaceship-like stage on which they played. Soon, the unforgiving Delhi weather relents for a bit; there's a massive downpour in the midst of an impromptu photo shoot. The guys get drenched briefly, before retreating to the jam room and indulging in a laidback jam session, switching instruments, shuffling between the melodica, drums, the bass, a lonely xylophone.

Begum is a wistful rock 'n' roll three-piece featuring Pillai on vocals, guitars, organ; Dhyani on the bass, and Singh on drums. They got together collectively sometime in 2012, and have an album called Bagh out already; they're in the process of recording their second album too. Dhyani and Pillai had been writing bluesy, acoustic music together since 2007-08 — "You can find the music online but you shouldn't," says Dhyani — and it was only after Singh joined that the band started to gain momentum. As with PCRC, Begum also has a strong, clearly defined visual aesthetic. That's the thing — they don't stick to only the act of writing or performing, spreading their artistic identity on to multiple canvases.

“We share that taste in aesthetics. I wouldn’t call it ‘kitsch’. Frankly, it’s interesting that people call our music ‘nostalgic’. What does that really mean? Nostalgia means different things to different generations. The generation that grew up listening to jazz, for instance, in that environment, would feel the same way about that music.

They've got three videos out already, each with a distinct voice and visual quality. The first one, Chinbien, was made by Samridhi Thapliyal, using only found footage. The video for Marry Me was shot by Sawhney — who went to film school in San Francisco — and Singh, featuring a haunting, surreal ride at the Pushkar Mela in Rajasthan. Their newest video, for Make It Till Four, made by Surabhi Tandon, features two women roaming around on vacation.

"It's a big, incestuous thing," says Sawhney in between the splatter of rain, highlighting the nature of the "collective" that these guys have developed, from Jamblu, Lifafa, Begum, PCRC, each individual not just contributing to the music but also shaping a creative self and an individualistic sensibility through the nuances of production, through film, through art — Jamblu's album art was drawn up by Pillai himself, while Dhyani admits to having a comic manuscript ready. There's a studio next door; a handful of musicians live on different floors of the same building, everyone knows everyone, bands share ideas, they share members. Part of it has to naturally do with the phenomenon of Hauz Khas Village, with the availability of cheap (although that's much debated) rentable houses where young people can live. Oddly (or not), there's no pharmacy there, but plenty of affordable eating options and lots of young creative professionals moving there, leading to a cultural shift (which now veers towards yuppiesm to be fair). There are art galleries, erstwhile boutiques that attracted a certain kind of people, an arts college leading to a further influx of "creative types".

They help each other produce music, create videos, posters, artwork, merchandise, even lending out and sharing equipment and gear. Spending all their time together means it becomes easy to influence and inspire, maybe even copy, each other, thus lending similarities and common threads to all the art stemming from this lot. The core motif here, it could be said, is one of DIY, of establishing a voice through commitment to the craft. "We're going to start an export business soon. Yahaan pe kuch nahin hone waala," says Sawhney, half in jest, half in disgust.

Dropcap OnAnd while musically PCRC presents a measured, deliberated sense of detachment from contemporary society, Begum draws heavily from it. They have a new initiative, called Centre Se Left — monthly events that serve as some sort of melting pot for creative intellectuals, artists and academics to convene and discuss high-brow ideas of art, architecture, society and politics, taking place at pubs or art galleries. The last edition of it was held at Artszia, an art gallery in Hauz Khas Village, titled Women in Space/#WhyLoiter. It featured a lecture and debate, as well as a talk on feminism in comics, in addition to the screening of the video of Make It Till Four. The video for Make It Till Four takes on a strong notion of feminism, with the band tackling the idea of "Why loiter?" as an underlying idea behind it. "In a country where the amount of fun a woman can have is rationed, that act in itself is an act of rebellion," he says, explaining how his interpretation of the original video is what the band presents as its music video for the song, trying to make a statement and also engaging with the politics of the now.

The academics side of it is something that heavily interests Dhyani, 32, an architect currently doing his masters while also having had stints teaching students on elements of architecture.

He has a far more philosophical take on art and existence. He rejected a project because he was asked to create separate water fountains for boys and girls in a primary school. "If you don't teach children now how to live their life, how to respect the other sex, then when are you going to do it?" Another weird project he was asked to work on involved hanging up a fire hydrant in the corridors of a school. He refused it. "When children run in the corridor, they bang into it. People are always banging into fire hydrants in government schools. So I left that project." Eventually, Dhyani reached a point where he devised his own creative strategy for getting out of soul-sapping projects that he would be obliged to take up because of acquaintances or references. "I started giving them radical designs that I knew they'll say no to. That gave me freedom to do what I really want to do." One particular client he had was very particular about Vastu shastra. "So I gave him a bathtub in the correct corner... on the terrace. Out in the open. Go take a bath there.

"Everything I do is a part of my life; there's never a centre to it." Following a weird segue into Bob Dylan morphing into a Punjabi musician named Bobby Dhillon, he explains the concept of heterotopia to us. "In Begum, instead of everyone working toward one thing, everyone is working toward what they want to achieve. Instead of a utopia, there's a heterotopia." It's a real word, he insists, explicating its meaning of harmony and existence. "Utopia is one person's perfect world." Heterotopia is many perfect worlds.

"I have a certain understanding of the art I'm creating, which led me to start Centre Se Left (CSL). There's a collective happening in Hauz Khas Village; a lot of people are doing similar work. And I read that in a certain way because of my academic background. There is a disjoint there. There needs to be a lack of apology. That's what CSL is: a bathtub on the terrace. We are the producers and the consumers so let's do it for ourselves." That need to be unapologetic, even if it means preaching to the choir, is something Sawhney also emphasises. "F**k it; we can't change the lives of 250 million people so let's start with ourselves."

It's an admission of the fact that the guy on the street is a moron, Dhyani says, so "why not enrich ourselves?" The events are hosted free of charge, and tend to witness a turnout that's a blend of Hauz Khas Village regulars and academics, researchers and individuals interested in the subject matter being discussed. Patrons can purchase the art on display there, from band merch and albums to paper jewellery and comics. What's more, people tend to always pick up the stuff on sale diligently, either as a means of support and patronage, or through genuine interest. "It's a parallel market," Sawhney says. A niche within a niche, as Dhyani is trying to create.

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