Pushing the Lifafa
Suryakant Sawhney’s band, Peter Cat Recording Co., has matured, while his own reinvention as Lifafa has taken off
It’s October of last year; Suryakant Sawhney, aka Lifafa, is playing an intimate gig at Delhi’s Bar Cat. This is the city’s own playing it up in the backyard. Lifafa takes his time building up the tempo, periodically taking drags on his vaporiser. The fans light incense sticks; this could very well be Jim Morrison’s Parisian grave. He’s just risen from the dead. The air is thick with the cloying smell of strawberry. The dance floor erupts in joy.
It’s 2019 and Bar Cat has vaporised. Sawhney, though, hasn’t. In January he drops his first full-length solo album, Jaago; in June, his band Peter Cat Recording
Co. (PCRC) releases Bismillah, on vinyl and digital, on the French indie label Panache. The two mark a watershed of sorts for Indian independent music. With a release in Hindi and English each, Sawhney wears a new crown: the badshah of bilingualism. In a world increasingly hedged in by identity politics on the liberal side and chauvinist nationalism on the other, Sawhney is a symbol of free-spirited pluralism.
Jaago begins with the lines ‘Doob raha hai ye desh/ Jee lo yeh zindagi/ Ya chhodo ye jawani’. For the course of the album, nudged and winked along by self-referential electronica chess moves, one is reminded of a Guru Dutt film: ‘Ek aandhi / Ka tha intezaar /Barbaadi / Ka main rishtedaar.’ There is not a hint of frippery. Somewhere along the way, one detects a trace of Nitin Mukesh’s despair from Tezaab—‘So Gaya Ye Jahaan’—especially on ‘Ek Naghma’: ‘Jahaan se aaye they/ Woh to bhool gaye / Aur ab hum / Jaayein kahaan’.
When india today reaches out to Sawhney, he’s on vacation in Berlin. During the conversation, he pointedly avoids using the word ‘evolution’ and sticks to ‘maturity’. This new-found maturity is showcased in Bismillah, conveyed in Sawhney’s trademark coil-andrelease singing style.
This is PCRC’s most accessible album, not least because maturity begets clarity and a fearless directness: ‘Walk with me/ My soulless friends/You are what I need/ You always bend’ (Soulless Friends). There are whips, bruises and blood on Freezing, the opposite of blitheness on Heera,‘This is how it ends/ No money/ No friends/ And I just got a hard-on.’
“The test now is how quickly we can write music, execute it, put it out. Each band member is now in a
strong artistic space as an individual, with their own songwriting skills,” says Sawhney.
Lifafa is more “philosophical than political”, he says, and allows him “to sing as a woman”, even as PCRC has “started to respond to the world around, not just inner turmoil”. He rails against the “absolute sexual deprivation” in India, which remains undiluted by marriage: “Grab two birds and stick them in a cage; they have no choice in the matter.” He talks about class, “In India, people like us are in the middle, not rich or poor. One feels empathy but also a sense of helplessness.” He bemoans “the flat-lining of music in the West, where the personality of the musician is erased”. He sticks his neck out: “The future of music is an act that doesn’t have a national or cultural identity.”
Till that happens, PCRC will be the Indian act to watch out for this summer as the band plays festivals in the Netherlands, Belgium and England, not to forget Rock en Seine west of Paris, where they will share the bill with Aphex Twin and The Cure. Meanwhile, a new Lifafa album is due out end of this year.
With a release in Hindi and English each, Sawhney wears a new crown: the badshah of bilingualism —Palash Krishna Mehrotra