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Punk For Life

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Text by Akhil Sood. Photographs by Nihar Tanna

Rishu Singh is an easy guy to spot at any punk gig. Hair spiked up into a mohawk, a punk band’s T-shirt over a pair of shorts and skateboarding shoes. Beer bottle in hand. He’s almost always in the middle of — or on the verge of — a scrap. There was that one time when he was threatening a guitar player, telling him he’ll never play at one of Singh’s gigs again. Another time, at a Bomb Thursdays gig at a pub in Mumbai, a drunk Singh got on stage while the band was playing, and began insulting the very band he’d picked to perform. “It was nothing personal,” he tells me quite sheepishly. “Maybe it was my state of mind then, at that time and place in life.”

Singh runs the independent events agency Ennui.Bomb. And he’s a punk for life, the brashest kind — always ready to fight back against the system (or whatever it is that’s pissing him off at any given time), always ready to take insane risks. Punk, a form born in the ’70s, stands for anti-establishment values and aggression, traits Singh embodies. The music is simple by design, easy to play (so many punks have, over the years, taken great pride in not being able to play their instruments), and incisive in both musicality and lyrical content. It can range from dirty, lo-fi and abrasive to the more polished pop punk that the ’90s brought forth (taking off from the Ramones). From the early bands such as the Sex Pistols, The Clash, or the Ramones to Indian bands like Messiah or Tripwire from the mid 2000s, the point has, in some way, always been to make a statement. The work Singh’s done in this very small, very obsessive community of punk rock — and also alternative music in India in general — has got him recognition as a kind of pioneering figure, and perhaps also a tragic one.

He’s been doing gigs pushing young bands for ages; Ennui.Bomb also handled management and bookings for bands for a few years. He has been releasing Stupidditties, a free annual compilation album featuring fresh and exciting indie music from across the country, since 2006. “I started it at exactly the same time Bigg Boss released in India; that’s how I keep track,” he says. Stupidditties is an important release in the context of independent music in India, often serving as a great point of discovery for listeners, who’re exposed to artistes vetted by Ennui.Bomb. While it started off merely as an ‘unmetal’ compilation, it’s evolved into something more meaningful. He says, “Over the years, as I grew up, I realised that the point of Stupidditties is not really just to promote metal or ‘unmetal’ or punk or grunge or whatever. It’s to promote newer bands who have great songs.”

Further, in 2014, Singh started the New Wave festival, an annual travelling festival that brings together Indian and international punk and alternative acts. The first edition of New Wave is still the most memorable one, and he considers the festival as one of his greatest accomplishments, speaking with great pride about it. It was held in Goa, on an ambitious scale with three stages and some 70 artistes spread over three days. The venue was a go-karting track, with a skatepark on the side (it was sponsored by Vans for the first couple of years). A spirit of irreverence ran through the festival. Attendance was limited to no more than a few hundred visitors, but each of them had a blast. Headlining the gig was the Japanese all-women punk band Shonen Knife, who became cult heroes after touring with Nirvana in the early ’90s. Things went downhill from there.

The next year, they shifted the venue to Bengaluru, but a poor marketing strategy meant the attendance figures dipped considerably. “We couldn’t promote it enough. I was wasted half the time because there was no turnout. Barely 100 or 200 people must have shown up, and it was really disappointing,” he says. They scaled down after that, hosting the next two editions as pub festivals across a series of pubs, in Delhi in 2016 and in Mumbai in 2017. This year, he intends to take the festival to the North-East, an unexplored region for him, and one that he’s really excited about.

Singh has devoted himself to the underlying ideology, premised on freedom, rebellion and meaningful change. He dresses the part, no doubt, but he also lives the life.

Back in 1994, at a time when his friends were all getting into metal, Singh discovered Nirvana. And thus began a lifelong relationship with punk rock. His local raddiwala played a critical role; he’d buy old international music magazines from him at giveaway prices, learning all about the ethos of punk (this is before the internet became a thing in India, remember). He began to connect with the form: the clothes punks wore, the hair, the way they spoke in interviews, the movements they were a part of, the things they believed in. His friends would circulate old compilation albums— he recalls the grunge-heavy soundtrack to the ’92 movie Singles — and everyone would tape copies. His closest friends at the time, which included his now ex-wife, Aditi Ghosalkar, started a three-piece called Nipple The Pizza, and they had songs called Fuck All Elders and Cops Suck.

Ennui.Bomb was born on 7 April, 2004. He founded the company with Ghosalkar, and they hosted a show at the iconic and recently resurrected Mumbai venue Razzberry Rhinoceros (better known only as ‘Razz’) to mark Kurt Cobain’s death anniversary. It sparked something in him and Ennui.Bomb has been promoting gigs ever since. Among them, there used to be Punk-O-Rama, named after punk rock compilations that used to exist. He remembers those performances being a blast, even though they’d have only around 10 or 15 audience members who would pay to enter each time. Bomb.Thursdays, featuring young inexperienced acts playing in pubs, came along a few years later. As did the Stupidditties launch gigs. One of those, he recalls, happened at the now-defunct underground venue in Mumbai called B69 soon after the birth of his daughter. In a celebratory mood, Singh “bought a whole wine shop. It was mad. People were skidding around on alcohol, lying on the floor, falling everywhere”. The most recent one was Loud Nights, where they diligently informed consumers that they shouldn’t attend if music played really loudly wasn’t their thing.

It all fell apart though. The first New Wave festival was an ambitious project. “We went out of our way, crushed our balls, and made it all happen. And we got fucked,” he says. They accumulated significant debts, which led to them selling their house. He was broke. Singh’s behaviour in public was getting increasingly erratic, and his reputation — already precarious to begin with — took a further hit. He was also going through a separation at the time — he and Ghosalkar separated in 2015, and their divorce came through this year. On top of that, close family members passed away, and Singh was reeling from the upheaval in his life.

Given the niche space within which Ennui.Bomb operated — they began life focusing primarily on punk rock, before expanding into alternative music — they never quite rode the indie music wave that came about as a result of the success of the NH7 Weekender festival. Singh’s events existed parallelly, with a distinct DIY ethos running through them. While much of independent music in India is now presented as a polished product, Ennui.Bomb went in the other direction almost deliberately. The gigs were raw and unpredictable. Often, the flyers and promotional materials were based on irreverent doodles Singh himself had sketched out. They chose to take risks with unheard-of bands that hadn’t had much experience — wildcards — working to nurture young talent in the country instead of counting on bankable names. Anything could go wrong at any second, which was part of the charm. “I don’t think I arrived on that aesthetic. I think that aesthetic arrived on me. It’s probably why we don’t get work,” he says, only half-jokingly. Singh remembers a gig he did with a punk band at the Churchgate eatery formerly called Not Just Jazz By The Bay. There were about five people in the audience. “Obviously, the owners were like, ‘Please don’t approach us, don’t come near us. We don’t want anything to do with this kind of music!’” he says. This has been a pattern that’s been following Ennui.Bomb around, where venues tend to wash their hands off properties they’ve initiated because of small crowds or perceived unprofessionalism. “We’re pitching to a lot of venues,” he says. “But my reputation precedes me, so it’s tough.”

There are plenty of bands who’re still awaiting payments promised to them for performing at Ennui.Bomb gigs (disclosure: this writer’s own band has not been paid for their acts from a couple of years ago). And his heavy drinking at gigs has led to many uncomfortable confrontations. Singh is candid about his role in all of this; he readily admits to having made a lot of mistakes. He is still reeling from the financial hits he took after overreaching, and tells me he’s living “hand to mouth” these days and searching for a full-time job to keep him going. And he confesses to having a drinking problem.

At 40, Singh perhaps feels the weight of the mistakes he’s made in the past. And he’s been struggling with his demons. We speak about how the specific subculture that he’s dedicated his life to hasn’t been as rewarding thanks to bands that aren’t quite willing to put in the hard work it requires, and apathetic audiences who don’t turn up to support the ecosystem. He’s not quite broken, he is clear that he’s going to keep Ennui.Bomb running — but he is more circumspect now. What’s kept him going is the connection he feels with the form. And he’s certainly not ready to hang up his boots soon.

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