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Kapil Seshasayee Confronts Caste in His Latest Album

The Indian music community is slowly being forced to confront the impact that caste continues to have on the scene in the country. From the Delhi-based jazz-centric venue The Piano Man dealing with the fallout of booking a band named after a caste-slur, to Indian-American rapper Raja Kumari detailing a caste-supremacist ideology in her collaboration titled “Roots” with desi hip-hop superstar Divine, the stakeholders of the industry are having to identify and rectify the ideas that reinforce caste-based ignorance and prejudices in the music scene. Typically, the collectives and artists that form the resistance to these ideologies do not get the same opportunities to perform. Art collectives such as Kabir Kala Manch and the Yalgaar Sanskrutik Manch, as well as artists like Bant Singh, Sumeet Samos and others, are homegrown artists who are confronting the implications of caste-discrimination in society through their music.

What’s missing is a narrative that details how caste travels with the Indian diaspora. In a cultural context, the diaspora has usually spoken about discrimination faced from other communities while neglecting the discrimination within the community. Attempts have been made—recently Equality Labs published a report about caste discrimination in the South Asian community living in the United States, with the report finding that 25% of Dalits living abroad have faced physical or verbal assault due to their caste. Contributions to the narrative in the cultural context are therefore necessary, and Scottish-Indian multi-instrumentalist Kapil Seshasayee is hoping to play a key role in that. His debut album A Sacred Bore aspires to tackle the lack of conversation about caste-based discrimination and is a flawed, but essential addition to how caste is perceived and spoken about (and also ignored) in the Indian cultural industry, both domestically and abroad.

Seshasayee attempts to bring to light the severity of the violence faced by these communities, inspired by the stories of Bant Singh, a Dalit man who was mauled by upper-caste men in his village in Punjab, in 2006, because he filed a case against the upper-caste men who raped his daughter. The record, with stellar tracks such as “The Ballad of Bant Singh”, “A Glass Wig” and “Kali”, buckles under the weight of its ambition, losing its sense of urgency amidst a range of complex sonic ideas that Seshasayee seeks to deploy. In the days of Trump and Brexit, most of the recent music released by the South Asian diaspora revolves around topics of immigration, representation and racial discrimination faced by the community as a whole. What’s lacking is introspection about how the worst facets of our society travel with us, and an attempt to reflect on how the community practices discrimination amongst its own people. Despite its shortcomings, A Sacred Bore is a timely and necessary record that brings about conversations about caste amongst the Indian community. He borrows heavily from the math-rock inflections of bands such as This Town Needs Guns and the experimental electronics of composers such as Ben Frost and Trent Reznor. We caught up with him to talk about the making of his debut album.

VICE: Tell us about your early life. Where did you grow up, what was your family like, school life, etc?

Kapil Seshasayee: I was born in Ramnad in South of India, but I’ve been in Glasgow since 1990. I grew up in Clydebank towards the west of the city, near the shipbuilding industry which employed my father throughout the 1990s. My father was an engineer while my mother dedicated herself to take care of me and my sister. School life was complicated as being the children of immigrants landed you right in the middle of two cultures—the one you faced when you stepped outside and the one dictated by your parental heritage.

What kind of music was around you at home/school?

I was very lucky to visit family abroad regularly throughout my childhood as it allowed me to witness my cousins (celebrated Indian classical duo the Ragam Sisters) perform on a number of occasions in temples. Having grown up with them, this was my first experience of the notion that Carnatic music could be made by someone like me. One of my earliest memories is listening to them practise their vocal exercises along with a harmonium as a toddler. My household growing up was soundtracked mostly by the pop music of my parents' adolescence —Bollywood disco and ABBA.

Who were your first influences and how did you evolve as a listener?

As my parents weren’t aware of ’70s rock growing up, I had no impetus to rebel by rejecting it, so I would spin records by Pink Floyd, Free and folkie John Martyn obsessively. He remains my favourite songwriter in fact and I’m glad I saw one of his last ever shows in Scotland before his passing. I can still recall the milestones which marked seismic shifts in my listening habits. Hearing “Cosmia” by Joanna Newsom when I was 17, “The Cockfighter” by Scott Walker when I was 19, and “Letter to ZZ Top” by U.S Maple when I was 22, cemented my admiration for albums with sprawling narratives which didn’t shy away from toying with the listener.

When did you pick up learning an instrument/production?

I began playing the guitar at 12 but didn’t place any real focus upon learning electronic production or programming drum machines until I began my solo project properly in my mid-20s. I had always had the safety net of a real drummer up until that point, but all of a sudden it was really difficult to find one dedicated enough. Not wanting to see out my 20s without touring, I got hold of a skeletal version of Ableton [a digital audio workstation] and songs began taking shape from the very basic loops I was constructing. Instrumentation such as the aqua phone in my music is a throwback to my residency as an in-house composer for a theatre company in my early 20s where I would be trying to complement the narrative through whatever palette of sounds was at my disposal.

How did you approach the narrative in your album? Did you pick from certain incidents about caste-based violence that have happened in the country recently?

I approached the album like I was writing an essay about caste, and that each song is a chapter on the various guises that which oppression can take. I wrote the opening track as an abstract, marking out the narrative to be explored over the course of the album. The fourth track “The Ballad of Bant Singh” refers to the incident when North Indian protest singer Bant Singh lost his limbs in a confrontation with upper-caste villagers. “Ligature Hymnal” references recent honour-killings such as the murder of Jaswinder Kaur Sidhu in 2000.

Caste is so removed from the urban education curriculum in India; most books pretend that caste was abolished with the adoption of the Constitution. How did you experience caste as a child?

Caste dynamics often played out in plain sight when I was a child visiting relatives. Snide remarks towards the wait staff in a restaurant or slurs uttered under the breath towards service workers in a petrol station [roles often worked by lower-caste Indians or untouchables] seem innocuous at first, but on closer inspection, they are revealed to be steeped in casteist rhetoric. I never attended school in India but hearing stories of class-segregation from my cousins based on caste really exemplified the influence of caste for me as a mark of social status.

The music scene and Bollywood tend to airbrush caste-based issues—where rappers like Raja Kumari have caste-supremacist lyrics in their songs and Karan Johar blind adaption of one of the best caste-centric movies into a trashy Bollywood remake . What responsibility do you think artists shoulder when talking about issues such as caste?

There’s a real taboo around the notion of acknowledging that you report on an issue from a position of privilege as if it nullifies all efforts inherent with the art which delivers your commentary. I’m working to fight this narrative by calling out my own upper-caste privilege as I report on the horrors of caste—depicting crimes committed mostly by upper-caste Indians similar to my own ancestors. I’m also not in the business of commodifying woke-ness with my music. The album is a difficult listen as I didn’t shy away from the harrowing detail of crimes committed in the name of caste.

In a day and age where anti-caste musicians have been charged as Maoists, Urban Naxals and jailed for sedition, are you afraid?

Caste is commonly depicted as an issue sidelined to an apparently bygone era or far-off third world slum in diaspora (often a narrative pedalled by upper-caste Indians who benefit from the system of oppression), so I’m not especially at great risk shouting about it in the west. I’ll be touring India soon enough where I might have to take greater care, however.

You live abroad now, and one of the least talked about things in the diaspora is how caste has been imported to foreign lands and Indian communities abroad. Is such a conversation happening in Scotland too?

There has been slow but visible progress. The taboo of discussing caste in the diaspora is shifting. “Caustic Wit” and “A Glass Wig” are about the normalisation of caste in the diaspora and are based on my own experience of hearing casteist slurs in everyday speech in modern Brahminic communities within Scotland. Incidents such as the murder of Jaswinder Kaur Sidhu referenced in the album occurred in India but she was a diasporic Indian who grew up in Canada. I hope this illustrates how far-reaching casteism can be.

I’ve noted that online spaces for South Asians now feature more voices from Scotland discussing their experiences of caste, and people are asking me about the narrative of the record at my shows, which allows the message to travel even further. We still lag behind England which features more vocal parties against caste oppression, but it’s important that we work together. I was recently interviewed by Birmingham-based filmmaker Raveeta Banger about my LP ahead of her own documentary about caste coming out and we will seek to collaborate in the future.