Black Mother Nirvana: From the Potent Potions of Purushmedh to the Blast-Beat Barrage of Bodhisattva

“Death lasts a very long time. That’s why I’m trying to put across a strong message as strongly as I can while I still can.”

Just about everything else in Aisha Mehta’s life has changed, but she would still agree with those sentiments. Strongly. She just won’t mean exactly the same thing by them. What she meant then, and what she means now, and what came in between, this article will try to tell you.

The story of the emergence of Birmingham’s Bodhisattva (Sanskrit for “a being possessing the essence of perfect knowledge”) as the first Buddhist necro-industrial group has been told previously only in the pages of the fanzine Jiiwan aur Mrityu (“Life and Death”). And told well, because the magazine is co-edited by the group’s female bassist and lead vocalist, Aisha Mehta, but not told to many and, as she’ll be the first to admit, not necessarily told with perfect objectivity. Bodhisattva, in existence for little over a year now, are slowly beginning to gain a reputation for themselves as perhaps amongst the most original — and certainly amongst the most interesting — on the extreme fringes of the current necro-industrial scene, and it’s well past time for an outside look at their past, present, and future.

In strictly musical terms, the group began life as the tantric death group Purushmedh (Sanskrit for “human sacrifice”) in 1992. Purushmedh were, in effect, the hard core of a loose grouping of Asian musicians who had dabbled with a death-metal/bhangra crossover during the mid and late ’eighties and whose better efforts found their way onto a Khuun-kaa-Sansaar (Bloodworld) Records compilation called Khuun aur Aag (“Blood and Fire”) in 1991. Of the fifteen or so tracks on the compilation, only two seem to reflect any clear sense of musical direction, standing out in a general atmosphere of jokiness or over-the-top experimentation. The two tracks — Laal Kuttii’s “Shiv kaa Naach” (Red Bitch’s “Dance of Shiva”) and Ghaatinii’s “Trishuul” (Female Assassin’s “Trident”) — were in fact the work of two projects of the same woman, the bassist/vocalist Aisha Mehta.

Looking back, one finds it easy to see the elements in the two tracks that have contributed most to the present-day sound of Bodhisattva. Mehta herself saw the two groups as experiments in two different directions: in her own words, “Laal Kuttii was speed and Ghaatinii was weight.”

Even today the out-and-out headlong quality of the Laal Kuttii track is breathtaking. There’s very little attempt to develop any musical ideas, just a medium-paced intro that goes into overdrive after a few seconds and doesn’t let up until sliced off abruptly by the beginning of a long silence in which your ears cautiously renew their normal workings. Mehta will admit today that a tad of technical trickery played its part in what was for its day a jaw-loosening aural experience, because the necessary musical background just wasn’t there at the time for the group members who played the more traditionally Asian instruments.

The Ghaatinii track, on the other hand, winding up side one of the compilation with a mountainous seven minutes of grind-cum-sludgecore, makes quite different demands on the listener. There’s something of a musical concept buried in amongst all the plangent sitar and over-fuzzed bass, with three sections, marked by what to ears trained in Western music are very odd time changes, representing the Creator-Destroyer-Preserver roles of the Hindu trinity Brahma-Shiva-Vishnu, and Mehta’s vocals (though it’s damn difficult to tell) draw on Punjabi, Gujerati and English in turn, swooping between a choked bass and a sharp and piercing soprano.

Not instantly likable, this track is probably the better of the two and its was the style to exercise the dominant influence in Purushmedh, which was born from a fusion of Laal Kuttii and Ghaatinii when Laal Kuttii’s lead guitarist, Mehta’s elder brother Rajendra, began university in Brighton and the group was no longer able to rehearse on a regular basis.

Initially however, although based on the personnel of Mehta’s two former projects, Purushmedh was more of a coalition than a band, with many of the musicians who had performed on the Khuun aur Aag compilation passing through its ranks at one time or another. Mehta disowns most of the demo tracks Purushmedh recorded at the time, because the constant additions to and subtractions from the line-up — and sometimes simply the sheer weight of numbers — made it difficult for her to exercise the kind of control she wanted over musical direction.

She comments: “A lot of the time [Purushmedh] operated more as a democracy than as a dictatorship under my control. Not that I support dictatorship in general, it’s just that on a lot of the demos what we were doing was barely outside the mainstream of Asian music at that time, and that wasn’t what I was aiming for. In the end it sorted itself out, because everyone who wanted to play it safe pissed off elsewhere and only the band members who were interested in exploring the limits were left.”

Anyone listening to a lot of Purushmedh’s early material will sympathise strongly with these words. Only a very few tracks stand up to the brutal best of Purushmedh’s middle and late periods, when Mehta’s interests in those aspects of the Hindu sect of Tantrism that are closest to Western Satanism came across loud and extremely ugly.

For many, the best of the true Purushmedh’s three-and-a-bit albums is the first, Black Mother, in which a sense of freedom and release is clearly audible in the substantially trimmed line-up that entered Birmingham’s Skin Drum studios in early 1993. Laal Kuttii’s face-tearing speed rips loose at intervals on both sides, but it’s a thickened version of Ghaatinii’s doom-sludge that really leaves the nasty taste in the mouth. Mehta cuts down considerably on her octave leaping in comparison with her previous vocal work and gains more than she loses, with the occasional excursion into the musical stratosphere, as in the wonderfully foul-moody “Ocean of Darkness”, in which she matches the feedback-sharpened rise-and-fall wail of Shail Jain’s sitar note for note, really picking up power by contrast with the general narrowness of her range elsewhere.

Although displaying more than once the failing of self-indulgence — side one’s “Mumh Me Dhuul Hae” (“There’s Dust in My Mouth”) and side two’s “Sakkhe Patte” (“Dry Leaves”) weaken some fine rhythmic and melodic ideas simply by overextending them — Black Mother is the sine qua non of anyone setting out to build up an Asian necro-industrial collection and although, shamefully, it has made almost no impact in the N.I. mainstream to date, it’s certain to exercise a powerful influence for years to come in more than a few corners of this ever-burgeoning genre.

In some ways, however, as Mehta herself is more than ready to admit, Purushmedh were trying to live up to the quality and power of their first full vinyl offering for the rest of their career. Album number two, Age of Bronze, was laid down before the year was out and although it would be well into 1993 before it saw release, there’s no doubt that Black Mother was the first thing to spring to the mind of anyone giving this second album its initial turntable or tape-deck outing. Looking back after the breakup of Purushmedh, Mehta said: “[Musically speaking] what was wrong with Age of Bronze was that we recorded it with one eye always over our shoulders, looking back at Black Mother. Instead of working in the present for the future, we tried to re-capture everything that had made Black Mother so powerful, and not only that, we tried to top it.”

The result, though by no means unlistenable, falls down badly by comparison both with what went before and with what was to come after. Age of Bronze just tries too hard: instead of the philosophy of the spotlight, with power and musical “bite” gained just as much from what’s left in the shadows as what’s picked out, we have the philosophy of the floodlight, where everyone tries to give all they’ve got and a bit more and the end product is more mush than mosh.

The shame is that in many ways Age of Bronze was far more innovative than Black Mother. There are a lot of good, subtle ideas lurking in amongst the over-exuberant production and too energetic playing but they tend not to be noticed because the general thrust of the album is to take the top of your head off rather than get inside it and teach you new ways of listening to things. The group didn’t seem to have enough faith in itself to ease off on the accelerator and let the structure of the music rather than its presentation speak for Purushmedh.

Mehta recognized this, saying: “It was a question of musical maturity. Sure, I think we were still developing as song-writers then, but we weren’t mature enough to recognize it. Maybe we thought that after Black Mother we’d run out of things to say, so we thought we’d make sure nobody noticed by saying everthing twice as loud as before.”

Despite all this, any “Best of Purushmedh” compilation would have to include the remarkable Age of Bronze track “Suraj aur Chaand kii Aankhe” (“Eyes of the Sun and Moon”) — for the crackpot use of the tabla, if for no other reason — and none of the miserably infrequent Purushmedh live shows would have been complete without Age of Bronze’s “Dewii kaa Betaa (Ek aur Dos)” (“The Goddess’s Son (One and Two)”), with its murderously complex riff-clusters and rhythmic interchanges.

After Age of Bronze, Purushmedh ran into line-up trouble again. Although she doesn’t like to dwell on this part of her life, Mehta admits that her intense interest — some might say obsession — with the darker aspects of Hinduism must have frightened off several group members. In a recent interview in Jiiwan aur Mrityu, she said: “Although I won’t go as far as to say I ever worshipped her, I was reading a hell of a lot about [the Hindu death-goddess] Kali and I was buying statues and posters of her all the time. There was a sort of joke/rumour running around at the time that I was prepared to sacrifice someone to her in return for success for the band and I think some people more than half believed it. Who knows, if I’d continued like that, maybe I would have, in the end.”

The dark side of her interests — perhaps more extensive than she is today prepared to admit publicly — is fully evident on the Yama kaa Ghar (“The House of Yama” — the Hindu God of Death) EP released after a six-month vinyl silence in late 1993 as a taster for the third full album. If Age of Bronze was trying (unnecessarily) to cover up an absence of ideas with volume, Yama kaa Ghar contains ample evidence that the group had learned from its mistakes. The fifteen minutes of side one contain three tracks, one of which — “Dwaar Me” (“In the Doorway”) — seizes the lion’s share of space, clocking in at around twelve-and-a-half minutes. The arrangement is very sparse, almost skeletal in feel, and although it’s certain that very few people understood the guttural Sanskrit lyrics, it’s no surprise to learn that they are an invocation to Yama himself, because it’s impossible to listen to the track without starting to feel very uncomfortable indeed. The two tracks that follow, although far shorter, are just as memorable in their own way, being hellish little fireballs of musical energy in which the speed of Laal Kuttii is dragged kicking and screaming from the grave for a no-holds-barred encounter with the considerably tighter and heavier Purushmedh sound.

Side two is interesting chiefly as a record of an Purushmedh live performance, though historians of the Asian N.I. scene will have noted with interest the disappearance of the semi-acoustic mid-section from “Naagdhar” (“Cobra-lord”) by the time that track found its way onto the third and final Purushmedh release, May 1994’s Him kaa Hiy (“Ice Heart”).

Him kaa Hiy, Purushmedh’s last official offering (a number of bootlegs have since found their way onto the market*), offers a snapshot of the group on the verge of disintegration. It’s rumoured to this day that the tremendous squawk of guitar and sitar and thunderous clatter of tabla that chop off side one’s “Jahaa Kaalaa Paanii Sotaa Hae” (“Where the Black Waters Sleep”) weren’t originally written into the track but were instead the result of a mid-session bust-up between four members of the group, and it’s claimed that, viewed from certain angles, the sleeve photos of Mehta and lead guitarist Faruq Khan show clear evidence of black eyes and bruising hidden behind thick makeup. There’s definitely a strong undercurrent of something nasty — malice or rage or hatred or a mixture of all three — running in most of the tracks on the album. Mehta herself, although refusing to comment on the allegations of intra-group violence during recording, has said of Him kaa Hiy: “It was a[n album] fuelled on negative emotions. Writing songs for it was an exhilarating experience in a sick kind of way because they came so easily. Most of them I just sat down and wrote straight off, with hardly any need for later revision. The only song that was anything of a struggle was ‘Darakht ke Niiche’.”

“Darakht ke Niiche” (“Beneath the Tree”), the last song on Purushmedh’s last album, was the shape of things to come. Mehta had been moving away from Tantrism for some time and later compared the psychic turmoil in which most of Him kaa Hiy was written to the last and worst effects of a poison that the body has almost succeeded in throwing off. The track tells the story of the enlightenment of Gaumata Siddhartha, the Buddha, beneath a bo tree in the Indian state of Bihar. In almost every respect — with one very important exception — it’s a classic Purushmedh track. It has power and balance, pace and conviction. What it lacks is the evil energy that made the best of Purushmedh’s previous work blaze like blood-red supernovae.

What replaces the energy is very difficult to define. In some ways you could say that nothing replaces it, and it’s this very absence that makes the track say so much. Dark emotions stirred by the holocaust of rage and hatred that went before were dispelled by the time the last note of “Darakht ke Niiche” was spilled into silence. It was a statement of intent and a lot of Purushmedh’s fans didn’t like it. And those fans were in for more teeth-gnashing at the news, received less that a week after the release of Him kaa Hiy, that Purushmedh were to split for good.

Three months after the break-up of Purushmedh, Mehta’s new group, Bodhisattva (Sanskrit for “a being possessing the essence of perfect knowledge”), entered the Skin Drum studios to lay down their first and, to date, only album. Following an October 1994 release, Child of the Lotus has, despite a very low-key marketing campaign by Mehta’s own Fireheart label, already outsold the entire Purushmedh oeuvre and seems destined to go on to challenge for a position in the mid reaches of the Asian charts. This is not to suggest that Bodhisattva have opted for a softer, more commercial approach: the album shows no sign that any of the old Purushmedh commitment to power and aural ferocity has been lost. Quite simply, Child of the Lotus has sold in quantity because it has crossed the usual boundaries for this kind of music and gathered a fan base that would seem to suggest a very rosy future indeed for Bodhisattva.

Mehta herself, however, refuses to pass judgment on the optimistic predictions made for her new group. In an interview in the latest issue of Jiiwan aur Mrityu, she said: “Although my entire outlook’s changed from the Purushmedh days, there’s one constant factor. I’m into this kind of music because I believe in it. It’s important to me and that’s why I play it. For me, whether Bodhisattva succeed or fail isn’t a question of record sales or fame. It’s a question of sincerity. Mine and that of the other members of the band. The only hope I’m going to express for our future is that listening to Bodhisattva is going to help people who are as spiritually fucked-up as I was with Purushmedh. And that’s it.”

*The usual remedy for the bootleg, the better-quality official release, isn’t going to happen in this case, and Mehta herself has said that the worse the bootlegs’ quality, the better she likes it: “It stops the Purushmedh message coming across as clearly as it might otherwise do. How could I object?” (Return)

Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

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