It seems to have been a hot minute since Delhi lo-fi/experimental trio Begum released a full-length project. Their last album was 2016’s We Are Excited, a zany fever-dream of a sophomore record. With songs like sex-positivity ballad All My Friends Are Sluts and tongue-in-cheek Nirvana tribute Smells Like A Ripoff, the record oozed slacker positivity—it was narcotised and sometimes perversely weird, yes, but also woke and cautiously hopeful.
Six years on, good cheer and sunny dispositions are no longer in fashion. The world is a darker, more dangerous place and the bull-headed optimism of the 2010s has curdled into something that reeks of disappointment and despair. In the wake of a devastating pandemic and under the gathering storm clouds of potential nuclear war, Begum have come out of their self-imposed hibernation to whisper a tender query: “Are you okay?”
That’s the title of the band’s third full-length, released on 11 March on Pagal Haina. Where We Are Excited ambled along with the lazy self-confidence of early adulthood, Are You Ok? picks its way through an emotional minefield with the delicate fragility of post-traumatic response. Like all of us, Begum have suffered their share of psychic wounds from the overlapping traumas of recent years. And they have emerged from their convalescence with a renewed and genuinely heartbreaking commitment to the power of empathy.
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One of my all-time favourite words (like any self-respecting writer, I have a list) is cwtch, an endearing Welsh term for an embrace so comforting that it transports you to the safety of childhood. Safe space in a hug. Are You Ok? is that feeling recreated in sound. It borrows from dream-pop, shoegaze, jazz, the American songbook and experimental electronica to create a fuzzy patchwork quilt of sound to wrap yourself up in on lonely mornings.
The eponymous opening track slinks into existence with a solitary synth whose soft-edged swells and dips provide the track’s only rhythmic progression. A xylophone’s hesitant notes appear occasionally, gently nudging for attention as a higher-pitched synth tenderly whistles wordless questions in your ear. It comforts without taking up space, the sonic equivalent of a hot chocolate and a warm shoulder.
Lead single Better Person repurposes the jangly guitars and bright shuffling rhythms of Peter Cat Recording Co. (PCRC; Begum’s Kartik Pillai, Karan Singh and Dhruv Bhola are all part of that long-running Delhi indie band) in service of that cosy dreamscape, as frontman Pillai embarks on lyrical flights of good-natured whimsy. The sun-dappled Ten Years Later is an oasis in the desert, a bright splash of colour and light that shimmers in the hazy sun. “It’s complicated,” croons Pillai, the soft intimacy of his words contrasting with the windswept grandeur of the music.
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Over Maybe Baby’s gently distorted drums and lightly-strummed guitar, Pillai sings a wry, self-deprecatory ditty about the tempting embrace of depression and self-pity—Cause it’s easy/ Being sad/ When the world don’t understand. The confessional Meena Lisa takes a snapshot of an intimate moment—a lover catching you staring at them—and somehow imbues it with the emotive power of an entire lifetime: years worth of love, intimacy and bittersweet reminiscence packed into a short, three-second exchange.
The 10 tracks on Are You Ok? showcase how far Begum have come in the past five-odd years, and not just in terms of the emotional maturity of their subject matter. The group’s first two albums—they released the debut album, Bagh, in 2014—had a loose, joyously slapdash feel to them, in part because they were both recorded essentially live at Pillai’s home in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village. This is their first actual “studio album”, with multi-tracking and all the studio tweaks, and the painstaking attention to compositional detail pays off, without ever losing the group’s signature off-the-cuff, lo-fi aesthetic.
There’s more behind this evolution than just access to better resources. It reflects a broader shift in what I like to call the PCRC ecosystem—the smattering of side projects, solo acts and other creative endeavours dreamt up by members of the veteran Delhi band. In following and writing about PCRC and its associated acts (Begum, Lifafa, JAMBLU, Bowls) for over a decade, I have been fascinated by their attempts to build a sustainable DIY creative ecosystem, even as the indie scene abandoned those efforts in favour of the questionable allure of the corporate music industry. They spent much of the 2010s doing their own thing, experimenting with different sounds and songwriting approaches and generally not caring about the demands of the market.
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Now all that groundwork is paying off. PCRC got signed on to a French record label and released the critically acclaimed double LP Bismillah in 2019. Lifafa—PCRC frontman Suryakant Sawhney’s electronic solo project—is playing innovative Hindi club tunes to hundreds of adoring fans. And Begum have pushed on from promising avant-rock band to a group that can tug at your heartstrings with the intricate grace of a cardiac surgeon. Score one for Doing It Yourself!
And while my fondness for truly independent music-making might make me a little more partial to it, Are You Ok? is entirely worthy of the hype. Don’t just take my word for it, go put it on. Listen to the hauntingly desolate Lille, with its janky amusement park ride melody and slowly disintegrating synths, a tiny island of human sound and light echoing in the great nothingness. Then go find a loved one to hug and ask them, gently, “Are you okay?”
Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.