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Menwhopause Look Back on Incredible Month-Long Tour of North-East

From meeting activists and gun-toting rebels to dodgy promoters, the New Delhi rockers had quite the roller coaster ride in the seven states

Anurag Tagat Mar 03, 2017
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Menwhopause in Imphal on the last stop of their North-East India tour. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Menwhopause – Bhanu Thakur, Randeep Singh, Anup Kutty, Shiv Ahuja and Sahaj Umang Singh Bhatia (from left) in Imphal on the last stop of their North-East India tour. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

How many Indian rock bands can say they played at The International Loinloom Festival in the craft-selling village of Diezephe in Dimapur, Nagaland? “Only the villagers and the delegates came to listen,” says Menwhopause’s most recent member, keyboardist Shiv Ahuja. “My biggest takeaway was playing to audiences I’ve never even dreamt of playing for. There, people were just staring at us with wonder. Like, ‘What is going on? Where is this wall of sound coming from?’”

The New Delhi alt rock band were on a month-long trail of festivals and the occasional club show in seven states in December, a month prior to the release of their third full-length album Neon Delhi. From navigating the terrains of Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya to mistakenly taking a dirt road to reach Sialsuk, Mizoram, and of course, managing Eighties shred guitar virtuoso Yngwie Malmsteen in Dambuk, Arunachal Pradesh, the band shares stories that prove that some things only happen on tour.

Saving a life in Shillong

The band had just hailed their cab to head to Cherrapunjee to perform at the Shine A Light Festival. En route from Shillong, while crossing the picturesque Barapani, manager Sahaj Umang Singh Bhatia was just about nodding off when the vehicle in front of them  broke its axle and toppled very close to the edge of the hill. He says, “I opened my eyes and saw two people stuck on the side of the car. They must have fallen out of the window.” The band asked their reluctant driver to pull over and rushed to help. With drummer Bhanu Thakur at one window seat and Bhatia at the other, they tried to straighten the van as much as they could without moving it too close to the edge of the elevated road. Bhatia says, “I felt good that we were able to do that. We were scolding our driver [for driving past]. Yeh kya batameezi hai? [So uncivil of him!]. I see things like this in Delhi all the time. But after that, we just scored weed in Shillong and headed. We thought, ‘Ab toh bina weed ke ja nahi sakte Cherrapunjee’ [We’ve got to have some weed on our way to Cherrapunjee].”

Poster for Menwhopause's North-East tour.

Poster for Menwhopause’s North-East tour.

“Mr. Redneck” in Imphal

When they landed in Manipur to perform at the last stop on the tour, at Into the Wild festival in Imphal, they got a slightly bizarre version of the North-East’s famed hospitality. Guitarist Anup Kutty says, “It was just random. We met a guy who just decided he was our host and drove us around. We didn’t even know his name until the second day.” Ahuja recalls how this ‘Mr. Redneck’ carried a shotgun (“We thought it was an airgun,” Kutty says). Manipur being the heavily patrolled conflict zone that it is, Menwhopause also experienced their own share of deep frisked once when they were stopped by the army. Ahuja recalls, “We stood in a line and got searched; they looked up and down, IDs and torches. Real hardcore ‘step-out-of-the-car’ stuff. It really brought us back to reality.”

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When they finally made it back to their hotel, there was more oddness. Ahuja says, “The hotel guys decided to give us the keys to the hotel because they went out on a picnic or something. We were checking people out of rooms. The whole hotel was ours!”

Babysitting Yngwie Malmsteen in Arunachal Pradesh

It wasn’t a particular drink or snack that Miami-based Swedish guitar wizard Yngwie Malmsteen asked for after his 30-plus hour journey to Dambuk to headline the Orange Festival of Adventure and Music. Kutty, who was managing the artist and his crew, says, “He wanted a hairdryer. Yeah, so I’ve got this great story about running around this little town in Arunachal Pradesh trying to look for a hairdryer for Yngwie Malmsteen. I mean, you can’t make this shit up.”

Turns out Kutty got more fist bumps from Malmsteen than probably his own manager for the gig. Kutty adds, “We actually spoke about random things–he was telling me about his gun collection and how he carries a gun on him even when he goes to a department store. He’s a Trump supporter; he’s telling me about his private lawn tennis court. He’s a big tennis freak. Even when he was sitting in his room, he was playing tennis on his PSP [Playstation Portable videogame console], or talking to his wife.” Kutty’s takeaway, though, was the first impression, that also came with the first fist bump when Malmsteen landed in Dibrugarh airport. Malmsteen told Kutty, “I’ve traveled a lot, but this takes the cake!”

Menwhopause with civil rights and political activist Irom Sharmila in Imphal. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Menwhopause with civil rights and political activist Irom Sharmila in Imphal. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Meeting Irom Sharmila in Imphal

Although Imphal intimidated with its freaky stop-and-search runs, it was in this city that the band experienced one of the highest points on the tour: meeting human rights activist-turned-politician Irom Sharmila at her home. Says Kutty, “This guy who works very closely with her – she’s entering politics – on her campaign, I think, he came for our show and he asked if we wanted to meet her. He was just telling us about her and asked just like that.”

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One of the things they learned was that the Iron Lady cycles about 60 kilometers every day. Kutty adds about their meeting, “We sang a song, we basically wanted to ask her how she plans to deal with the whole thing. Politics is a dirty game. We are the kind of guys who run away from it as far as possible. It’s just an evil game. There are no good guys in it… We were just asking about how she’s going to deal with that, because entering politics means entering a dirty game. All she said was that she had a dream and she wants to work at it.”

Making the News in Mizoram

Bhatia ought to have made news for saving a few lives in Shillong, but he had some other sort of fame (or infamy, depending on how you look at it) awaiting him when they were dropped from the Mizoram Music Fest in Sialsuk owing to budget issues. But with travel and stay plans already planned for the tour, a cancelation would disrupt the itinerary. While Bhatia scored another gig for Menwhopause in Aizawl, it wasn’t the last their name was associated with the Mizoram Music Fest.

Bhatia recalls, “Turns out, when I came back, a friend sent a picture of this newspaper, where the headline read, “Fuck that music festival. They cheated us.” Then it says “Sahaj” – it has my face. I didn’t give an interview to anyone. It must have been a journalist who was backstage at the festival.”

Taking a tea break en route to Sialsuk in Mizoram. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Taking a tea break en route to Sialsuk in Mizoram. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Riding Motorcycles into Sialsuk

One of the redemptive points that arrived at the right time for the band was in the face of the festival drop-out in Mizoram. They got two Royal Enfield motorcycles to drive out to explore the state. Drummer Bhanu Thakur says, “This was right at the end, and after that we played one show and came back home. It was way less tense. It was much calmer. That was fun–to roam around Aizawl.”

For Kutty, it gave an insight into life in the state of Mizoram, which seemed to thrive in its own culture. “It’s so inclusive – music videos are being supported by local businesses, they have their own channels. Finally, you go to a place that’s far away from the overbearing presence of that bullshit you see on TV, you know? No Bollywood hoardings or none of that shit. That was a great experience.”

On their way to Sialsuk, they took an old route instead of a highway, finding earthmovers and dirt roads to drive through. Bhatia says, “It was a beautiful route, but it was weird. Once we got there, we asked people how anyone got here or if they were all locals. They told us it was the old route and we’d missed the main highway. For me, it was much more fun and scenic than the highway.”

Menwhopause performs at The Humming Tree, Bengaluru on March 3rd and at the Kochi Muziris Biennale on March 5th. Listen to Neon Delhi here.

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