I photographed Chintan Kalra for the first time at a college gig. It was years ago during my initial days of picking up a camera. I started photographing with a film camera and I still remember the anxious wait for the roll to develop. More than a decade later, I sat down with that same person, whom I had always seen on stage and got him talking about Delhi, Music and Tattoos.
“Music and body art have had an old connection. They have been friends for decades.”
Me: What was growing up in Delhi like?
Chintan: So, I grew up in the north part of town, near the campus area and it was insane. And because of the ridge, you were surrounded by jungle and there was the river next door, which was actually a river at that time. In a way I feel really lucky. I saw the best of Delhi and then in terms of influences, because we were so close to the student community, we got just the right kind of influences. The school I went to, the college I went to, they really helped expand that vision and that experience and the hunger.
Me: How did music happen?
Chintan: I was a musician from a very early age. I was always concocting my own instruments or picking up a new instrument and trying to figure it out. I never got formally trained, but I don’t remember a time when there weren’t a few instruments in my room or around me. I remember using my mother’s knitting needles as drumsticks and creating sounds from various household things, like many kids do at that age. And that kind of set me off and as soon as possible, when I got into the school music room, I just went straight for the drum kit. One of my first memories in terms of music is my sister and I trying to dub songs into dad’s old cassettes when he was not at home. So yeah!
Me: What were your early musical influences?
Chintan: I was never a fan of a lot of commercial music. But great music always made sense. Michael Jackson- WHOA! Without a doubt, he was one of the earliest. Even Kishore Kumar and Mukesh. Then eventually it went on to Pink Floyd, Led Zep, and Jethro Tull. It became more about the instruments, the variety – bands which are deeper and indirect to references. And lyrics which are powerful. I did most of my life learnings from music. I didn’t read too many books and I barely concentrated in school and I turned out OK. I thank rock and roll for that. I thank music for that.
Me: How did the transition happen into becoming a full time musician?
Chintan: It kind of went side by side and was always full time in a way. I hardly remember a day when I didn’t pick up an instrument. But it was never full time in a way that my livelihood depended on it completely. Just when I was finishing school, a bunch of us got together to play our favourite covers. We thought there was no band who could do justice to Floyd or Led Zep like we could. But the band was always like the tattoo money or the beer money. That’s what music was about and somehow we kind of figured out that the more your livelihood depended on your music, the more you would have to compromise on it. And you want to keep it expressive and free of encumbrances, so just set it free. And so I just set it free. I never let it be about the money. Of course I produce stuff and work in my studio, but even there I try and keep a balance. The honesty of expression needs to be maintained and so somehow, early on, I lived with music but I never lived off of music. Thankfully!
Me: Your first rock star moment.
Chintan: First gig! We owned it. And the rock star came up on stage to finally claim his battle, when we were playing in our shorts at a friend’s party. I mean if you are going to be shy, don’t be on stage. When you step up, you already are a rock star. That’s what you are and at that age, you feel like there is nobody better. So yeah!
Me: You have been a part of the birth and the growth of the Independent Scene. How has the journey been?
Chintan: There was a time when you were Indie for a while and then you went somewhere else from it. Now there is a time when you can be Indie and be proudly Indie for the rest of your life. You can be consistently Indie or you can be reinventing the Indie in you every now and then. But I really think reinventing yourself is important, which is what I try and do. How long can you keep repeating your performances or your output or your songs or your art? Even tattoos grow, for that matter. They either expand or they deform or you lose them or you colour over them or you add to them. I mean even they can be transitional. And just like the tattoo scene, the Indie scene has evolved. And because of the technology, we have access to audiences we never had before. And we have a two way traffic system with the audience. The audience can get back to you. You kind of know them through some degrees of separation and it’s great. I have no complaints. It’s been beautiful.
Me: You just drew a parallel between music and tattoos. Do you think there is a connection between the rock star image and tattoos?
Chintan: I think there might be a connection in terms of the headspace dealing with both the forms of expression. The ability to deal with one’s self is definitely one common factor. The fact that you have dealt with pain successfully and channelized it, that’s another. Apart from that, looks wise, I think the whole rock star image has a lot to do with the clothes and the hair do. It’s the whole thing and tattoos may be a part of it or they may not. But it’s definitely about your personality. If you can carry off your presence on stage, it shouldn’t matter but a personality is essential on stage. You won’t last on stage if you don’t have a personality. With tattoos, it’s much more about the headspace. They are more reflective of having gone through stuff and having done something about it. As opposed to a lot of people who would like a tattoo but never get down to it or can’t justify it. So my advice for everyone is just get one tattoo at least!
Me: What was your first tattoo?
Chintan: I actually have to thank Hardy Mitra (the man who opened India’s first professional tattoo studio & now Tattoo Cultr) for it! I always had it in my head but being a musician, I am also lazy and never got down to it. And I had seen some disastrous tattoos within my very close circle- tattoos done on alcohol after drinking two nights in a row, tattoos done because somebody just left you! So, I was really scared and I was also waiting for the right artist to come by and the right moment. I was waiting for that clearing to appear in the sky. And that happened. It was around the time Iron Maiden was coming into town and it was just a mad time. Somehow, I met Hardy and of course the magic words were “the first one’s on me.” So I said “Cool Hardy, I will see you day after.” I went to the studio and hung around. All of Hardy’s artists are world class artists. They have traveled, lived in foreign countries and met a whole section of people. And that makes a difference. It gives you experience of a different kind and that’s where I come from. And it’s very important to connect with your artist. My artist was this brilliant guy called Yan. I watched him work at the studio and spoke to him and that was it! Rahul Dutta, a very close friend and an amazing, insane artist, helped me design it. Basically, it had to be subtle but also have certain important things incorporated in it. So the design is a bass clef with Lucifer’s tail and my initials, all merging into each other.
Me: What inspires your designs or thoughts behind your tattoos?
Chintan: So my first tattoo has Lucifer’s tail incorporated in it. Because I believe that along with the yin, the yang is equally important. The darkness is the other half of your existence and if you are scared of it and if you are not going to engage with it, it’s not gonna help. So it’s actually imagery from how I have understood the world. I mean that’s what you try to do – you try and cram years of thoughts and experiences into one artwork and nobody sees it the way you do. And I think that’s an integral reason of why we tattoo in the first place. There is something that needs to be said and it needs to be said out loud. It’s an expression. Somebody is saying something and the art should reflect that!
Me: And which one was the next one?
Chintan: The next one has been a process. It’s been done over 3 years by 3 different artists at various stages and it developed slowly. And this is the only other tattoo I have. But it’s not one tattoo; it’s a bunch of them. Essentially it’s a snake uncoiling itself and then finally leaving its abode. And this is again a bunch of my life stories. Now the next one is going to be a continued story. All the tattoos are connected and they will eventually come together and be in one form. Like my skin. I try and take the contours of the skin and the body and factor that into the design in terms of why I put a certain part of the design in a certain place. Why this turns here or this coils here and not anywhere else. I guess if you are comfortable with your body, if you know your body, you communicate with it and it kinda tells you, what works. So I have been listening and I am working on my left arm now.
Me: Do you think the Indie scene and the tattoo industry have grown in a similar manner?
Chintan: We call tattoo artists, artists and not tattoo workers or tattoo operators right? They are artists. To draw a tattoo and to visualize it and to be that good and that sure of your strokes- that’s another headspace. It’s an art form, a skill and it needs a crazy higher connection. It’s also a study. You have to do it for years, learn to use your tools, your needles… it’s hardcore. And just like the Independent scene, these are great times for body art and self expression. Self expression is now more acceptable. Technology wise we are at a better space as well. When the scene is small, everyone’s fighting and everyone’s trying to get a slice of the only little pie. But people are coming together. The only way you can have a scene is by imagining it yourself, by creating more. And music and body art have an old connection. They have been friends for decades.
Me: What does being an artist mean to you?
Chintan: For me, it’s my freedom, whatever little notional little corner that I can call freedom. But it’s my freedom.
Me: One quote you would want to get tattooed.
Chintan: I have toyed with a few. Maybe a Janis or a Lenin quote. Probably “Freedom’s another word.”
Me: Most common reaction to your tattoos?
Chintan: They are great conversation starters for sure. People get awed. And most of the questions are about how you dealt with the pain- “Dard nehi hota?”
Like many of us, Chintan’s tattoos have evolved from his life and will continue to evolve in the same manner. And like he said, we tattoo because we have something to say. And these are great times to say it out loud- whether it’s through your song or through your tattoo!