When the rain began, the metalheads in front of the stage took refuge under the nearby makeshift stalls. But not Piyush Sharma. The 25-year-old continued headbanging in his wheelchair. “I was too involved with myself, and was surprised to see everyone vanish,” said Sharma. “With the front of the stage suddenly empty, I moved in there.”

Sharma was one of the 300-odd metal lovers who had assembled on February 9 in Bengaluru’s Aadya Farms for the eighth edition of Bangalore Open Air, India’s biggest open-air metal music festival. Like every edition, this time too, the headliners were a couple of top-drawer international metal acts – Abbath and Suffocation.

But soon it was Sharma, who was the centre of attention. Seeing him “sitting in his wheelchair and headbanging like hell in that rain” inspired fellow metalhead Athul Purushothaman to join Sharma. After rocking out for about 10 minutes to Nepalese death metal band Krur, who were performing at the time, Purushothaman asked him: “Hey bro, you want to see the band from the front row?”

Minutes later, Sharma was having the time of his life, six feet from the ground as Purushothaman and a few others held him and his wheelchair above the moshpit. “Even the band enjoyed seeing us and the vocalist raised her horns for us,” he recalled. Concert photographer Mohit Sharma was quick to capture that moment.

What resulted was a photograph that perfectly encapsulated the instance of brotherhood and bonding in the Indian metal community. The photo has since gone viral.

“I knew I had a great picture in store the moment I looked back and saw Piyush in the air,” said Mohit Sharma. At the time, the photographer was in the photo-pit, the small gap between the stage and the area where the fans hover. “I literally ran out into the crowd to take the photo from behind because I had already seen the word ‘motivation’ written on his wheelchair and I wanted to capture the stage along with him in the frame,” he said.

For Piyush Sharma, who has been attending Bangalore Open Air since 2016, this was a novel experience. “The crowd had gathered around me as the rain had stopped and it was just drizzling,” he said. “I felt bad and requested them to get me down but they asked me to just relax and enjoy.” He was brought down after 10 minutes, and for the final acts, he moved back to the side of the stage, which is his usual spot at concerts and music festivals. “I had seen people attending metal concerts with broken hands and legs but never saw anyone in a wheelchair,” Purushothaman said. But this is exactly how Sharma has been attending concerts since he was 15.

Piyush Sharma at 2019 Bangalore Open Air. Courtesy Hrithik Mukesh.

Sharma was born with Spina Bifida, a condition affecting the spinal cord, which left him immobile. The early years were tough. “I couldn’t walk till the age of 14-15 and I would need to be carried to school and everywhere else by my parents,” said Sharma, who hails from Shimla. After an operation, he began walking with crutches as using a wheelchair was impractical given the steep hilly terrain.

Music was Sharma’s escape from his angst-ridden schooldays. “The metal scene was vibrant in Shimla around 2009-’10,” he recalled. “I would walk on my crutches till the bus stop, take a bus, get down and walk to the concert venue, meet my metalhead friends there and get to moshing like anyone else.” Hobnobbing with metal fans and musicians inspired him to take up music. He taught himself how to play the guitar and the flute.

He also figured out how to do the typical death metal growl. This talent, he says, made him the “only metal vocalist” during his time at the National Institute of Technology in Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh. For four years, Sharma performed with the college band, getting crowds to headbang and scaring his teachers. In 2016, he moved to Bengaluru, a key hub for live music in India, after securing a job in software engineering.

“The first time I came to Bangalore Open Air, I was on crutches,” Sharma said. “The organisers arranged for me to sit on a chair far away from the stage in the VIP section.” But that could hardly contain the energy of a metalhead. “I walked out and joined the crowd,” he said. “It was difficult with crutches, and it was then I realised that it’s best to use the wheelchair in crowded places like concerts.”

A young Piyush Sharma in college. Courtesy Facebook.
A young Piyush Sharma in college. Courtesy Facebook.

Since then, Sharma usually settles himself by the side of the stage and headbangs on his own. “My rule is that I headbang and enjoy alone even when no one’s around,” he said. “Sometimes, my friends come from the moshpit, headbang with me, and then disappear into the crowd.” When he does get into the thick of the moshpit , Sharma adds, “there’s always the worry of hurting someone else or getting hurt myself. As they say with moshing, nobody stays safe and nobody stays still.”

Sharma rues the fact that there are hardly any arrangements at concert venues in India for attendees who are differently abled like him. “The biggest issue is that most of the time I can’t see the artists,” he complained. “Sometimes, I have faced situations where I had to go up stairs to reach the gig. I would request organisers [of the concerts] to create an elevated ramp somewhere close to the stage for differently abled people to enjoy.” This is something few Indian music festivals do. A rare example is the NH7 Weekender, whose venues have a wheelchair-friendly area close to the mixing console stage.

Such issues though have rarely deterred Sharma. If anything, he says, the evening at this year’s Bangalore Open Air has filled him with renewed zeal. “For me, metal music is about freedom,” he said. “Its aggression is not for everyone, but metal has helped me express my emotions. I cannot wait to get back on stage again. The way I see it – what if I can’t mosh? I will make others mosh.”