Alliance of Anxieties – Queer Narratives in the Urban Popular Culture of India
Trans activist Doel Rakshit writes – as the first of three articles conducted to kaput by guest editor Natalie Mayroth – a personal piece on the current protests in India and why it’s worth fighting.
There was only a microphone in my hand. And a huge crowd surrounding me. A crowd that decided to occupy the Gateway of India in Mumbai’s downtown a night before. Previously a violent mob attacked students of the Delhi based Jawaharlal Nehru University on 5th January, who had been protesting against fee hikes as well as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. At the night of occupation, I was the only transgender person present in the protest. The next day I was accompanied by plenty of others along with a huge number of Mumbaikars belonging to different generations, classes, gender identities, religious identities and ethnicities, who joined the indefinite occupation of the iconic Gateway. And to this crowd, I sang the popular nazm (Urdu poetry) “Hum Dekhenge” by Faiz Ahmed Faiz which had, by then, become the anthem for anti-CAA protest in the country (which is still going on.) The crowd not only joined me in repeating the key line “hum dekhenge, lazim hai ki hum bhi dekhenge, woh din ke jiska waada hai” (we will witness that day, the day which has been promised, the day when we all are liberated) but also greeted me with a loud applause and acknowledgement.
Apparently, it was a very common scene of a general protest, irrespective of the city. But there was much more to this than it seemed. It was the voice of a transgender woman of colour, singing out the composition of an Urdu poet – whose poems had been a strong voice of dissent against colonial rule in India and against the rise of dictatorship in post-colonial Pakistan – at a place, which is a symbol of conquest and colonization by the British, the Gateway of India. It was a reclamation of space by a marginalized gender identity in a mass protest, majorly represented by cis-het progressive entities against the growing fascist tendencies in the Republic of India. It was a moment of acknowledgement of intersectionality and an inclusion of diverse voices in the present popular culture of protest in urban India. It was more than I expected. It was more than the system expected.
(I joined “Occupy Gateway” protest in Mumbai both the nights till morning and had incoincidentally left the place before the police detained activists and stopped the protest after 36 hours.)
The existence of queer identities in a society is, by default, a statement against the status quo and the system of oppression. And quite naturally, when we the queer voices start reclaiming the popular culture of a society with our art, our music and our literature, the popular culture itself becomes an unpopular opinion against the establishment.
Almost a year before this incident, when I had just come out of my closet, I remember listening to Teenasai Balamu performing at an event in Mumbai. Popularly known as GrapeGuitarBox, from their Instagram handle of the same name, this queer musician made a deep impact in my life with their original composition which talked about the coincidental demise of many world musicians at the age of 27. I was 26 and I was going to turn 27 that very year. Being in the closet for so long, I had always hated the fact that I was recognized in my circle as a cis-het man, which I never was and being referred to by a name that was never mine. Listening to that song I felt a sense of fear and anxiety. And this anxiety is common in LGBTQIA+ lives. Cis-het musicians die when they are 27. We start living when we are 27. It goes without saying, when we start establishing our true gender identities in our fields of excellence, our work reflects this anxiety to various extents. And when these works begin to reclaim spaces of popular culture, it causes discomfort for the wider mass which generally do not want to hear our stories.
On the other hand, there are a significant number of cis-het allies of the queer movement who are, very consciously, trying to include queer people in their artistic endeavours – be it out of genuine heartfelt alliance or to be socio-politically relevant in these changing times. This, too, is an anxiety which is being reflected in the urban popular cultural narrative of India. This is the same anxiety which consciously included LGBTQIA+ bodies in the street performances of the Mumbai version of the Chilean song “The Rapist Is You” strongly asserting that rape is a political crime which is not restricted to cis-women victims and survivors. Organized by an independent content collective known as Anat which is also striving to create safe platforms for LGBTQIA+ artists based out of the otherwise cis-hetero-normative hub of Bollywood-inclined art and culture in Mumbai, the performance witnessed the active participation of transgender and intersex persons. Similarly, it was the same anxiety that made the students present at the Gateway protest hand over the mic to me and other LGBTQIA+ individuals to speak and perform.
If creativity thrives under constraints, it is the most suitable time for the queer community in India to bombard popular culture with their narratives. And that’s what is precisely happening. The meagre scrapping of the article 377 in 2018 which criminalized homosexuality, was followed by the passing of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act and the introduction of Surrogacy Bill which took away from LGBTQIA+ persons their basic rights in the name of protection and prohibited homosexual couples from surrogacy respectively. These constraints and the resultant anxiety of both the queer community and their allies are being realized in their arts.
This alliance of anxieties is a driving force behind the gradual establishment of queer art in the popular culture of India. The idea of the queer narrative being one of the dominant narratives in popular culture could be a far-fetched dream at present. But being recognized as the emerging discourse in the popular cultural sphere is what we have been successful in accomplishing so far.
Doel Rakshit is a writer, singer and performer. She works in a digital marketing agency as a copywriter. She lives in Mumbai, the City of Dreams and is a co-founder of “Transistance”, a digital platform for the amplification of transgender voices. Total liberation and normalization of LGBTQIA+ lives are what she believes in.