Like clay, artist and actor Jyotsna Siddharth’s art is shaped and moulded by her life and identity. “Whether it’s an art, performance, theatre or acting, everything is a sum of my personal and political battles and journey,” said Siddharth.

Art is also how Siddharth speaks to the world around her through work that “questions status quo, systems and power embedded within institutions”.

As a Dalit, queer individual, Siddharth aims to challenge as well as expand on the depiction of queer identity. “Most queer stories still portray a monogamous, cis gay mostly and lesbian stories, which is quite a win also,” she said, referring to the increase in queer-centric stories in the Hindi film industry, especially online, calling “palatable”. It garners sympathy but rarely evokes complexities of queer lives, said Siddharth. “Queer lives are not a monolith,” she said.

It is with this mind that Siddharth aimed to challenge and break the mould with her aptly-named play Clay – proudly anti-caste and queer. Written by her, the crowd-funded play took four-and-a-half years to complete and was released in 2023. “We wanted to do justice to the narrative that is performing complexities of queer and Dalit lives,” she said.

Reflecting on the difficulty in bringing a play like Clay to fruition, Siddharth said, “I have seen the same people receive the grants and opportunities to make the same kind of theatre over and over again.” These challenges are widespread, she said, pointing out that the Dalit queer individual remains invisible and silent – in the movement, in public life and on screen. At the same time, there is little engagement with the anti-caste discourse within the queer movement.

The debate over same-sex marriage rights, or marriage equality, for instance, reflects these gaps. “As queer relationships are complex, vast and beautiful, they must not be fit into a Brahmanical Hindu cookie cutter mould of ‘marriage’,” she said.

Social media has had a huge role, said Siddharth, in opening up and expanding on queer identity and recognition, but solidarity remains a work in progress.

Excerpts from an interview:

Being an artist, actor and theatre person, how important are these forms of expression to you and your activism?

Very important. Art for me is a manner in which I live and express what I have witnessed, encountered, battled, failed and won in life. I am a multidisciplinary artist, thus my art uses multiform to create work that is honest, subversive and forward looking. Everything that I have gone through – in my intimate relationships, systemic and professional navigations – I bring it together in different shape and form.

Whether it’s an art, performance, theatre or acting, everything is a sum of my personal and political battles and journey. Hence, I put in a lot of thought, care and rigour in my work. My artist practice is to hone mindfulness, intentionality and honesty to create work that questions status quo, systems and power embedded within institutions.

As artists, we have an immense responsibility towards society, the work we create and what it does to people. Therefore, art for me is a portal through which every day, I make an attempt to discover and reconcile with myself and contribute to shaping the society I wish to inhabit.

My work is about breaking boundaries and binaries of all kinds, “artist” “audience”, “man” and “woman” “power” “powerless” to move away from societal, institutional and systemic codes and conditioning that often-put people more rigidly into the very labels and moulds they are trying to break out of. I attempt to live beyond binaries and boundaries hence art and activism for me are not demarcated. They are intrinsically connected for me and help me in making sense of this harsh and bizarre world.

What is your view on the “queer” content and representation being generated out of Bollywood and on OTTs [over the top media, or streaming services]?

There is a lot of content being generated on OTT around queer lives but I am not sure all of it is done sensitively and with thorough research. It is wonderful to see many queer stories being shown on screen now than ever before. In spite of several open and closeted queer folks in Bollywood for decades, we are finally making a headway which is a moment of celebration.

However, as a country we are still learning about queerness and its intersections with caste, faith, disability and other minority issues. Every queer person is different and has very little in common with one another. The content today, is very much telling of queer narrative that is simple, palatable, one that garners sympathy but rarely evokes complexities of queer lives.

Most queer stories still portray a monogamous, cis gay mostly and lesbian stories which is quite a win also. However, queer lives are not a monolith like any other identity or discourse. The spectrum of sexuality and its linkages with geographical locations, age and various other aspects requires interrogation.

For example, the intersection that I find myself traversing is of a Dalit queer position. What defines a Dalit queer perspective is the interplay and intersection of caste, gender and sexuality that often interacts with existing social and cultural norms that creates the unique experience and identity of Dalit queer. It is almost impossible to define and “choose” your life experiences because all the identities of caste, gender and sexuality continue to shape your reality.

For example, you don’t see yourself only as Dalit because that has become synonymous to cis het positionality then you cannot see yourself just as queer because your caste impacts your socialisation, access to basic necessities and rights. We are yet to nuance our storytelling in Bollywood and OTT, I believe. There is an additional pressure on scriptwriters and producers to sensitively tell stories about queer folks and Dalit folks because now there are many of us visible and present in public discourse. The bar has risen and that’s a good sign. It only means that people want to watch authentic, interesting stories that are well researched and thoughtfully done. That is a way forward I believe.

Created using Bing Image Generator.

You recently released Clay, a self and crowd funded theatrical performance that saw packed shows in Delhi. What did you intend to say through this play?

Theatre has always been about bringing people together. In the past years, I have seen several plays being made over a span of weeks and months with a focus on only few. It took us four-and-a-half years to create Clay as we wanted to do justice to the narrative that is performing complexities of queer and Dalit lives. It is difficult to bring together a play that has followed a feminist thinking and process. I have seen the same people receive the grants and opportunities to make the same kind of theatre over and over again. As most plays are institutionally funded, the sponsors also put a timeline to when and how the play will be made and showcased. This rigidity and economics of arts often curtail the creativity of theatre makers and artists.

With Clay, I have made history as the first Dalit queer woman to have written and produced an anti-caste, queer play in India. Before that, the plays have been either written, directed or produced by upper caste cis or queer folks or established production companies. We are neither a company or a theatre group, just few like-minded people who believed in the idea and committed themselves to it wholeheartedly.

I wanted to take a leap of faith and not give in to the institutional demands. I believed that a play like Clay was never made, and people would be interested to support and watch it. This belief came true as all our first five shows sold within 24-48 hours making a history within theatre space as well.

Apart from monetary support, we have received immense love, appreciation and support from all corners and continue to. Many folks who witnessed my journey with clay, and to do it on my own terms with generosity and transparency all these years, have helped me build trust with the larger community.

In spite of no sponsored ads or advertising, we received attention and love for our play which is the biggest reward and testament to our process. We are currently in the process of laying out our future shows.

As a queer and Dalit activist, how do you see the intersections of these two identities playing out in the two movements?

I do not see myself as an activist anymore. I have seen how people have used and abused this terminology to personally benefit and push their own agendas. I am an artist and actor and a person who observes the world and is able to easily discern.

We are at an extremely difficult point within both the spaces as both don’t speak to each other. Dalit movement or discourse continue to be glorified and led by toxic masculine, cis het men who have managed to garner acceptance and sympathy for their bad behaviour through clout. Within queer movement, the question I am asking is who are my allies? The invisibility of Dalit queer’s life and voice whether in the movement, in public life or on screen – the representation is hardly visible. The lack of interest or engagement with anti-caste discourse or Dalit politics within queer movement is troubling.

As a Dalit queer woman, I find myself at a difficult intersection point of both including the feminist movement. I observe how painstakingly hard it is to be a truth teller, in the world that’s increasingly becoming self-centred, self-righteous and entitled. It is easier to cancel out people than engage them in a meaningful manner. The world is running on the labour and generosity of very few people I believe.

Credit: Kurt Löwenstein Education Center (International Team), via Flickr.

Marriage equality is a hot topic. How relevant is it as against other rights needed by queer folks?

When the marriage equality topic came up, I wrote quite extensively on Instagram in favour of civil partnership and not marriage. The discourse around marriage was mostly led by upper caste, cis gay men and lesbian women who were seeking a social legitimacy for their love and relationships. While that is important and must not be refuted, I was baffled by the fixation over civic rights through marriage.

As a Dalit queer woman, I saw this as an opportunity to introduce a conversation around civil partnerships. As queer relationships are complex, vast and beautiful, they must not be fit into a Brahmanical Hindu cookie cutter mould of “marriage”. The model of Indian wedding and its sensibilities fail to capture the nuances of queer relationships to include pansexuals, queers sharing custody of children with straight partners, queers living together with multiple partners, trans folks, asexuals and intersex folks. This peculiar fight for monogamous, Indian sensibilities around marriage made me extremely uncomfortable as I saw most queers fighting to be validated by the very institution that has outcastes several queer and trans folks.

The marriage equality fight in my view is the most self-righteous, individualised fight that overlooks the needs, realities of many queers that do not seek social legitimacy through marriage. Civil partnership for me would have allowed multiple realities and forms of queer relationships to coexist while also providing rights to the partners. Marriage in India is loaded with caste sensibilities that queer discourse is yet to understand and confront so the marriage question for me also becomes about non-engagement with self-internalised patriarchy, casteism and heteronormativity.

Do you think the queer movement is in need of solidarity within?

Yes absolutely, and I think it is always a work in progress. I am not sure if there is a “queer movement” there are individual and collective assertions but not necessarily a contemporary movement. There are many fractures within LGBTQIA+ on lines of caste, faith, disabilities that need discussions, engagements within the queer circles. The voices of trans folks are only beginning to be taken a bit seriously now even though they have always been around. On the other hand, the voices and lives of intersex people continue to be invisible.

In recent times, social media has played a huge role in creating new political categories to highlight unique experiences of people around identities which for me is limiting view. While it is useful, it has also deepened the binaries of siloed thinking and working.

Sharif Rangnekar is the author of Straight to Normal and Queersapien. He is also the director of the Rainbow Literature Festival.

This article is part of the
Queer & Inclusive series