Almost a month ago, at the beginning of the International Pride Month, popular music streaming application Spotify saw the birth of India’s first Indie Pride playlist. Within days, a similar list came into being, indicating a “coming out” of sorts of queer and proud singer-songwriters. While the playlists – one of which was put together by Jay Anand, a transman – are short, with only a little over a dozen artistes, it is a landmark moment for queer representation and expression in the field of music.
Seven years ago, when my band, Friends of Linger, entered the music arena performing with one of Delhi’s popular cover groups, Classic Collective, there was little or nothing out there in terms of queer-centric songs or an “out” singer. As a result, on our first night on stage, less than a week after the Supreme Court recriminalised “gay sex”, we saw a “proud” audience of over 250 people at Delhi’s Hard Rock Café, packing the place up like we were an international act.
The only original piece performed that night was Head Held High, a pride song, which the press hyped as India’s first dedication to the LGBT+ community and a song written by a gay man.
The novelty attached to the band, song and me – the songwriter – by the press then was a reflection of the invisibility of other “out” singer-songwriters. I recall a peculiar moment where a heterosexual group of diners came up to me saying that they had never seen a gay singer until then. I, according to them, “looked like anyone else”, a comment that reflected their ignorance and innocence.
Over the past three to five years, queer artistes have emerged as standalone singer-songwriters and vocalists leading bands with heterosexual musicians. Their range of sounds includes folk to blues, jazz to funk and even “new age” disco. These artistes were creating their own niches and quietly, intentionally and unintentionally, queering the Indie music world.
According to Anand, the Indie Pride Playlist helped him feel “safe and comfortable”. “It reassures me that there are others and makes our existence known,” he said. This, however, as it turns out, isn’t only about safety in numbers.
Anand, before his difficult and triumphant journey of transitioning, was at times rejected as bar owners in different parts of the world expected a woman to “wear a dress and perfume, dolled up on stage”. Many such outlets, mostly in India, hinted that the presence of a woman – “who looks like one” – vocalist was directly linked with increased sales of alcohol, a result of the male gaze and the commoditisation of women.
Running between Los Angeles, where he plays with an 11-piece band besides doing his solo acts, and India, Anand has found Bangkok as an ideal escape for performance as venues in this city are “more open”. Here, music determines everything, “not what the person looks like or what their gender is,” he said.
Another singer-songwriter, Smruti Jalpur, who is a lesbian from Mumbai and currently based in New Delhi, was often asked to colour her lips, change her shirt and wear a skirt or dress. Even though she tried this a couple of times to get a gig and earn some money, “that just wasn’t me”, said Jalpur, who loves the comfort of a shirt and jeans. The proximity of form, attire, sense of self and gender are all interlinked, she explained.
Yet, the binaries that lead to prejudice is such that when she shaved her hair off, a reality TV music show pretty much sidelined her even though she had qualified. She said she learnt the “bitter truth” that “the costumes for such shows include the hairdo.”
Jalpur is now working on her first set of original songs and until before the imposition of the lockdown, was performing at venues in Delhi including at High Commissions, often being invited by bands to add to their range of vocalists.
Anand, having been part of a more open world in the United School and running a music school, has half a dozen singles up on YouTube including Fool To Want You which speaks of homosexual love: “It is, but love, just like yours”.
While this track stands out for its content, not everyone puts their sexuality at the centre of every song they produce and “it isn’t a prerequisite to be an LGBT+ singer,” said Jalpur, a point that Anand reiterates. Even Friends of Linger, after its second track, a same-sex ballad, Miss You, went on to write on the politics of hate, the dignity of women and hope in the times of Covid-19.
According to Alisha Batth, a lesbian singer-songwriter, “being queer after all, is just an aspect [of our personalities]”. What you bring to a song includes a lot of yourself but that applies to everyone, she emphasised. Hailing from Ludhiana, she made an entry into the Indie music scene of Mumbai over a decade ago. In fact, her passion for music was such that she quit college, took her influences of Patti Smith, P J Harvey and the like, and found venues to sing.
Eight years ago, Coke Studio found her and that led her to sing a Punjabi track, Do Gallan, with Hitesh Sonik and Vijay Prakash. “I wanted to sing something in my mother tongue and this was the main reason I did the song,” she explained.
As it were, for many a vocalist, the song pushed her into the limelight, none of which mattered much to her. “I still wanted to do my songs, the way I like to,” she said, suggesting that “being authentic” is extremely important. While she took to photography in between and even went to a music school, she dropped out of both only to return to her desire of writing and composing songs. The result, of course, is on display with her EP, Prologue, which has a mix of tracks including the painfilled love song, Why Don’t You.
Like Batth, who stepped into the TV world of “mainstream” music, John Oinam from Manipur’s Bishnupur had more than a brush with that space. While he had to drop out of The Stage’s second season due to dengue, he reached the “top 30” of The Indian Idol 2019. Most recently, guitarist and music director, Ehsaan Noorani, had an impromptu live Instagram conversation with Oinam, something that is rare for any upcoming artiste. While the attention from artistes such as Noorani excited him and his presence on reality TV has made him a hero of sorts in Manipur, he’d rather create his own tracks as he has done with You And I, released during the lockdown.
Based in Delhi now, singing in English, Hindi and Manipuri, music has been his “saviour”. Often mocked in school and called “good for nothing”, Oinam turned singing into a passion, shield and expression. While he came out five years ago, he went through the experience of being “two times a minority”, given that he is a person from the Northeast.
Even though he has enough reasons to complain about homophobia and racism, he has turned down many commercial TV and radio shows that wanted him to play the victim card. “I would rather sing and be positive and spread love,” he said. This explains why Oinam got involved in a national collaborative project on peace and love called Let’s Pray For The World, released a few weeks ago by Times Music.
Model, actor and singer Sushant Digvikr draws his musical influences come from pop and queer icons like Madonna, Lady Gaga, Suneeta Rao, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and ABBA.His first live performance was an unexpected one back in 2008, joining Usha Uthup “no less”, at the NCPA in Mumbai. Realising the joy of being a singer, besides a trained dancer, he formed Top Story, a band that gained popularity in the city, following which they did a tour of all the Hard Rock Café outlets in the country.
Even if Digvikr wanted to play down his queerness and let his voice do the talking, his presence on reality show Bigg Boss and drag act as Rani Ko-he-nur followed him everywhere. In fact, it was his drag avatar on display on the popular TV music show. What irks him as a singer is being typecast as a “gay singer” and when people even claim there is “gay music”. “Music transcends caste barriers and everything else. You can’t put it in a box!” he says.
Digvikr pitches himself in the pop space, given his musical influences, and plans to make originals “that others would cover”. Last year, he collaborated with DJ Peter Wallenberg and the Rainbow Riots on three songs and went on to perform at Stockholm Pride on a stage that also witnessed Village People and the Weather Girls.
Interestingly, not everyone is seeking to be a pop star. Kolkata-based Coup Jean, for example, who indulges in jazz with a tinge of RnB, doesn’t see himself being in a space that he claims has “limited regard” for traditional genres, the ones he loves, not that he doesn’t listen to pop.
While he spends a good bit of time as a film editor, a job that pays the bills, his music “is a release of personal expressions”. With a mix of artistes including Ella Fitzgerald, Lorde, Lucy Rose and Lady Gaga “determining” his musical creations, Coup Jean’s lyrics are “very personal” and at times, is a means by which he engages with the truth of homosexuality and sexuality as a whole.
“Lots of people don’t understand that sex is between the legs and gender is between the ears”, he said. One of his latest tracks, Hairfall, deals with relationships and “being in love with multiple people, the coming and leaving of lovers”. This isn’t an uncommon experience for queer persons, he elaborates, implying how he sees songwriting as a soft medium to tell stories, even if very personal or “problematic”.
Similarly, Teenasai Balamu, believes there is an overlap between musical creations and sexuality. Identifying as non-binary, Balamu felt that it was only after coming out that their music and life seemed to change as “both drove each other”. Bangalore-bred and now London-based studying music, Balamu, who puts out their music under the name GrapeGuitarBox, said they didn’t have an easy start as there was “nobody like me”.
It was in 2016, after doing a number of solo gigs and open mic sessions, that they found them-self in an issue of the Rolling Stone magazine, listed amongst the most promising artistes in India. “This gave me confidence,” and so did an association with some other projects, finally leading to “coming out”, writing songs and consequently releasing one “queer-centric” track after another, underlining their sense of freedom. Their first EP is called Out.
Although the musical influences in their life are AR Rahman’s “Tamil days”, Backstreet Boys and Vance Joy, their music has a soft rock feel with a mix of folk. This is evident in some of their songs, including Wait For You, a queer music video, focused on love between two women.
Even as the number of LGBT+ singers grow with so many others around such as Rudy Mukta, Akashita, Karshni and Pragya Pallavi, there have been collaborations of sorts with heterosexual artistes attempting to tell our stories. On January 26, 2018, Delhi’s Chaar Hazaari released a music video titled Soona Jahaan Hai featuring Rudrani Chettri, a transwoman who is a well-known actor, model and founder of Mitr Trust.
The story in the video revolves around the life of a transwoman living in a city such as Delhi. It reflects the fear of being alone and the courage to carry on. “I liked the song, the story and the honesty with which the band and its lead vocalist, Yatindra Mohan Patel approached the subject,” Chettri explained. The song notched up over 1.1 lakh views since it went online.
A year ago, another track, Maya, was put out by Sanjeev T Featuring Gubbi, starring Alex Mathew aka Maya The Drag Queen. It is a Kannada song which “celebrates gender fluidity” and “shows what happens to them when they go out”, said Alex. There is an attempt, Alex pointed out, “to say that Maya is not here to hurt you”, even though so many of us “queer people get hurt”.
These forms of co-creation, as it were, worked and probably sent a message out that was authentic to the queer being. But not all such endeavors go down well. Only a few days ago, a song released by the dating app Tinder split the community all through the middle. While many artistes including Jay Anand called out the absence of indie musicians in the creation of the song, the presence of a cis-gender heterosexual man allegedly homophobic and transphobic, has questioned the intention and purpose of such a track.
As many from the community say, the essence of Pride is political, as it is a recall and reminder of those who lost their life along the way, honoring the ones who fought for us, supporting the voices we currently have and feeling good that we can still stand up.
The fact is “we aren’t going anywhere”, said Jay Anand. “And we’ve got lots of music to offer” added Oinam, with Digvikr stating that we “have to spread the sparkle”. Queer artistes, however, don’t wish to have a genre for themselves, or want to carry their sexuality in each chord, note or word. We just want to tell our own that we are around, a solidarity of sorts.
“While we can’t entirely delink our sexuality or politics from our expression,”, our effort will always be “towards co-existence amongst ourselves and the rest of the world”, said Coup Jean, encapsulating the purpose of many an LGBT+ vocalist, musician and songwriter.
Sharif Rangnekar is the author of Straight to Normal.