Kareem Khubchandani has many feathers in his cap: he is an author, a drag artist, a professor at Tufts University in Massachusetts and, more recently, a key figure in the emerging field of Critical Aunty Studies.

In January, Khubchandani began to organise an academic symposium on Critical Aunty Studies on a website featuring a series of presentations by artists, scholars, and activists exploring “the ubiquitous but under-theorised figure of the aunty”.

The aunty will also be the focus of a special issue of Text and Performance Quarterly that Khubchandani will edit, submissions for which will be received until August 1.

“‘Aunty’ is often employed to describe women of one’s parents’ generation,” Khubachandani writes in the call for submissions. “...She is a liminal figure who might surveil the family’s boundaries or perhaps facilitate transgressions...These aunties acquire their moniker not just through age or kinship, but through performance: melodramatic speech, maximalist fashion, searing glances, muscular femininity, and distinct hairstyles. Performance is central to portraying the aunty, but also a valuable method and analytic to keep up with her mercurial energies.”

He goes on to explain why it is critical to bring scholarly attention to aunties: “She requires us to take seriously inter-and intra-generational knowledge and culture-making, to scramble the study of chosen family and queer kinship that has implicitly construed family as already nuclear, and to untether (psycho)analysis from the figure of the mother.”

Before moving to the United States for college in 2000, Khubchandani grew up in a Sindhi community in Ghana. In his early years, a close-knit group of his mother’s friends from the community formed an important part of his life.

“That’s where the aunty emerges from, in my thinking and my works,” Khubchandani said, recounting the impact of his “aunties” on his life and his eventual scholarly works. “My mother’s friends were always around – in the house and outside. They fed me, picked me up from school, taught me life lessons.”

He said that the legacy of psychoanalysis and the Euro-western kinship system has shaped our scholarship to think only of the mother, the father, and the child. “I’m hoping we can start to rethink some of these relationships,” Khubchandani said.

Scroll.in spoke to Khubchandani about his immigrant life, and his inspirations behind the Critical Aunty Studies symposium. Edited excerpts from the interview.

Kareem Khubchandani. Credit: Steven Gabriel

What triggered the idea of the project “Critical Aunty Studies”?

I have been thinking about the idea for a while, and many activities that I have undertaken in the past years have led me here. Around four years ago, I started writing about aunties for a book called Queer Dance: Meanings and Makings. My drag character LaWhore too refers to herself as an aunty. White artists don’t see me as a real drag queen because I wear sarees and don’t fit the “mould”. But, the character of an aunty is where my drag feels at home. I don’t want to be a fashionable pop star and wear crop tops and short skirts. I really like aunty fashion – kaftans and gaudy jewellery. That is more my style, and that’s also where I have done most of my thinking for this project.

However, when I started to develop the project, I realised that there is not a lot to cite other than ageing, South Asianness, gender, and related concepts. So much meaning has solidified in the word “aunty” in the last 50 years that I feel we need to think beyond the age or the aesthetics of it.

During my time with the Mellon Sawyer research group, I started approaching kinship as a topic of critical scholarship. You can think about how power works through the state or through the law, but what happens when we think about it through kinship? What kind of relations are redefined by law privileged in public discourse? I had a little bit of grant money from the research group, and that is how I conceived the Critical Aunty Studies symposium.

What are a few meanings that you personally attach with the word “aunty”?

In the intimate sphere, my aunties in Ghana – my mother’s friends – were a part of my home. They were that external presence that lived inside the home, and that is the earliest memory I attach with the word. I also associate my aunties with “discipline”, because often, they would be the ones putting checks and balances in my life when my mother wouldn’t. In the public sphere, aunties are synonymous with fashion, which is read as both good and bad. My drag persona likes to say that aunties taught me that sequins were day wear, and that’s something I use in my shows.

As a South Asian immigrant, what perceivable differences have you noticed in the cultures, if any, when it comes to using the word aunty? Are there any similarities too?

In Ghana, the Indian community was a tightly knit one, so we knew who exactly an “aunty” was to us. There was an intimacy attached to the word that did not allow it to concretise into a negative connotation.

The diaspora has a huge role to play in how it has become such an interesting and complicated word in reference to South Asian populations in western nations. I am especially pointing towards British Asian television and movies like Bhaji on the Beach, Goodness Gracious Me, and Bend it Like Beckham. A lot of these diaspora shows have used the figure of an older woman to show how they are caught backwards in time. At the same time, there are Bollywood references like Govinda’s Aunty No.1, Sushmita Mukherjee’s role as Priyanka Chopra’s aunt in Dostana, and songs like Auntyji get up and dance. The word itself has a lively discourse attached to it. However, in most references, there is still the commonality of ambivalence around it, but it has only come in recent times.

What, according to you, are the main reasons why negative subtext has come to be attached with the word?

A lot of our opinions stem from the pop culture references we are fed. Bollywood, in my opinion, has looked for the external other who can be vilified for many decades. At one point, it was Helen. In the age of “family films” post Hum Aapke Hain Koun, the aunt became the best “outsider” to bring in, making her a great foil – someone to put the blame on to protect the institution to the family. This also coincided with the time of liberalisation in India when the threat of “foreignness” perhaps made the custodians of pop culture consider a figure to hold accountable when things go south.

Are there any aunties that you think have broken through, in terms of critical mass – characters or real people who epitomise the term?

For me, British actor and author Meera Syal is the real “Aunty No.1”. I’d put Smriti Irani too in the same category. The transformation of her character from soap opera to the political sphere has been interesting. It is also pertinent to point out how one newspaper once called her “aunty-national” after a speech in Parliament in 2016.

Why does aunty have to be a negative term? There is a familiarity we attach with “Chacha” in Chacha Nehru, that the word aunty is not accorded. Such contradictions disempower the word.

At the same time, there are also a few interesting feminist social media trends that are challenging the stereotypes, for example, aunty-fa – aunties against fascism.

As a primer to this symposium, did you look at other research and writing that has been done on aunties? Is there anything you’d recommend people check out?

I’d recommend people to check out resources like the Bad Brown Aunties and Ya Gay Aunties podcasts. One essay that has transformed me a lot is writer Erica Violet Lee’s “I’m concerned for your academic career if you talk about this publicly” where she talks about her academic aunties who navigate violence at institutions and their network that evades patriarchal capture. It is a really impressive read and transforms the way we think about gossip.