Different strokes: How the LGBT community is making itself heard through art

By, Mumbai
Feb 04, 2016 05:05 PM IST

As the city prepares to march in the annual pride parade, we look at how the LGBT community is no longer on the fringe when it comes to arts and culture

“The point is, art never stopped a war... Art cannot change events. But it can change people… enriched, ennobled, encouraged — they then act in a way that may affect the course of events… by the way they vote, they behave, the way they think,” said famed American composer, conductor and pianist Leonard Bernstien.

India’s first all-transgender band, 6 Pack Band debut song went viral(HT File Photo)
India’s first all-transgender band, 6 Pack Band debut song went viral(HT File Photo)

The words hold especially relevant for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community in India. Bogged down by regressive attitudes and legal acts, which deem homosexuality unnatural and illegal, the community has had a long battle to fight. But when it comes to cultural avenues, the battle is at least half won. Be it in the form of pure entertainment, or something that gives you food for thought, or a smooth blend of both, performing arts emerging from or related to the LGBT community is gaining mainstream acceptance.

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The path-breakers

Female cast members dressed up as men in the play, Tape: The King of Drag, which opened to rave reviews last September (HT File Photo)
Female cast members dressed up as men in the play, Tape: The King of Drag, which opened to rave reviews last September (HT File Photo)

The summer of 2014 saw the coming together of India’s first queer choir. Formed by Vinodh Philip and Sibi Mathen, the ensemble features trained voices to bathroom singers. Last September, Tape: The King of Drag — a first-of-its kind theatre production — debuted in city to rave reviews. It was set it an imaginary Mumbai where drag king shows are commonplace. A drag king is essentially the reverse of a drag queen. So, we saw the all-female cast dressed up in a masculine avatar, personifying male stereotypes. Sheena Khalid, one of the lead performers, says the response was great. “We had members from the community; we had people who’ve never seen a play before. A lot of people really liked the novelty of the idea of drag performances. There were also people who liked the informal nature of the show – the fact that the show doesn’t take itself very seriously.” Tape had plenty of song and dance, and generous doses of humour all the while confronting stereotypes. “Starting a dialogue [on LGBT issues] doesn’t mean we have to get into a serious gyaan session,” Puja Sarup, another leading cast member, says.

This January, a cover of Pharrell Williams’s popular number Happy, went viral on social media. The YouTube video saw over 1.4 million hits in less than a week of its release. The song marked the launch of India’s first all-transgender band – 6 Pack Band. “People shared the video with so much positivity. In my opinion, they have plugged into the idea more than the song,” Ashish Patil, head of Y-Films, said in a previous interview to HT.

Co-founder of India’s most successful all-transgender dance troupe, Dancing Queen, Abheena Aher, though, is unsure about things having radically changed. “We’ve had both good and bad experiences. We have had people calling us names during performances. Once it got so bad, we had to stop the show mid-way.” But, she is heartened by the fact that a corporate giant like Godrej (as Godrej India Culture Lab) invited the troupe for a performance last November.

Dancing Queens is India’s most successful transgender dance troupe (HT File Photo)
Dancing Queens is India’s most successful transgender dance troupe (HT File Photo)

Open to all

Support from venues is crucial for LGBT artists since finding a welcoming space is always an issue. “When we would book audition venues, the owner [sometimes] would take back the booking when they got to know who we’re auditioning,” 6 Pack Band’s project curator, Shameer Tandon, shares. For Tape, however, it has been a relatively easy journey. Last December, it was staged at The Gentleman’s Club as part of the National Centre for the Performing Art’s annual Centrestage festival, and will be staged in a new avatar today at La Rouche Bar & Grill, Bandra, as part of the pride month activities. “We’re excited to take it to more audiences and see what they have to say,” Khalid says.

Popular venue The Hive in Khar has been hosting Qfest, a whole day’s activities dedicated to the LGBT community for the past one year. The monthly festival, in collaboration with Queer Ink (an online bookstore for queer literature), hosts open mics, creative workshops, movie screening to celebrate queer creativity. Co-owner of The Hive, Sharin Bhatti, says, “We believe in giving a home to various communities. We want to be a safe space for all genders to experience cultural events. Initially, when we launched the QFest, we were certain that only members from the community will turn up.” But they were proven wrong. Today, the audience is a mixed bag, as are the performers. At an earlier edition of Qfest once, a person even came out as gay on stage while performing a stand-up gig.

Currently, there’s a surge of hope as the Supreme Court on February 2 agreed to re-examine the colonial era law, Section 377, which criminalises homosexuality. Until the final verdict is out, the community and its supporters will have to rely on the performing arts to start a dialogue and reassert their identity.

Be there:

The pride parade will take place on February 6, 3pm onward.

Where: August Kranti Maidan, Tardeo (assembly point)

Visit: mumbaipride.in

Don’t Miss:

Tape: The King of Drag will be staged on February 5, 6:30pm and 9:30pm.

La Rouche Bar & Grill, behind KFC, Linking Road, Bandra (W)

Tickets: Rs 400 on imojo.in/cmbxsa

Call: 98204 44042

Email: gaysifamily@gmail.com

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    Manali is a senior staff writer based in Mumbai. She writes on Indie music, culture and trends for HT48Hours.

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