I began learning music at the age of 6. Growing up I had many teachers, from different caste and religious backgrounds. I got a certificate in Sanskrit language along with my Upanthya Visharad in Hindustani Classical vocals by the age of 14. Fortunately for me, I was in a great school that gave us training in instruments, dance, theatre and painting, where I spent a lot of time with other womxn and queers. This is when I understood that there is a long history of feminist traditions that are passed down through the arts in India – something that has sustained me as an adult as well.
However back then, over the years of my training I had lost all enthusiasm for being an artist. The consumable formats of being a femme artist were limited, not to mention the ritualistic bullying that all ‘Glee’ kids go through. Board exams arrived and my mom asked me to focus on studies, so I never finished my Visharad. In any case, I didn’t have the money or emotional support to attempt a serious career as an artist.
So instead I became a groupie, which meant listening to all the convoluted, uninspired depictions of music from men. To me, they always seemed to miss the point of why music exists as an art form. It was frustratingly exhausting to hear their rules of music making. If it was not the purists, it was the innumerable racist issues within the Indian music industry. Top that off with the discrimination of femme vocalists, based on stupid insensible shit like voice texture – I took a giant pill of FuckitAll and retired way early. I can not explain the irritation I feel when dudes mansplain music to me.
Recently, my friend made me listen to Max Richter’s recomposition of Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’. I recognised it was the background score for Chef’s Table – which was exciting, because I love the show. But after a few (infinite) listening sessions I understood why it was so deeply moving. Vivaldi’s work has a very specific narrative element, which along with the season based division of the composition, is reminiscent to me of the Ragas of those corresponding seasons. I am not an expert to delineate the parallels of the two, but somewhere inside me, the memory of that music is imprinted – to which my mind immediately responds. This is why music is a universal language which transcends time.
‘Sangeet’ is a story of our people, told through the music that they make. Millions of students like me in this country are equipped with adequate awareness of our culture’s conflicting histories and its interpretations through art education. It has deliberately been overtaken by zealots in the recent past as a revisionist effort. Having participated in multiple local and national events within the classical arts community, I know that the changing aspects of all Indian art forms are studied specifically by womxn and queers. Within them is a thriving community of artists that our country often disregards. A diverse set of individuals who are active in shaping conversations of their lineages, with their art. Unless we provide these womxn and queers dedicated spaces to evolve their art, we will keep losing their stories.
These are also the stories of our people’s complex history of artistic resistance in this country. I have always found them to be better than the supposed modernity of the current world. Our art doesn’t go up on the walls of galleries and museums. But it has always been stolen from us. And I am, like many in this country, completely tired of this indentured labour of thought I need to perform to translate my existence.
The dividing line between stylistic influence and cultural appropriation has been deliberately blurred to facilitate the commercialisation of art. It is our job to not just protect artists, but provide them space to perform on community stages like the traditional salons, ballrooms or gharanas – where they can interact with each other. We have to resolve to go outside of the existing puritanical formats of expression which have been created by and for a small section of our society. We have to specifically take away the focus from a handful of artists who feel no hesitation in wearing the culture markers of a story they have never lived, just to be seen on an international stage.
I personally find it difficult to tell my story when it comes to art, especially since it is related to the opposition I face with my expressions of gender and sexuality. But every time I hear another womxn or queer tell their story, it gives me some strength. Overcoming the fear of ridicule and rejection is not difficult for us. But being able to get in touch with our self to speak our truth, feels too overwhelming when we are continually abused by society in many other ways. We get painted as a story of either brutal resilience or total devastation, by those who fetishise us. Just so we can be quickly forgotten as an outlier, and left to our own devices. Our lives and struggles are supposedly meant to be narrated by anyone but ourselves. If we want to hear more stories, we have to first bring the music back to the womxn and queers.
Where is the music?