Last September, India reached a milestone in its progression to being a more LGBTQIA+ friendly society when it decriminalised Section 377 – this had made homosexuality illegal. Fast forward to today, Pragya Pallavi, is releasing the first openly LGBTQIA+ album in the country.
Queerism, is dedicated to the LGBTQIA+ communities in India and is being specifically released on May 17th to tie in with International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. Along with shining a spotlight on a spectrum of issues affecting the LGBTQIA+ community, it touches on topics which everyone can relate to. For instance, mental health problems, identity crises, body image, global warming, I could go on!
The music itself is a fantastic and mad fusion of all genres of music, from jazz to disco, EDM to Indian fusion.
Unsurprisingly, it has received rave reviews, GayTimes described it as a ‘stunning celebration of queer love.’
So, at CUB, we were ecstatic when we had the opportunity to speak to Pragya. Over some lengthy emails, we discussed sexuality and gender in India, as well her album and creative journey.
Anyway, diving right in, so could you please tell me about when you first started to notice that you weren’t a cis heterosexual woman growing up? Was is it a single incident or an evolving realisation? (If you don’t mind answering that is!)
It definitely has been an evolving realisation, and my ideas about my sexuality and my gender identity have evolved in different ways.
About my sexuality, I was always having fantasies about my school teachers and other women, but I wasn’t actually thinking of myself as a lesbian. I had to go through the process of dating guys to understand that I wasn’t actually attracted to them. And one of my guy friends actually said that I should explore as we often talked about women being attractive and stuff. So, I started to explore and met my first girlfriend online.
About my gender identity, I have always been a tomboy. After I came out as lesbian, I started thinking about myself as a soft butch. When I started to meet more trans people, that led me to question my gender identity. So, I decided that I am gender fluid because I don’t want to be in any sort of gender box. But I continue to identify as a lesbian and as a woman because I love women and I feel this identity is very important to me.
Particularly growing up in India were these topics completely tabooed in society/discussion? How did you learn about your sexuality? Who did you go to?
I knew about gay and lesbian terms since I was a kid. I always knew in my heart that I was attracted to women, but because of the social norms I was confused. I always saw that if you are in love, it occurs between a man and a woman. So I wasn’t sure if I was just having some kind of fantasy which is only fantasy or could it be made a reality. But my biggest resource for understanding my sexuality has been the internet and social media. I really feel so grateful and powerful about being a millennial as we grew up with internet.
When did you decide to “come out”? What was the reaction like?
I came out in 2011. And it was difficult coming out, I had lot of problems and fights with my family, like at one point I was ready to leave my house, then the so called friends of mine started unfriending me, I started getting isolated. I even started losing a lot of my gigs, they wanted me to dress up super feminine, but that wasn’t me. People used to look and talk to me weirdly. I also overheard people betting about me – if I was a girl or a boy!
A lot of craziness in a bad way! But, again now things have changed!
When Section 377 was abolished in September what was yours and your friends reactions? The new sense of openness and freedom must have been amazing!
Some of us were expecting that the law would change soon, but still when it happened, we could hardly believe it. Section 377 was decriminalised for 4 years from 2009 to 2013, but then the Supreme Court of India decided that gay relationships should be illegal – it was a huge blow to us…really devastating. So finally last year in the month of September, when we got such a positive and progressive ruling from the supreme court we were so relieved and excited. We celebrated, we went out, we had a big party. It was really great to see such a widespread recognition and approval of this judgement.
But it is important to remember that the law by itself cannot change the mindset of the people. So many LGBTQI still continue to struggle in India and there is a lot more we have to fight for.
What’s the atmosphere like in India right now in regard to the LGBTQIA+ community? Are some groups more targeted/stigmatised than others? How can the country keep moving forward?
There is a lot more recognition for LGBTQI communities in the media, in popular films, in the government and by political parties. Community people are feeling more bold and demanding for their rights. But of course it is not the same for everyone. People who are privileged by their gender, class and caste tend to have more advantages. The trans and intersex people are still very marginalized even though there have been more laws for trans people. And I very strongly think that women are more invisible in LGBTQI movements. This needs to change.
Now onto your relationship with music. What started that? Who were your favourite artists growing up?
I grew up in a very musical family where I got to explore different forms of Indian music. So I always had that side to experiment different styles of music, kind of fusion. But, I actually got influenced a lot by Western music after the song ‘My heart will go on’ was released. OMG! Yes so, Celine Dion played a very important role in terms of me exploring western classical kind of music.
Diverse, why? Because I don’t like to just make the same thing again and again, I like versatility and I love making music in different genres. I will never want to be put in a box in terms of my gender identity and my music. Music is such a big ocean that even 10 lives wouldn’t be sufficient to explore it!
The album as we said is LGBTQIA+ themed and so far two songs have been released, firstly Lingering Wine (which discusses same-sex love and body positivity) and Girls You Rule (celebrating women), what other specific topics will the album be addressing? I read in an interview you did that religion and global warming come up?
There are 9 songs in this album, Queerism. There are 3 songs which celebrate queer identities, talk about our struggles and celebrates our legal victories. One of those songs is called Queer it up and I am releasing this song with my album on May 17th. The 2 other songs are called We are LGBTQI , and I have two versions of that, one was written before the Section 377 verdict and one was revised as the celebration song afterwards. I also have a coming out song called Mama I need you , which is going to released this month. Some of the songs are about gay experiences, but also talk about universal experiences, such as Lingering Wine or the song I have about suicide prevention called ORANGE SUN. Then some of the songs deal with other social issues. I have one song which talks about the rains, floods, global warming, and environmental destruction.
Finally I am very, very excited about my next single which I am releasing on April 12th, it is a hip-hop song in Hinglish and it is about social justice, equality and overcoming the differences of caste, religion, sexism and communalism. It is a song for the moment. It is the song for the peace.
Continuing from that, do you think it’s important for artists/people in the public eye to be/create platforms for discussion about issues like this?
Yes I think it is super important, but unfortunately, we don’t see it so much in the commercial music. If we look at the Top 40, almost all the songs are about relationships and heartbreaks. Maybe it is also related to the corporate domination of the music industry. There was a time when more social issues songs were big hits, like Imagine by John Lennon and many more. Music is a very powerful medium to touch people’s hearts and minds. So I think we should talk about the issues which affects us. Our relationships are of course very important but there are many other urgent issues in our lives and in this world. So as an artist, it is very important for me to talk about them!
What was the building process of the album, did you write it consistently across a few months or was it here and there over the last few years?
I have been working on this album for almost 3 years. Originally, it was just one song I was planning to release, which was a coming out song. It took me a long time to finish that song as I was working, I was running a cafe in Goa. But after a year, I decided to shift back to Mumbai and thought to make more songs, but just after a week of shifting, I had a major leg injury so I was bedridden for 6 months. During that time I started expanding the number of songs and to create an EP of 4 songs. When I started writing songs, more and more stuff started coming, and so here I am now with a full-fledged album of 9 songs… I still feel like adding more songs but my team keeps saying to put it out in the next album.
What do you want to achieve with the album?
I want my music to impact on my listeners on multiple levels. I want them to be moved by the lyrics, whether it is the song about something more personal or about something more political and social. I dont think that everyone can learn through lectures and discussions, I feel different art forms actually makes things easier and more relaxed, and people get moved and really inspired by music and films, especially people like me. I try to write about what I feel and experience. I also try to have some political content in my music and write about my experiences as a queer person, LGBTQI+ rights and social issues that concerns everyone.
Most mainstream music is not dealing with social issues but I want to be able to use popular music to talk about important issues as well as everyday situations. I want to make music which makes people feel thoughtful, encouraged, happy, powerful and proud.
Connecting people across the world through my music is one of my very important objectives as a music creator and performer. I have used a lot of genres, like each of my song is in different genres in my debut album, Queerism.
So, in this way I am trying to catch on different listeners with different tastes of music. There are people who like EDM, Some of them prefer like a bit retroish stuff, some like pop, some like hip-hop, yeah, so I have tried to create that different musical space in my album by exploring and working on different genres. It has been a big challenge but very interesting for me to work on different genres and different subjects and issues. I really hope that our audience like it! I like to think of this album Queerism as a type of feast offering a huge varieties of alternative music.
Your album seems to blend every genre – what inspired you to do that?
I am a classically trained Hindustani musician who over the years have been exposed to many types of music, both Indian and Western. It is much more exciting for me to experiment, compose and perform songs in many different genres rather than just focussing in one vein. I hope my listeners will appreciate this and be able to cross over from one genre to another. In the same way , that I dont want my gender to be put in a box, I dont want my music to be put in a box either.
If you had to pick a favourite song from the album what would it be?
My favourite song keeps changing. But my current favourites are Lingering Wine, Queer it up (disco song) and Rain Rain Go Away (Indie Fusion Rock Song).
Who was the best to collaborate with? (If you can pick!)
Everyone in my project did an excellent job. And I think Everyone is the best. No individual favourites. All are my favourites.
Aside from music you have excelled in literally every creative industry! In 2008 you directed Kashmakash, which won an award at the Indian International Women Film Festival – could you tell me about that and the festival?
Kashmakash was my first film and it is on YouTube right now. It was a movie based on same sex relationship too. I made that movie when it was illegal to be gay in India. I wanted to give a very positive ending to the film where both the women get together but due to pressures from other team members and my artists , I had to compromise on that. Anyhow, so it got screened at the IIWFF and won the best debut director award. I want to make more movies, I have been working on a script already.
Also, I read you worked in TV for about four years. What drew you to the industry? What was your role? How come you left – was it to pursue music?
Yes, so I was doing my graduation in film and tv production, so that’s how I landed in TV industry. I grew in that industry really quick. Good money, but I wasn’t getting time for my own self and for my own arts! I was getting frustrated and I left it for my own wellbeing and my arts and music.
In July, you are contributing to an art exhibition, entitled Homomorphism II, with Queerala in Kerala, which is on same-sex intimacy. What aspect/theme will you be focusing on? Can you tell me about what dome of the other artists are doing?
So I was one of the artists to showcase my artworks in the Homomorphism last year in the month of July. My artworks was completely based on the same sex intimacy and relationships. It was a really good exhibition and we got lot of praises.
To finish off, I have two questions.
If you could give any advice to a young person who is maybe struggling/confused about their sexuality and/or gender what would it be?
Believe in yourself and trust your own feelings. Don’t let someone else decide your gender and sexuality for you! Make sure you are surrounded with people who care about you and who believe in you, who supports you. If you are not able to get any support, remember that there are many organizations that have support cells for our community members. One day I hope to start an organization for LGBTQI+ myself.
And what about young creatives who want to break into the “industry” but don’t know how or feel like they don’t fit the stereotypical mould?
Don’t worry about the stereotypical mould at all. Do what you love. You will get there. This is the time to do new stuff, this is the right time to bring the new wave of arts, new wave of thoughts. It hasn’t been easy for me to work on this album Queerism too, but I had a great team supporting me, and I believed in my ideas, I believed in my arts. I know none of my song has reached the Top 40 yet. That is again another big bucks marketing, and I dont have funds for that. But, it doesn’t mean that I will stop the project, or I will stop making music.
So always believe in yourself and don’t give up. You will reach your goal one day!