Sabhas, swarams and solidarity

I’m a native of Coorg but my own hometown became suffocating soon after I came to terms with my identity.

Published: 09th June 2022 02:06 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th June 2022 02:06 AM   |  A+A-

By Express News Service

CHENNAI:  I’m a native of Coorg but my own hometown became suffocating soon after I came to terms with my identity. Trained in classical music and dance, I moved to Bengaluru in 1998 — a city that offered me a new lease of life and the freedom to be anonymous. I gradually forgave myself for the hate I had towards myself; I learnt to love myself. With the journey of acceptance, I started to view things around me from a different lens. I got a better understanding of discrimination prevalent in every sector — from Dalit rights, and animal rights, to women’s rights; because now I too was a part of the minority community.

An inevitable break
I felt alienated from the performing art (music) that was my bread and butter because of the brahminical dominance. To break this power structure single-handedly was impossible. I had the option to quit but I had given my life to it and was not financially privileged. In a cis-hetero culture dominated field, I realised that we were not allowed to do anything against the ‘tradition’. 

I was afraid of the consequences if I came out to the music fraternity. I had to cut myself off from the field and I spent time researching queer culture. After getting a fair idea, now I use social media to talk about who I am so that somebody who’s watching might find some representation because I was looking for something like that. I have never heard of or come across any other classical musician who has come out. I thought my story could help those in the shadows find a voice. I got many responses from people who feared coming out. With some encouragement, I decided to engage myself with the art in a more meaningful way. 

A ripple effect
The classical compositions and poetry are cis-normative. All compositions on love are cis-gendered. In an effort to experiment, I created compositions exploring queer themes. The dance community loved my poetry and embraced it. I wanted it to be in my mother tongue, Kannada. I also translated it to Tamil. I branched out to theatre as well. I have written two plays. One is titled Patanga Prabhaava, the first queer literature in theatre in Kannada, and it’s on gender fluidity and transgender identity. It’s a complex piece. I launched another play called Amma Matu Suhail. It’s a story about acceptance. I want to use every tool possible to create art that can speak for itself and claim space for queer representation.

I may have established myself in the art space, but even today, I cannot discuss my sexual identity with everyone. There are filters involved, it needs to be within the ‘morals’ and it cannot look flamboyant. People accept queer individuals, but there are conditions. I decided to come out the way I’m after terrible episodes of depression and anxiety. I don’t know what is going to come my way. It took time for me to understand that there are people who are going to be happy for me. I got lots of love from strangers. Now, the challenge for me is to navigate and be myself in this extremely esoteric space. 

Counting on possibilities
While I’m actively involved in theatre productions and dance performances, I unknowingly distanced myself from the Carnatic music space as it’s not open to people like me. That said, I have many queer students. There’s a long road ahead to make the field conducive to the community. Established musicians must come forward and explore solidarity as that can bring a change. Imagine every sabha acknowledging Pride month and conducting programmes to celebrate. It’s going to be tokenism but tokens matter to the oppressed. The fraternity must start acknowledging that there are talented queer artists. Then, you can start using pronouns while introducing the artists. 

On the teaching front, diversity must be factored in and teachers must offer equal opportunities and be approachable. As the general public, we must learn about the community to break away from our preconceived notions. The younger generation is going to be more vocal about their identity so we have to devise a new system. On the positive side, there are celebrity artistes who are stepping up for the community during this pride month. I’m doing my bit by hosting a specially curated series for Aalaap. We’re all pitching in small ways possible but we need to function as a community to create a larger impact. 

Karthik Hebbar, a queer classical musician and theatre practitioner, employs art as a tool of activism to claim space for equal representation of the LGBTQIA+ community


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