Within India‘s conservative and patriarchal society, female DJs have established an underground scene for electronic music – and for acceptance.
by Danielle Keeton-Olsen
For 15 hours on a Friday in August, the club was buzzing with excitement, crowded with music fans. Hundreds of adults entered and exited the club’s doors covered in body paint and fantastically costumed – in leather, lace and chains. Some wore nothing at all. Every club room held a new sight: dark corners, laser beams, a pool and sauna; all filled with dancing masses, bodies embracing each other. At the center of it all, electronic music artist Ma Faiza swayed the dancing crowd with her vibrant, pulsating beats. Ma Faiza could have never imagined this scene back in her home Goa, a costal city in India. To enjoy a liberating, nonjudgmental and consensual experience, she takes a few days off from the Indian subcontinent to play at KitKat Club, a famous sex-positive technoclub in Berlin, which opened its doors in 1994.
At her gigs in Goa, Calcutta and Bangalore, some club owners reject her posters, saying her portrait in a flattering, formfitting black tank top and an intense, smoldering gaze are “too provocative” to post. “KitKat Club is something that’s so far away from the reality of the India I know,” Ma Faiza says. “It’s so important for me to be able to play in a space like KitKat, because the fact that it exists in this world is truly remarkable and incredible, a truly free space.”
Since Ma Faiza began spinning records in the 1990s, India’s electronic music scene has changed drastically. By now it is allowing more women into the scene and creating a safe space for members of India’s growing LGBTQ community. But even within the creative scene and its expressive audience, there is still an evident need for more acceptance.
The Mother of Electronica
Even before she laid hand on the turntables, Ma Faiza was known for music. She spent her earliest days on the beaches of the coastal village Anjuna, selling the music she could not find in the India of 1993: electronic music. She had found underground and electronic music while growing up in the United Kingdom. When she moved to India, she set out on a mission to bring those sounds to her new home. “I was listening to electronic music, and it just blew my mind,” she recalls, “I just saw there was a whole lot of music in the UK that wasn’t in India, and I thought it should be.”
The transition from selling tapes to spinning records was natural for Ma Faiza. She knew so much music that friends and acquaintances asked her to DJ. “I never aimed to be a DJ,” Ma Faiza explained. “I just kind of got plopped into it, and I was like, ‘okay, I’ll run with that for a bit.’ Of course, after putting a lot of energy in and seeing I could do this, I realized I quite like doing this.” After more than 18 years in the music scene, Ma Faiza goes by “the Mother of Electronica Music.” She had played at Sunburn Music Festival in 2008, its second year, and the years following, before it became a wildly popular electronic music festival that drew more than 350,000 music fans in 2015.
The warm, bright days and cool nights on Goa’s beaches draw millions of tourists from India and other countries to the western coastal state during India’s summer months. But the state is also the foundation of a virile electronic music scene. The massive Sunburn shows and dance clubs have formed a heavy emphasis on music in the state. Some musicians even formed a distinct sound, Goa trance, a psychedelic style using heavy droning bass and references from science fiction, existentialism and spirituality.
As the electronic scene exploded in the early twenty-first century in Goa and India’s major cities like Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore, more men and women started mixing music for live audiences. Ma Faiza acknowledged that she would not have had as natural of a transition into the music scene if she had started in India today. To get ahead, DJs have to find gigs, produce tracks and have a name and sound before they can go big, she says. But artists like Priyanjana Ghoshal found an easier entry into fame with a little help from early DJs like Ma Faiza.
Music as a catalyst for cultural change
Ghoshal started mixing Bollywood hits from the popular movies’ song and dance numbers. But as she progressed into the scene, she wanted to explore progressive, techno and house sounds. She got the chance to show off her music thanks to two of India’s established, female artists. Pearl, a well known underground DJ, invited Ghoshal to open for her in Bangalore in the early days of Ghoshal’s 12-year music career. Then Ma Faiza introduced Ghoshal to her first house gig. “From there people started taking me seriously as an underground DJ,” Ghoshal elaborated. The artists continue to keep in touch and help each other out when need be.
With her vast and diverse music knowledge, Ghoshal has achieved some major successes as an artist since the days she opened for other female DJs. She has performed at Sunburn music festival and she fills her weekends with gigs throughout India and a residency in a Mumbai nightclub. Next on her list is touring Europe.
Indias electronic music’s boundaries are not limited to urban areas. As Ma Faiza has toured India, she’s found small towns that just have one dance club, but the fans devour any sounds Ma Faiza feeds to them. “It was really inspiring to see the smaller cities be open to that music, which means there’s been this tremendous mindset change among the people here,” Ma Faiza said. “Electronic music is unique in that it facilitates culture change. Knowledge is power, and there are so many alternate realities that people should have access to,” she said. “I think electronic music has a lot to say for putting people in another reality. It’s exposing them to another way of thinking, because music is really entrenched in culture.”
Ma Faiza personally has served as an inspiration to LGBTQ youth in India, because she had openly identified as a lesbian since she came out to her parents at 17 in the late 1980s. Because she’s not a “small, petite, extremely feminine woman,” Ma Faiza often gets mistaken for a man when walking hand in hand with her girlfriend. She realized how difficult it was for young adults to come out to their parents, who often believe in traditional marital values. So she talks to her audiences about homosexuality and advocates for LGBTQ youth.
Though some families are accepting their children when they announce they are gay or lesbian, and the government recognizes transgender women (hajiras), India’s tolerance of the LGBTQ community has regressed in recent years. After a period of decriminalizing homosexuality, the Indian government made it a crime once more in 2013. Traditional values of family and matrimony also hinder many from accepting those who are not cisgender and heterosexual.
The difficulty of authenticity
At many shows, Ma Faiza takes a moment to point out her special guests: her parents. Though it was not easy to tell her parents who she loved, Ma Faiza’s parents, after a long struggle, accepted their daughter, and today they support her at her shows whenever they can attend. “It’s really inspiring when my parents come because these young kids can never imagine a time when they could go out with their parents because the gap between their parents and the children, it’s really, really strong,” Ma Faiza explained.
Ma Faiza’s parents always told her to be authentic and express herself, she said, but even years after she came out as a lesbian, they would not accept her authenticity. Her parents were horrified that their daughter was attracted to women, and Ma Faiza could never invite her girlfriend for dinner or the holidays. The pressure and depression grew so profound that Ma Faiza attempted suicide, and spent several days in the hospital, unsure whether she would make it out. From the hospital bed, she finally had an open conversation with her parents. “I was able to have this conversation with my parents, on my dying bed, where I could say to them, ‘look guys, you’re not helping me by not accepting who I am, and you’re really not helping my emotional state by always bringing conflict to my relationships,’” Ma Faiza said.
The battle that nearly killed her finally allowed Ma Faiza to be completely honest with her parents. She’s not afraid to roll a joint in front of them, and she even goes out for “Ladies Night” dinner and drinks with her mother, to the shock of every other young woman out on the town in India. Ma Faiza and her parents thrive together in this honesty, she said.
Both Ma Faiza and Ghoshal found electronic music in India to be a unique place that allows acceptance. As the scene expands, more international artists have come to India from the United Kingdom, the United States and Mongolia, and artists are creating more innovative and exciting beats.
“It’s all very challenging”
Ghoshal has come a long way from her early days, playing hip-hop and Bollywood music to please popular nightclubs and promoters. Her sound is progressive, experimental, and she looks forward to seeing where the ever changing electronic music scene takes her next. “I like all kinds of music, so I’m not going to be biased toward mine and look down on other people’s types of music.”
Though Ghoshal and Ma Faiza both said they never experienced many blockades as women promoting themselves in the music industry, Ma Faiza acknowledges that it is only a recent development that women can succeed as a DJ or enjoy electronic music. The scene still reflects India’s deep patriarchal and conservative, religious roots. Women can attend an electronic music show and have a drink, but the chances of getting verbally or physically harassed are a lot greater in an Indian city. Additionally, the electronic music scene and the ideas of self-expression and tolerance surrounding it are still limited to India’s urban intelligentsia, Ma Faiza observed. The crowd pulsing on India’s dance floors is often wealthy or educated, living in the city, and not reflective of the average citizen who makes a little over 93.000 rupees a year. “At the gig in Germany, there might be people there who are taxi drivers or carpenters or students, but if you go to the parties in India, I don’t think you’ll find one carpenter. You might find a designer, but you won’t find a taxi driver,” Ma Faiza said.
The crowd at KitKat Club in Berlin is always different, and Ma Faiza consistently sees new – sometimes shocking things on her annual trip to Berlin. But her show at KitKat Club is more significant than just another gig, she says. KitKat Club gives her a chance to confront her own biases and address them in order to become more tolerant. “Sometimes I find it a bit weird, but who am I judging? It’s a free space, it’s consensual,” Ma Faiza said. “These spaces are a place for everyone, you’re free and consensual, and of course there’s hygiene, so you can’t judge.”
And Ma Faiza has hope that her fans in India, the “movers and shakers” of India, in her words, are confronting their biases alongside her and working towards a freer, more open nation. “It’s all very challenging but it can only bring you closer to being at peace with who you are.”
Danielle Keeton-Olsen (22) is a new graduate of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. Since graduating, she has interned for a political news outlet covering the U.S. presidential elections, and will travel to Cambodia to intern for a daily news outlet in 2017.
Feel free to email her at dkeetonolsen84[at]gmail.com with feedback or story ideas.