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Interview: Pragya Pallavi, the queer musician making waves in India

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Pragya Pallavi is a Mumbai-based independent artist, musician and filmmaker. She is also making history this May with the release of the first explicitly LGBT+ album coming out of India, following the historic decriminalisation of homosexuality last September.

Pragya identifies as a gender-fluid lesbian and explores many important and beautiful ideas on the new LP. The first two singles are 'Lingering Wine' - a love song with a “retro Latin flavour” and 'Girls You Rule', a ballad. We quizzed Pragya following the release of her first singles and the upcoming album, Queerism, to find out about her and dig deeper into the album.

Image courtesy of Pragya Pallavi

Fluidity in art

Pragya talks about the various mix of genres to be found on Queerism. She says that the disco track was particularly fun to write; according to her it's a “queer anthem called ‘Queer it up’!” The album is inspired by a myriad of influences, with lead single ‘Lingering Wine’ appearing one day in Pragya’s head while she was listening to the soulful jazz of Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald and Amy Winehouse. ‘Orange Sun’, by contrast, is a total “funk song”.

“I loved amalgamating […] old school with […] new styles of music”, says Pragya. ‘Mama I Need You’ and ‘Rain Rain Go Away’ see Pragya combining her Indian music heritage with western styles, both of which inspire her art.

Queerism is a first for LGBT+ music in India and part of a worldwide legacy of queer musicians telling their stories through emotive music over the last half-century. Pragya hesitates to claim that an LGBT+ genre exists as a lone entity because the “spectrum of different music styles and genres” cannot be narrowed down to one specific labelled group.

Pragya trained as a Hindustani vocalist but loves jazz, R&B, Sufi and folk music. She feels that music, like identity, is “becoming more fluid and less restricted”. Pragya believes in “fluidity in any form of art” is “more exciting and more fun” and in that way, she finds, there is “more freedom to explore”.

The video for ‘Lingering Wine’ is incredibly beautiful and sensual. Pragya’s character starts off as the seducer of the love interest, but over the course of the song we see an equal dynamic develop. Pragya says that the reaction has been positive. She states that using the video to show the beauty of “same-sex love was super important”. As a lesbian, she wished to express her particular desires through the overarching simile of lingering wine. This public assertion of her sexuality holds a particular resonance after winning legal freedom. Suppressing this after the enacting of historic legislation, she says, “would not be right”. It is important for her that the “love and passion of two women kissing” becomes visible.

For ‘Girls You Rule’, the second single from the album, Pragya employs a funky acoustic style and praises the strength and beauty of women in another fantastic video. She says that the process of creating the piece felt automatic and easy because the message was unequivocal and imperative. As a non-binary woman, she believes it is vital to talk about the “worth of women”, write songs with the “motive of celebrating womanhood” and to declare that “women are powerful”.

Pragya is optimistic about the current generation, saying so-called millennials are “really go-getters” and have a “doing things differently attitude”. She thinks that having grown up withinternet has given herself and others a “completely different power, different thoughts and different ideas”. She says we all want to do more, know more and say more, and adds that this generation is “open to change and experimenting”.

Being queer in India

For Pragya, being queer in India in 2019 means being “free, progressive, proud and unconventional”. She has lived through a time where being herself meant she was “considered a criminal”.

She stresses that, for her, being queer is having the freedom to express herself and her love for others in whatever manner she decides. She says: “No labels are needed if we don’t want to have one. No gender needs to be mentioned if you don't believe in any specific gender. That's the beauty of being queer in India 2019.”

Many LGBT+ teenagers try to find queer adults to look up to. These more-than-role-models can be lifelines. However, for Pragya, there were no such figures in the Indian media or everyday life growing up. Her first introduction to queerness was via the internet. However, now she knows an older woman whom she considers a queer elder - “I call her mama.”

Queer is Pragya’s preferred term for anyone identifying as LGBT+. For her, it simply means “fluidity, un-labelling and freedom to be who you are.”

In Mumbai, she says there is “definitely a little vibrant LGBT+ scene” but adds that it is not very inclusive. She believes that when it becomes “united and supportive of each other” there will be less disparity among people in the LGBT+ community.

Looking to the future

Repealing of section 377 is “just the beginning” for Pragya, and there is still a “very long way to go”. Although homosexuality is now legal in India, people in the country are still far from accepting, and instead many persist in “living life with old thoughts and dogmas”. She says that the British empire definitely inspired “transphobia and homophobia” but patriarchy, casteism and other power differences also have influenced hostile attitudes towards LGBT+ people. Pragya cautions that “this new victory” should not be taken for granted.

Pragya has stated in the past that she wishes to “be an inspiration”. As a closing remark, she has a message for her LGBT+ fans in India and across the word: “Have courage. Nothing in this world is easy. It is very important to hold on to your dreams and try until you achieve it. Even if you feel different from the people around you, do not stop! You are unique! Just be yourself, do what you like, and spread love and happiness around!”

Queerism by Pragya Pallavi is out on 17th May, which is also International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.




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