#SariNotSorry: An Interview with Kareem Khubchandani

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Last week, Kajal Mag spoke with LaWhore Vagistan, a drag performer whose recent YouTube performance “#Sari,” set to the tune of Bieber’s “Sorry,” is reimagined with unapologetically flamboyant lyrics. LaWhore is, in fact, the stage name for Kareem Chubchandani, a desi queer performer and scholar whose work documents the experiences of South Asian immigrant gay men who experience gay nightclubs as spaces where their accented dance “ishtyle” liberates them temporarily from rigid expectations of what it means to be masculine.

But LaWhore Vagistan, who’s kind of a whore herself and whose family hails from Pakistan, is also exploring these new ways of being in the world, like what it means to embody “auntiness.” And her drag name isn’t offensive — it’s radically emancipatory, historical, and fabulous, in a way we haven’t seen in a while.

Kareem Khubchandani and LaWhore Vagistan are constantly navigating multiple spaces — both pedagogical and performative — in a way that embodies many pluralities within a singular body. Can we draw a line between Kareem and LaWhore?

Part of what led up to making this video “#Sari” was I was part of a drag competition. Up until this point, I’d only done drag for Bollywood nights where I did it in Chicago, so it was for a South Asian audience. It was me watching YouTube videos and trying to learn something to do a performance. I would do an Aishwarya-themed performance or a Kareena-themed performance, or item numbers, or mujras. I tried to be creative but the limits of my art, of form — of makeup and hair and costume — were short. So I did this drag competition — it was called Drag Class — and over ten weeks you did different challenges. I would get ready with my mentor and I would see her — by the time her eye makeup was getting done, she would become someone else. But I don’t have that transition moment of getting into drag and becoming a different person. As a performer, I am me. LaWhore is me. And there’s that slippage there all the time. I’m not particularly worried about it.

Why aren’t you worried about it? In fact, you’re deeply implicated within your work as a mode of knowledge-production. Are you able to maintain a critical, objective distance within your work with the cultures that you’re observing?

I think there’s a narrative around drag that drag lets you be someone who you’re not, or be the person you weren’t allowed to be. But I think during this competition, I was using a lot of my boy jewelry to be LaWhore. Like, I just have a lot of jewelry and rings and I like to wear them. There are ways in which I already know I like to be shiny and glittery. It’s just an excess or an embellishment for me when I get on stage. Sometimes you have to turn your drag queen on. I think it’s nice to see the slippage between on and off.

Where is Vagistan?

It’s a place that’s been sutured back together after being split apart and ripped apart. In LaWhore, Vagistan is her way of bringing back together India and Pakistan. My family’s from Sindh, but displaced into India as Hindu. But Vagistan also [encompasses]this idea of reproduction and futurity. It’s a place to move forward as opposed to being nostalgic about the past, and what Pakistan and India used to be, as something we can imagine as whole in its diversity and its strangeness and its difference. That feeling of belonging somewhere, though, I’ve never had it. As someone who’s never had situated citizenship, being able to imagine some kind of elsewhere… There are things we can hold onto from the places we’ve been in that feel like home in our bodies. It sutures together things that are supposedly disparate or have been historically separated from each other.

I group a lot of these item-number songs together into playlists that I like to call “gaysi anthems.” What constitutes particular songs as such? As a genre? And what is it about them that speak to queer desi community?

On screen, there’s a set of choreographies and bodily movements that, as “gaysi anthems,” exceed the Western sexiness of how to present the body. In the item-song genre, there’s a way of loving the midriff, and pulsing the breasts, and isolating different parts of the body — just Madhuri lifting her eyebrow, or lifting the hip — they’re giving us all these resources not just to feel sexy, but to actually perform it. They’re giving us something to do with our bodies, to feel sexy, like the character on the screen. So a lot of it has to do with choreography. Also, vulgar lyrics or lyrics with good innuendo have everything to do with becoming an anthem. And we also live for these women’s willingness to claim their space and to be divas and to demand what they want from producers and directors and other actors. I think those are some of the ways in which it happens, but I don’t think there’s anything prescriptive, either.

The other thing that makes a good item number [is]an incredible solo performance. When you’ve got a hundred background dancers, you just disappear into them. When the soloist gets her time on screen, she’s allowed to capture the audience. I think that makes all the difference. The Western ideal of Bollywood being a big group of dancers has taken away the opportunity for solo performances. When I tell people I’m making a video — or even that I’m doing a performance — they’re like, “Yeah! You should do a flash mob–style with LaWhore and all her backup dancers!” But I want to do the mujra. I want them to see me execute a certain kind of performance, not just disappear into this massive [group of]other drag queens.

So that’s next, right?

That’s next.

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That’s a good lead in to talk about “#Sari” and how the YouTube video came about.

As part of Drag Class, we had to sing live. Singing is my worst nightmare. So the night before the performance, my partner was coaching me in singing, and it was super awkward. It was his idea to do “Sari / Sorry.” The lyrics the first time around were, like, how LaWhore was different from the other drag queens, because she’s brown. So I did that performance and people liked it. It stuck in my head, and I thought, “This would make a really good music video.” I brainstormed with my friend, who was like, “This is an opportunity for you to bring up other stuff, as well, that you’re interested in, like colorism, and appropriation all these things that are also current in popular conversations. So that’s how I ended up rewriting the lyrics. Actually, it was totally impromptu that we put Vyjayanthi, “Auntie Cool Jams,” on the track.

Why aunties? Who or what is “aunty”? Is she unabashedly unapologetic? And what does she help you recuperate?

That’s so good. The idea of “aunty” was done in conversation. It was totally improvisational that this auntiness really developed — that [Vyjayanthi and I] had these moments between us. I was like, “Shouldn’t she say something about pleating the sari?” And she was like, “Oh yeah, and she should pin it, as well.” Between us, we knew what an aunty would say. I think this idea of the aunty — as someone who is the repository of culture and who tells us whether we’re doing it right or wrong, who praises and affirms us — also has the potential to open up space for queerness.

Admittedly, I’ve never thought about it in those terms. Could you say more?

Maybe this is my bias from my own experience, but I grew up in Ghana, and every Saturday my aunties would come over to my mom’s house. They would let me sit there and listen to their gossip and their conversations and their melodramas. And there was some serious shit that they were talking about, like how to help a woman who was being abused, how to reach out to her. They were talking about budgets and how to manage a household. They were letting me be there and learn about all this feminine labor. A lot of my own cultural knowledge comes from them. Their permission to let me be there has a lot to do with my own queer and feminist outlooks. They were doing feminist work without ever calling themselves feminists, just by supporting each other. When I end up playing counselor to a lot of my friends in different situations, I think my tendency to do that comes from watching these women do it for each other and holding space for each other.

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What you’re suggesting is a new type of queerness, allyship, or sociality.

We don’t only have to look to queer people for our queer ethics. I think we learn them from other places, as well — from other minoritarian communities. I think aunties are fierce. Even as they are disciplinary. There’s something lovely to being able to pleat a sari properly. There’s a pleasure to seeing it being it done well.

There’s a couple other moments of pleating that matter to me. Today, I was WhatsApping with a friend and she’s like, “Every line Aunty Cool Jams says in that video some aunty has said to me. I have become the pleat-master.” She sent me a picture of her Sabyasachi sari perfectly tied so that the border runs along the front. It’s gorgeous.

Once, this guy shows up at a Jai Ho! party that I was throwing in Chicago and he looks at my sari and says, “Can I retie it for you?” And then, every half hour, he’s like, “I want to retie it and do a different style.” It was amazing. But I was like, “Where did you learn all of this?” And he said, “In Bombay we would have these gay parties and we would all dress up in saris.” So he was learning from his gay aunties. An aunty doesn’t have to be a cis woman. Aunties are people who willingly hold culture and hold space for us to explore it and to live it and to be feminine with each other.

Another time, I was like, “Can someone hold the pleats for me?” while I was tying [a sari]in San Francisco. And someone helped me. I asked him, “Where did you learn to do such even pleats?” He said, “In my temple, we had to dress the Krishna and the Radha.” All these different places in which we learn these skills and these repertoires are transferred among people are very important. So he becomes an aunty to me, but in a very different way, just by being able to do that.

I look back at my Chicago drag and I’m not impressed by it — like, “Ooh, I was sloppy.” I was just white in the face. I didn’t know how to contour properly. But people would come to see my drag. They’d be like, “I can’t wait for your next performance. One, I think I perform well — I can put on a show. But also, I think there’s a desire for drag performance that isn’t the same. And I think brown queens and Asian queens are doing new stuff. There’s room for more in drag performance, for queens that haven’t had space are getting to do. People are excited, they keep asking me for more, and it’s a lot of labor, and I like doing it.

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