The Dancing Queens

Through Fulbright Fellowships, Jeff Roy explores the artistic expression and identity politics of Mumbai’s LGBTQ communities.

By Michael Gallant

January 2020

The Dancing Queens

Jeff Roy (right) works with the chair of the Dancing Queens troupe for his Fulbright Fellowship project. Photograph courtesy Jeff Roy

For many of India’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, hijra, intersex, ally, non-binary and other gender/sexual nonconforming individuals (LGBTQHIA+), life has changed dramatically in different ways over the past 10 years, says Jeff Roy. It’s an exciting yet complicated period of change, something that the American scholar wanted to witness and understand firsthand. Roy is an assistant professor in the Department of Liberal Studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

Over the last decade, the LGBTQ activist movement has been “gaining speed and growing in numbers,” said Roy in an mtvU interview. His work focuses on the politics and performance of queer, transgender and hijra identity formations at the intersections of race, class, caste and religion in South Asia.

As a scholar and researcher, Roy specializes in ethnomusicology, film and media research, gender and sexuality studies, and more. He is also an accomplished classical violinist in both Western and Indian traditions and a filmmaker. His writings appear in scholarly journals like Ethnomusicology, MUSICultures, QED, Asian Music, Transgender Studies Quarterly, World Policy Journal, as well as the books, “Remapping Sound Studies in the Global South” and “Queering the Field: Sounding Out Ethnomusicology.” He has also produced, directed and edited seven documentary film projects with community collaborators and production support from Fulbright-mtvU and Fulbright-Hays, Film Independent, Creative Capital, Godrej India Culture Lab, Solaris Pictures and the India HIV/AIDS Alliance. In 2012, Roy won a Fulbright-mtvU Fellowship—a program that supports projects on an aspect of international contemporary or popular music as a force of cultural expression, activism, learning and beyond—to spend a year in Mumbai.

Roy’s grant-winning project featured the creation of a documentary about “how music and dance within Mumbai’s LGBTQ communities help empower and strengthen their individual and collective voices,” he wrote in a blog post for the Godrej India Culture Lab. Roy worked with several queer, transgender and hijra music and dance practitioners. In many parts of India, hijras are commonly referred to as “third gender.”

Despite negative stereotypes in the media and public discourse, the LGBTQ and hijra communities are now “defying once-held beliefs and superstitions about queerness through the practice of newly emerging music and dance, as well as the presentation of more traditional art forms in new performance contexts,” wrote Roy in the blog.

In practice, this means changes of music and dance performed by LGBTQ and hijra individuals, which synthesize elements of current Bollywood, Western pop and rock music, and classical and folk Indian traditions. These performances are shared during concerts, gatherings, protests and religious rituals alike, Roy wrote, “simultaneously contesting and reaffirming [the artistes’ and communities’] marginalized status within mainstream Indian society.”

During his Fulbright year, Roy worked closely with LGBTQ and hijra performers, documenting their art and filming their process. One resulting video shows Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, a harmonium player and activist, preparing and presenting an inclusive concert that sought to raise awareness surrounding both HIV/AIDS and the disappearance of classical Indian music forms. A second video showcases the Dancing Queens dance troupe, which includes many hijras and gay men, as they combine art and activism in preparation for a major public performance.

Roy’s fascination with the LGBTQ and hijra art didn’t end with the conclusion of his Fulbright-mtvU program. In 2014, he received a second Fulbright grant, the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Abroad award, to return to the Godrej India Culture Lab in Mumbai and continue his research. In 2015, his work culminated in a musical performance and screening of his documentary, “The Dancing Queens: A Celebration of India’s Transgender Communities.” The event gained widespread attention. It was the first time a transgender performance ensemble took the stage at a major Indian corporate campus.

Roy feels grateful for the opportunities offered by the Fulbright Fellowships and “humbled to belong to such a vibrant and talented community of students, scholars, artists and citizens of the world.” He adds that the connections he forged during the fellowships continue to inspire him and inform the work he does today. “My collaborators and I were able to accomplish a lot of meaningful work together,” says Roy. “We’re incredibly thankful for the opportunities, support and assistance we received along the way.”

Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.


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