Exclusive: Monica Dogra On Her Project For LGBT+, Intentions, And The Controversy That Followed

Posted on July 2, 2015 in LGBTQ, Media, Taboos

By Kanika Katyal:

Singer-actor Monica Dogra, recently let out a ‘call-to-action’ for her new project, Shiver, which aims to appeal to “legislators all over the world to decriminalise all consensual acts of sex regardless of gender identification“. By means of a video and accompanying webpage, she explained that she was seeking to crowdsource funds for a project that will strike at the heart of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which makes homosexuality illegal in India.

Call it an ironic turn of events, if you may, that a campaign aimed at achieving solidarity, sparked off a controversy and was slammed on social media.

In an exclusive interview over email with Youth Ki Awaaz, she talks about her project, her intentions, the controversy that followed and more.


Kanika Katyal (KK): Tell us in detail about your new project “Shiver”. It has sparked off a controversy. Do you think it is justified?

Monica Dogra (MD): Shiver is a one of a kind music video art project, with expanding goals. It is meant to take on the double fold agenda of mainstreaming transgender representation in popular culture and collapse gender binaries that operate around us. Depending on the money we raise, we will either make just a music video, or it will expand to include an installation documentary art piece, or it will expand further to include live performances from the choreographer and dancers hired. The music video uses magic realism and mythical narrative around the divine feminine set in the desert landscapes in Rajasthan using a young boy as a protagonist.

The seeds for Shiver were first laid when I was part of a Live Art installation protesting gender violence alongside a fierce Trans activist Aher Abheena. The project was initiated by an organization called Engendered, a trans-national arts and human rights organization that uses culture to catalyze change. During this participation I saw the kind of disruptions that can be affected when traditional boundaries of art object and the commodity system within which it is circulated as currency are dissolved. Art can be significant in challenging and complicating the hierarchies that prevail in social spaces and are ingrained in culture. In simple words, I saw the effect of having a hijra person in a high fashion outfit lending dignity and elevating an art installation in a gallery situation where trans-visibility is almost nil. This further led up to a project where I recently acted in Rosie Haber’s short film “Relapse”, opposite queer rights activist Casey Legler playing a queer wife to Cole, a character who newly self defines as trans and decides to take hormones.

I assume that our campaign Shiver sparked off a controversy for various reasons. Firstly, perhaps there is an assumption that I am capitalising on a movement, having not engaged with the issues and communities that I am attempting to help/represent. Which is not true, because I’ve worked with the issue of gender my entire life through my art.

In my early concerts with Electro-Rock band Shaa’ir+Func, I have cross-dressed at shows in Mumbai where I have also crowd-surfed. As a South Asian immigrant I have grappled with the notion of being the ‘other’, all my life. If you observe, my lyrics have always dealt with issues of identity, of gender being a performance, of feminist discourse. In my journey of reverse migration to India as a performer, I have continued to think about ideas of belonging and marginalisation.

I have protested the objectification of women and gender violence by being part of a public art intervention by standing for hours on the lawns of the American Centre in Delhi along with sculptor Alex Davis’s STOP installation as part of WAR (Women Art and Resistance), a multidisciplinary arts project. I have seen the power of public art interventions first-hand, alongside other well-known performance artists like Maya Krishna Rao and queer artist Balbir Krishan which was very empowering and created a strong dialogue for change.

monica dogra art exhibition
Monica Dogra as part of Alex Davis’ STOP installation

My conversations with the trans-hijra community have continued over the years, and I was recently invited to speak at the National Hijra Habba organized by the HIV AIDS Alliance and Pehchaan, an organization that does grassroots campaigning with over 250 CBOs across the nation.

These are just some of my work and engagement with community and the issues.

Secondly, this issue of Rs. 50 lakh as budget for the video. There is an overall sentiment of that being an exorbitant amount of money. Anyone who works in mainstream entertainment production will testify that this is untrue. Especially given that we are talking about an international crew, with travel budgets and a high production value. Also, and more importantly, why is it okay to spend tens of crores on a Bollywood fantasy song and dance, but not okay to have a 50 lakh project for a music video on transgender visibility? And who sets this economic bar and value to how much TG representation should be worth? There has been a huge push from the TG – Hijra community for mainstreaming their visibility in media and the entertainment world. All the legislation, the academic discourse has not translated to any changes or shifts in societal attitudes for the Hijra communities in India. Their access to education, health benefits & jobs stay seriously limited. Even within the LGBT movement, there are huge class and economic divides that keep the TG/Hijra movement largely separate and invisibilised.

Because the video is cause-oriented it somehow plays into people’s perceptions that I am privileged and taking advantage of that. But that is not the case, I’m just one of the voices in this global movement for a much needed fight for equality. Yes, I was born in America. But, I have lived in India for nearly 10 years. In America, I endured a fair amount of racism for being Indian. I look Indian, I was raised culturally very Indian. If there are activists and organisations who want to start fundraising campaigns on this issue I am more than happy to support them. As an artist I am open to constructive criticism which helps me improve my work.

KK: Your project aims to act as a catalyst for the LGBTQI+ rights in India. So why not collaborate with Indian artists?

MD: How has this assumption been made that I am not collaborating with Indian artists? The entire casting for dancers, performers, stylists, technicians, light crew etc are Indian. It just so happens that my DOP and choreographer are not. But we are increasingly living in a global world where these distinctions and boxes for nationalist identities are fast dissolving. At least I am part of that tribe.

Ryan Heffington’s choreography is provocative, soul-stirring, and communicates beyond class, race, or demographic. I find him to be one of the most incredible modern choreographers alive today. Carolina Costa, our DOP, has a film at Cannes, and there is no mistake why, she is technically a supreme architect behind the camera. Rosie Haber, as a director, has the ability to make paintings frame by frame, with a languid, melancholic, dripping ache that I find to be so sensitive and exciting. I see no reason not to make quality art with people who are leaders in their field of expertise just because they are not Indian. And our allies and partners are from various communities and organisations. For example: Engendered, The Transnational Arts and Human Rights Organization, which has a history of cultural production work around gender and sexuality in both the US as well as India. Also the Godrej Culture Lab that is a fluid experimental space that cross-pollinates ideas and people to explore what it means to be modern and Indian.

KK: Critics found your language problematic. The whole idea of “fine art” was seen as elitist. But this again leads to the larger debate, according to which art that is not directly occupied at the grass-root level is seen as bourgeois and hence lacking any ‘real’ sentiments. What do you think of the politics of that? Do you think that the avant-garde nature of your project, somewhere threatens to overshadow the cause?

MD: This is the part I understand. I am an artist. I am not an activist in the ways that many people reading and dissecting this project may be. In order to become an activist I have much to learn. We lacked understanding of how careful language must be on issue based crowdfunding campaigns, how delicate with context, and how extremely precise. This is no excuse; language is now being carefully selected and clarified with support from our partners and friends from the LGBT movement. Every true remark questioning the project and asking for clarification is being addressed. I don’t feel the need to completely be transparent with the nature of the project, just because some people are up in arms about the amount of money we are asking for.

Please note, none of the funds are being pocketed by me or the team, in fact, I am fronting funds. I am hoping this doesn’t detract from the only important thing in all of this, which is the issue. At the recent Hijra Habba, I sat on live panels with the Minister of Social Justice and some incredible trans activists from various states. I heard and participated in intense discussions from these very lawmakers, and legislation writers about the importance of the transgender community to be mainstreamed. Though bills have been passed, and there are court dates in place, there are no plans for implementation of these laws. The social stigma around the TG/Hijra community is still too deep and unless we translate the issue into popular culture and conversation, no law can actually become effective.

3rd National Transgender Hijra Habba
3rd National Transgender Hijra Habba

KK: How would you describe the activism in your art?

MD: I touched upon this earlier but, feminist themes have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I play with gender, sexual agency; discuss objectification, love, society, and truth through the lyrics of my songs. I stake claim on my own freedom of expression through my music videos, the production of my live performances, and the conceptualising of my album artworks. I believe that self-loving and respecting one’s self is the most radical thing a human being can do, and struggle with it myself, every day. I’m definitely struggling with it right now.

People who have come to my shows and have met me post, know that I look people in the eyes, soul to soul, and that my desire to build community and build empathy is real. It always has been. I have always tried to use my lyrics as a way to create change and I learn every day. Through this project with the support from various people I want to take a step further.

You just have to step outside your door to understand that the overall culture of our country towards marginalised communities is one of intolerance. With my team and campaign backers, we want to amplify the cause via mainstream. The project features members of the trans community with equal roles, getting paid ethically through this work, collaborating as creative partners.

KK: You’ve always identified yourself as a queer ideal. What does the project hold for you on a personal level?

MD: I see my sexuality as fluid. I sit with myself, and wonder how many of my choices are rooted in truth, and how many are perhaps subconsciously driven by a desire to assimilate, be loved, and fit in. I believe that a society that is inclusive and celebratory of difference is one that I would like my children to live in. Wikipedia says that “Queer is an umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities who are not heterosexual or cisgender.” I don’t relate to the gender experience of many of my hetero sisters. I don’t relate to the confines of sexual orientation labels, therefore I identify as queer.

KK: Sisterhood is an important theme of Shiver. How important is its relevance in the current scenario of feminist discourses in India and worldwide?

MD: I can only speak on what I know. “Sisterhood”, is taken from a lyric of the song… which says,
The sisterhood of the alone-ones,
the ones who know what it means
to create the loneliness that you dream to be free of,
because it offers you control.

When I write, I often just open the tap and let it all pour out. I remember what I was feeling at the time of writing this. Often, we find women targeting women in cruel and misogynistic ways worse than even a man could/would. There is a legacy, world-wide, of the admonishment of the feminine. Men are encouraged to ignore their inner feminine. There are many layers to this. Marginalised groups, in order to survive, become insular, protective, and are slow to integrate, fearing misunderstanding, fearing being hurt. That is why, the independent scene in India is very slow to acknowledge something positive in Bollywood.

Through Shiver we’d like to highlight the experience of the feminine, not the external forms. I still hold this to be self-evident, that we are all human, we all want love, we all want a place in society, we all want dignity, we all want self-respect, and all of these things are our birth rights. How this plays out in feminist discourse world-wide, I simply do not know. I’m an artist. I go about making art. I am much simpler than many think.