12 DAYS OF FREEDOM IN 32 YEARS!

It’s hard to believe that a month has passed already since our Indian friends from Rainbow Voices Mumbai arrived on our shores and created a rainbow rollercoaster of excitement, pride, and amazing memories for us all. RVM’s Ashish describes his experience… 
July 6th, 2017 marked in my calendar is one of the most memorable days of my 32 years of life. The first time ever I flew across oceans and lands so far beyond my reach to explore freedom and equality. I had never thought this back in July 2016, that my next summer would be full of excitement, learning and love.
It was conceived when the Pink Singers came to India in January 2017 for Mumbai Pride and our ‘We Shall Overcome’ concert, to support Rainbow Voices Mumbai and the Indian LGBT community to fight for our rights. In January, we mingled, loved, and sang together to a packed audience at the NCPA theatre in Mumbai. The concert was a medium to create awareness and educate people about the hurdles we face in India due to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (which criminalises homosexual activity, introduced under British Rule in 1860). It was one mammoth task for a choir as young as ours to host Europe’s longest running community choir; we managed it successfully and learnt quite a few lessons in organising a standalone concert, which now seems to be a permanent part of the Mumbai Pride Calendar.
We were high on emotions and warmth extended by the Pink Singers and equally mesmerised with the musical abilities of the choir. We were amazed how spot on, entertaining and thoroughly convincing they were with the message they brought with them. I still remember Murray Hipkin, the Musical Director saying, “We have not come to fix anything; probably we can’t fix anything for you, but what we can do is to support you in all possible ways to revert section 377.”
The words were more soothing and actions were even more, when after the concert the Chair of the Pink Singers – affectionately known as ‘Cher’ – Simon Pearson, made the announcement of inviting Rainbow Voices Mumbai to London Pride and to take part in their summer concert. We were overwhelmed with the gesture and yet a bit lost with things that needed to be done! Constant encouragement and successful fundraising by the Pink Singers made the impossible possible for 10 of us (sadly the other eight couldn’t make it because of visa issues!).

Ashish & ‘Cher’

With hopes high and dreams in our eyes, we flew to the land of freedom and equality. The tour started with each of us being hosted by a few of the Pink Singers, which gave us the chance to see and learn how independent lives of gay men and women are, in contrast to India – where we don’t choose to live alone even if we are grown up enough to be married off!
On arrival, my host Simon came to the terminal to receive me, despite his fractured ankle. This gesture of his shows how dear and encouraging was their approach to us. It was my first international trip and it seemed to me a different world: new weather, time zones, people, culture and systems; I was in awe of every little thing I saw. First what struck me was platform 9¾ at Kings Cross! Being a Potterhead, I was enthralled to see it. As I walked the streets with Simon I saw a Pride flag along with the British Flag waving with pride in the front of the British Library – this reaffirmed my belief that equality and freedom are not merely words here, they actually mean it.

Exploring London from the London Eye

My dear friend Hsien met me and we were off to Canary Wharf for a lovely lunch, but before that the Thames Clipper just wowed me! Like a kid in a candy store I was in love with the skyline and monuments on both the side of the river, clicking pictures and noticing the P-flag everywhere we went. A new city, new day,  even jet-lag couldn’t deter my spirits and we explored a few parts of the Naval College and Greenwich.
I believe that destiny had bigger plans for us: we never had heard about anything as big as London Pride and we all were excited to take part. We vogued in style with our Rainbow t-shirts, painted ourselves with rainbows and were ready for the world’s biggest party. As we were waiting for the Pride march to begin I saw people from all walks of life, races, professions and ages joining this mega event. We have never seen such a phenomenon back home; instead we are judged by the people for gathering and walking the Pride march in Mumbai.

London Pride 2017

As we marched up to Trafalgar Square, we saw people waving, cheering us on and even calling for a hug from the other side of the barricades. Such love, acceptance and cheer filled all of us with positivity and re-affirmed that we are walking on the right path to attain freedom and equality for all of us. Then came the moment to go on the Pride main stage where we were to perform to the largest crowd we have ever performed in front of. The moment I addressed the crowds with ‘Namaste’, a huge cheer and ‘Namaste’ I heard back, and the crowd was moved with our rendition of ‘We Shall Overcome’ in English and Hindi. I could see a few in tears when they learned that section 377 criminalizes homosexual activities in India. I think, I was nervous but I knew this was the only time I could talk to London as a city and made sure that I spoke right and conveyed the purpose of our visit.
London has different colours during pride and our friends the Pink Singers made sure we got the best of London and also that we got opportunities to meet the ones who had supported our trip  such as eBay. It was great interacting with the eBay office and we are indebted to them for their support very much.
The city charmed me to the core, whether it was architecture, culture, Soho – the night life for gays was amazing! I watched my first musical ever and my first drag show here in London. The experiences are still sinking in for me and I am unable to really believe that something so surreal happened to me. As we explored, Brighton, Richmond and the city of London, we had so many memorable times with the Pink Singers – singing in parks, at house parties and a lot more.
I had unknowingly become the spokesperson of the choir. I had previous experience of talking to media back home but that was for work. I was told that I was crisp in front of camera and this boosted my confidence even more. In the media coverage – though I am not out as a gay man in India – I did not hide my identity. This is because I got encouragement in my week’s exposure to London and its acceptance; the unwavering support from the Pink Singers filled me with a “come what may” attitude and I put my best foot forward to be heard on all possible platforms. 
The support continued even on the concert stage, when the audience gave the 12 of us a standing ovation before we even started.
I have taken back home  a lot of inspiration, strength, and conviction in what we do and yes, more purpose to the music we do. My hosts Simon and James were the coolest ones and I miss those lanes and bylanes of London… With a dream to come back, I sign off from India!

Photo credit: Jess Rowbottom

Mumbai Musings: part 4

Our fourth and final India blog comes to you from another Pinkie. Tenor Hsien put in MANY hours to make this trip happen, from organising seminars, liaising with the Rainbow Voices Mumbai team, and branding the whole project to handling the vast majority of the logistics! (We think he must have made a clone of himself to have achieved all that he did…). Anyway, this is what the experience meant to him. 

We live in a time where forces are trying to separate us, where difference is something to be feared rather than celebrated, and where populism has thrown up barriers between communities both within and without national borders. When, two years ago, the Pink Singers first started planning our trip to India to sing with Rainbow Voices Mumbai, India’s first LGBT choir, we had no idea that the world would change as much as it has, nor could we have predicted that the need for our collaboration would have been as great.

It is a truism that music brings people together, and an international choir collaboration is nothing new, but when two choirs identify as LGBT and perform jointly in a country where being gay is still criminalized, the added dimension creates the opportunity to not only learn about how culture, society and history affect each other’s LGBT experience, but also explore common ground.

The first formal event of the week sought to both analyse this and serve as an ice-breaker, and was a seminar at the American Consulate General in Mumbai. The topic of discussion, “LGBT representation in the arts”, was timely given the partial coming out in the recently published memoirs of Karan Johar, a famous Bollywood actor. While much of the discussion naturally focused on community arts and, in particular, choirs, we had the privilege to be joined by the director Onir whose ground-breaking film “My Brother Nikhil” continues to have ramifications on the film industry today. He gave us a candid insight into the tension between his own coming out and the challenge of carving a career without labels for himself.

 Panelists included representatives from the Pink Singers and Rainbow Voices, as well as director, Onir (seated fourth from left).

It served as a springboard for members of both choirs to discuss their own experiences. Indeed, what the two choirs shared with each other – our stories of coming out, of family pressures, of first dates, of singing in choirs – showed that our similarities were far greater than any differences between us. Judging by how the conversations flowed into dinner and a late night karaoke, there is a strength in the knowledge that we are not alone, and that out there, there is a community of singers just like us.

The joint ”We Shall Overcome” concert at the prestigious National Centre for the Performing Arts Mumbai was an emotional rollercoaster for many of us precisely because of this: in the context of these personal testimonies, every song sung by both choirs took on an added significance. When, as our finale, we sang an a capella version of “We Shall Overcome” together in English and Hindi, it was a moving show of defiance and solidarity from which I could not hold back my tears.

My personal highlight of the whole weekend, however, was marching side-by-side with Rainbow Voices Mumbai at Queer Azaadi Mumbai (Mumbai Pride). It was a raucous, colourful march full of energetic dancing, the sound of drums and singing, but at its core it was also a protest with hand drawn placards and strident chants of Azaadi! (Freedom!), reminding curious onlookers that this was very much a demonstration.

I have now returned to the UK with fantastic memories, newfound friends, a much deeper understanding of the challenges the LGBT community faces there, and a strong desire to help Rainbow Voices Mumbai in their twin fights against Section 377 and for social acceptance. It has also made me appreciate that I cannot take any of my liberties for granted: were it not for the quirk of fate which led me to be born in the right place at the right time, my life could have been very different. It makes all the divisions we seen being artificially created around us, all the more irrelevant. I can’t wait to see Rainbow Voices Mumbai again when they come to London this summer for Pride in London.

We’re still fundraising to bring Rainbow Voices Mumbai to the UK, to see what it’s like to march in a Pride parade where everyone can be themselves and live without fear. We’ve raised over £5,000 already, thanks to our supporters’ generosity. We need to double this to bring every member of RVM here in July. Can you help us reach our goal? Donate via our website www.pinksingers.co.uk/india2017 or email chair@pinksingers.co.uk for more information.

Mumbai Musings: part 3

In the third of our blog posts about the Pink Singers’ India project, Rainbow Voices Mumbai member Aniruddha tells us about meeting the Pink Singers for the first time, making friends and feeling uplifted in the battle against Section 377, the law which criminalises homosexuality in India.

At the Kashish Film Festival 2016, during the closing ceremony Rainbow Voices Mumbai were on stage, performing with lots of energy and beautiful songs. After the performance Vinodh Philip announced that the Pink Singers from London would be coming to India to perform with the choir. Sitting in the audience I was jealously thinking, ‘how lucky they are to be able to perform with the Pink Singers’. Little did I know what destiny had planned for me…

Two months down the line there I was sitting at the RVM’s audition session and by the end of the day I was a part of the choir! Every Sunday, we rehearse and our teacher David Williamson makes sure each one of us hits the right note, at the right time, and in the right pitch. Every night, I’ve been watching YouTube videos of the Pink Singers and thinking “they are really good!”

So 2016 ended and with the beginning of 2017, the month of our concert arrived, called “We Shall Overcome”, referring to the battle every queer person in India faces to be accepted. Rehearsals were in full swing with all the other arrangements going on around it; organising the venue, licences, costumes, the programme and lots of fundraising!

We finally got to meet the Pinkies on the 25 January 2017. It was 5.30pm at the American Consulate library when the door opened and the Pink Singers entered. Our eyes saw the colours of a rainbow, every handshake felt like a promise to support us in this battle for freedom, every hello and hi was saying ‘I am here for you’.

As I looked around the room the Pink Singers and RVM sat with each other. No barriers, no walls, no difference of colour, caste, religion and language. Suddenly from you and me, we became us.

RVM planned a Karaoke night for the Pinkies and what a night it turned out to be! Every trace of tiredness, jet-lag and fatigue was gone. We sang, we danced, we ate, we drank and raised our glasses to toast the beginning of a new friendship and collaboration.

 Getting to know you.. RVM were fantastic hosts and became firm friends during the trip. 🙂

Next day, rehearsals began and we learned the choreography for our joint song, “Born This Way”, by Lady Gaga. We performed in front of the Pinkies and they performed for us. We were learning so much from them. Later we went for dinner together to eat delicious Indian food. We spoke to each other about our lives, loves, careers, hobbies and of course, lots of gossip! It made us feel that although we are from different countries we’re all so similar. We have so many of the same dreams, hopes and aspirations.

Then D-day arrived at the National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai. The Pinkies were a stunning vision in all black and each wearing a pink rose. RVM wore black pants, Nehru jackets and rainbow coloured shirts.

RVM took to the stage with a huge round of applause. Standing there we saw an auditorium full of people known and unknown to us. Each song was followed by thunderous applause and it just made us more confident and happy as the night went on. We sang songs of hope, happiness, traditional songs, and a fun Bollywood number.

Next the Pinkies took to the stage and took everyone’s attention. Every song and every move they made was flawless and it was sheer magic to watch them perform. I felt like I was listening to a movie soundtrack. Truly inspiring. 🙂

Then for the grand finale, the Pinkies and RVM collaborated to sing “Jai Ho”, “Born This Way” and “We Shall Overcome”. It was no longer two choirs, it was one community, singing in one voice and spreading the message “all for one and one for all”.  We felt united in that moment.

The concert ended with seemingly non-stop applause and cheering echoed around the theatre. We met the audience, took so many photographs and felt just like celebrities! We felt accepted as we declared to the world, “I was born this way and I am not ashamed”.

The following day was our Pride March – “Queer Azaadi” – which means Queer Freedom. The choirs marched together with heads held high and singing as we went. Pride in India is a protest against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalises homosexuality. This is not just a legal battle; we are up against a very strong and deep rooted social, religious, political and personal prejudice. It’s a tough battle and we are ready. This magical, musical pink touch of the Pink Singers gave us a new boost, a new momentum and new courage to fight.

So now that we are back in our daily lives, we at least know we have a new group of friends in a far off land silently praying, wishing and cheering for us. We shall overcome.

We love you all Pinkies and see you soon! 

Aniruddha xoxo

We’re still fundraising to bring Rainbow Voices Mumbai to the UK, to see what it’s like to march in a Pride parade where everyone can be themselves and live without fear. We’ve raised over £5,000 already, thanks to our supporters’ generosity. We need to double this to bring every member of RVM here in July. Can you help us reach our goal? Donate via our website www.pinksingers.co.uk/india2017 or email chair@pinksingers.co.uk for more information.

Mumbai Musings: part 2

‘There’s a first time for…. more than one thing.’

Joining the Pinkies on our recent trip to India was a whirlwind experience of ‘firsts’ for newbie Claire – from taking to the mic in front of a large crowd to marching en masse in her first ever Pride. Here she shares these adventures and more… 

At the end of January, a group of over 40 members of the Pink Singers arrived in Mumbai to show support to Rainbow Voices Mumbai, India’s first LGBT choir. For me this was an adventure of a lifetime: I’m in my late 40s (ok, I’m 50 this year) and this trip was the first time I had left the UK in over 18 years. Also, as someone who – due to a whole series of circumstances – was late coming out, Mumbai Pride would be my very first Pride March!

I cannot say what I was expecting, other than possible heat stroke and the need for Imodium! I found myself in a busy city of contrasts: beautiful buildings alongside slum areas; colours and flavours seemed brighter and more intense; people were curious, but friendly (eye contact in a city…). After living so long in London, this was so refreshing. I learned that to cross a road, you had to treat it as a champion’s quest, and that bartering was not only expected, but fun to do. 

Taking part in the Queer Azaadi Mumbai March was one of the best experiences I have ever had. It was a privilege to be able to walk alongside people from the Indian LGBTQ+ community who cannot openly live the lives they wish to, and to show solidarity and support in their fight to overturn Section 377. I am now looking forward to taking part in London Pride, where I hope some of our friends from Rainbow Voices Mumbai will be marching alongside us. 

I am an introvert. I find it hard to show it when I’m happy; smiles I feel on the inside rarely show on my face. I also find crowds difficult, I’m not good at small talk, although I’m a great listener. I have social anxiety and being the centre of attention can be a real problem.

So… when Simon, our Chair, said, ‘Claire, I’d like to ask you something but it’s ok to say no’, and then went on to ask whether I would speak at the concert in between songs, my brain screamed, ‘NO!’, but I heard myself calmly agree. And so, the next evening, I found myself speaking in front of a crowd for the first time. 🙂

Claire making her moving speech during the ‘We Shall Overcome’ concert

Singing with and listening to the members of Rainbow Voices Mumbai was truly uplifting. Being able to spend time singing, listening, talking, eating and drinking together, as well as sharing stories and experiences made me realise that although we live many miles apart, we can still find common ground.  

Being part of a choir gives us a shared understanding. When we sing together, that’s when the magic happens. Not only is singing therapeutic, joining together as a group provides a sense of belonging. This is something I shared during the concert: the knowledge that members of the choir have become friends and more than that, my family and support group. A wise man once said, “We are living in divisive times, where forces seek to drive wedges between us. Long may music and these experiences we share bring us together.” (Tenor, Hsien Chew, Facebook posting, 2017). 

Next up, the Pinkies plan to bring Rainbow Voices to London! We can’t wait to perform with them again and plan for them to join us at our next concert at Cadogan Hall on 15th July. But we need funds to help make this dream a reality! If you can help bring this wonderful choir to London (you can even come to watch them perform!) you can donate through our website www.pinksingers.co.uk/india2017  or contact chair@pinksingers.co.uk for more information.

Mumbai Musings: part 1

Following the Pink Singers’ recent trip to India, we’re bringing you not one, not two, but LOADS of blogs to tell you all about the amazing time we had – both from our perspective and Rainbow Voices Mumbai (RVM). First up, here’s a piece from RVM’s  Siddhy, reflecting on his experience with the Pinkies.

“The first time I saw the Pink Singers, four of us from Rainbow Voices were carrying a piano, for our first event together at the American Consulate. We waved at them and then met each other mutedly as the event was about to begin. The Pinkies took to stage and joyously sang Nat King Cole’s ‘L-O-V-E’. I was stunned into happy tears. The playful, innocent choreography coming through the most age-diverse white crowd I’ve ever seen – and immediately fell for – pushed me to serious indie-movie sobbing.

Siddhy with Tracey & Louise

One person from Rainbow Voices was in each taxi we took to reach the next place, to ensure our guests got there safely. It was an hour-long ride and by the time we reached the restaurant, Louise, Tracey, Giancarlo and I had traded coming-out stories and shared our professional lives. Giancarlo had switched vocations; Tracey recently quit her job to go travelling; Louise is freelancing fancy. All friends now, we went in, karaoke’d, bought each other drinks and danced.

During the pre-concert rehearsal the next evening, the Pinkies sang – among other lovely songs – Ryan Amador’s ‘Define Me’: a song about celebrating who you are and being free to love who you want. I’ve seen them perform it twice and each time I smile, feeling comforted.

Afterwards, over cheese garlic naans, we gabbed all through the night. I saw gay-gay and les-b-honest lesbian couples all around me like exquisite people that just stepped out from a novel. Tanya was showing me pictures of her gay daughter and nephew. Alessandro was gushing over his daughter while we cooed and aaw-ed, and for a moment I felt like my dreams were plausible and my hopes valid.

Finale of the We Shall Overcome concert

Our ‘We Shall Overcome’ concert was moving, and tinged with flashes of disbelief that we were performing at the prestigious National Centre for Performing Arts! Manasie, our ‘Ms Bisexuale’, turned 24 that night and the entire bar witnessed spontaneous performances from the Pinkies, all at their respective tables, some standing cheering, some holding Manasie’s hand. Like Aditya said, “it was so Pitch Perfect”. The bar management begged us to finally leave and everybody hugged everyone goodnight.

We walked together in the Pride March the next day, beaming at the crowds, dancing to drums and taking pictures. At the farewell party, we confessed gratitude, marvel and a million other things.

It is soothing to imagine those who’re free, liberating to meet them.

Sunday rehearsals with Rainbow Voices really help me – I can turn off autopilot and be my real self. I’ve made good friends who’re all colourful, compassionate people. We can breathe out.

The Pinkies crossed the ocean to high-five and greet us like visiting family. They reminded us of the sublime words of John Mayer and Katy Perry, ‘You love who you love who you love’.

Next up, the Pinkies plan to bring Rainbow Voices to London! We can’t wait to perform with them again and plan for them to join us at our next concert at Cadogan Hall on 15th July. But we need funds to help make this dream a reality! If you can help bring this wonderful choir to London (you can even come to watch them perform!) you can donate through our website www.pinksingers.co.uk/india2017  or contact chair@pinksingers.co.uk for more information.