Tattooed, wild and proudly out of the closet, this DJ brings a sexual spark to the Indian nightlife, says Poorva Rajaram
FROM A purely interior design point of view, DJ Ma Faiza’s duplex apartment in Pune is nuts. The living room has two 15 ft high mirrors, the leather sofa has a huge rainbow-coloured dhurrie strewn over it, CDs and books line the wall, light filters in through fine-silk spectrum curtains and comically oversized wine-bottles double up as lighting implements. Then there are the posters from gigs gone by; Ma Faiza the tattooed lesbian menacingly flexing her muscles, and Ma Faiza with make-up and a burlesque top hat. There are also some off-duty pictures of Ma Faiza with her family. After two hours of conversation, the fog lifts; the house design is not that nuts. It is mystifyingly coherent, and so is she.
Brand Ma Faiza is doing well for itself. She has been playing in Ibiza for the past nine years and Berlin for the past 10. She was recently voted India’s favourite electronica DJ (poll conducted by myfavdj.com), and judging by the demand for her to play in clubs, her refusal to play Bollywood or pop music has takers. She is just beginning to gain footing as a queer icon. When we met, she was about to jet off to Goa in a few hours to play for a crowd of 3,000 in Club Fresh, Candolim.
Expectedly, she gets to spend very little time at home with her cat Tiger (“I didn’t name her”), a few days every month at most. After Goa, she is headed to Bengaluru and Delhi and then Bengaluru again, and a month later, she’ll be off on another tour of Europe. In her spare day in Pune, she is desperately trying to get hold of a doctor to treat her ear infection. DJing at this level is a night job that drags unromantically into the day.
Yet, the 41-year-old Faiza is proof that the increasingly white-collar nightlife industry is not immune to a distilled blast of cool. Amidst the measly overlap between the nightlife industry and genuinely transgressive lifestyles, Ma Faiza stands out brightly as a creature of the night. In a very Moulin Rouge sense. At the age of 23, she came to India from London in 1993, on a journey of self-discovery. Goa proved a kind entry point for someone as out of the closet as Faiza. She found her tribe, partied with them — the parties usually lasted days. “We were discovering who we were and our boundaries”.
Part of the self-discovery occurred through music. Faiza, deeply disgruntled with the outdated music tapes on offer in Goa (“The music was poo”), started making her own mixed tapes. Before she came to India, she was deeply influenced by the romantic pop of the ’80s: Madonna, Depeche Mode and Spandau Ballet. She realised the heavy demand for well-chosen music from the West and began selling her tapes at boutiques, shacks, restaurants and the Wednesday flea market.
Soon, her tapes were being sold in Pune, Mumbai and Bengaluru. She was invited to play her music at parties, and began DJing with tapes. In 1998, someone asked her to play at a commercial event in Pune. She made Rs 3,000. “I was like, wow, they think I’m a DJ”. She didn’t officially label herself one until 2001. “I was a Goa hippie, now I’ve become a more chic Goa hippie, from dreadlocks and tie-dyed tops to other things. I still have the values though.”
There is a kernel of hippiness in Faiza’s music. It’s oddly relaxing, full of trippy melodic overlays and possesses a time-warp integrity normally associated with hippiedom. Her music wouldn’t work standalone though — Faiza is perhaps the most theatrical DJ you’ll see. “I see it more as a seduction, it’s a meeting of energies, probably a very hippie outlook.” Broadly speaking, DJs come in two kinds. Those who turn themselves over to topicality — style or content — and those who steadfastly stay unaffected and retain total musical control. As the latter, Faiza plays electronica that traverses “chill-out, easy listening, psychedelic trance, techno and progressive house”. And even though she likes the organic sounds percussion and voice, there is nothing overtly Indian about her music. It is mercifully free of ancient culture remixes.
Ma Faiza is a blast of cool. In the white-collar nightlife industry she stands out like a Moulin Rouge creature of the night
In Europe, electronic music that is not played by David Guetta or DJ Tiesto, is the guarded domain of pop-hating, sellout- weary, bass-line calculating enthusiasts. Faiza and some of her favourite Indian artists, Jalebee Cartel and Midival Punditz, are carving out an artistically and commercially autonomous space for Electronic Dance Music (EDM) in India, but it hasn’t attained the splendour of vibrant sub-culture. According to her, this is partly because “DJing is a new industry, unlike prostitution. It’s only 20 years old even in the West”. She speaks nostalgically of the anti-establishment electronic music community she met in the ’90s. In India, though, a Ma Faiza can still be friends with a Nikhil Chinapa.
FOR ALL the genuine opportunities to emotionally blank out and get high provided by the nightlife industry, there is a dispiriting flipside. Being a professional DJ has an increasingly administrative and marketing-driven side to it. Faiza has to employ a tour manager. Add to that the looming threat of government interference in alcohol licensing and night curfews. Time deadlines seem to seriously curtail the amount of escapism on offer.
Faiza acknowledges the existence of “noise issues, traffic issues, environmental issues and moral judgements” but sees no reason why solutions can’t be reached. “The people who make these decisions are fat men with moustaches who eat butter chicken”. She has an increasingly “love-hate relationship with India”. Taking a peek into Faiza’s hectic life, you sense that for high-octane party-goers as well as DJs, fatigue and partying always tumble together in an uncomfortably tight rhythm (a fact of life the movie Shaitan thought you didn’t know).
Faiza’s grandfather left India for Tanzania a 100 years ago, and that is where she was born. She moved to London when she was 11-months-old. She never felt very Indian, and was the only Asian among 1,800 kids in her school. Her father, a lawyer, and her mother had to face a headstrong child. “I was tattooed, pierced, gay, and quite out with everybody. I couldn’t be this way if I’d grown up in India”. Faiza actively took part in a queer sub-culture full of marches, meetings and movie screenings. She was part of the Southall Black Sisters when they took up Kiranjit Ahluwalia’s case in 1989.
Oddly enough, the queer community in India is only just finding out about Faiza’s sexual orientation. She has decided to throw her own wild queer parties. The first edition of her Queer Nights party, held in Mumbai, had 700 guests, drag performances, stand-up comedy and free condoms for all those who attended. “I’m so surprised I never got booked to play at any queer parties all these years. Anybody who knows anything about Ma Faiza, knows that she f**ks girls.