Ishtyle: Accenting Gay Indian Nightlife. Kareem Khubchandani. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020.
Kareem Khubchandani’s Ishtyle is an innovative and refreshing critical survey of gay Indian nightlife cultures in diaspora that anchors its theoretical trajectory around the monograph’s title. The book’s originality is announced from its very start, when readers encounter the front matter. The Acknowledgments section is cleverly organized as a playlist of songs that correlate to those who have helped to shape the book’s contents, thus immediately positing readers into a nostalgic past wherein we ourselves used to make mix tapes for friends and lovers.
In the Preface, Khubchandani proclaims, “I fucking love drag queens…Drag artists assemble cultural meanings of race, gender, and class on their bodies, relocating us to worlds beyond the club. They make apparent tools – dress, makeup, hairstyle, body modification, comportment, gesture, pose – we can use on and off the dance floor, in and out of the club, to reinvent ourselves, our worlds. Drag offers respite from the night, giving us instruction, emplacement, and orientation in the darkness and din” (xiii). He further details that, years later, in the geographical and untimely “absence of drag, I turned to social dance floors to examine danced styles, what I call ‘drag labor,’ that engendered the socialities described above” (xiv). These ruminations coalesce around the author’s diverse experiences and field work at the Desilicious dance parties in New York City as well as Bollywood cultures, and, as such, the book is an important mash-up between gay cultural studies and South Asian diasporic studies.
Khubchandani then gets to the heart of his scholarly intentions: “I am eschewing identity politics, attending instead to aesthetics and performance, to ask: what styles are given value; what are the politics, histories, and circulations of these styles; how do people perform in line with and against dominant stylistic codes; what new forms of relation are made when performances grind against the dominant aesthetics of nightlife?” (xxiii). Khubchandani’s deviation from identity politics, a realm wherein hegemonic queer cultural studies wallow, is an exciting one as it seeks to empower practice over representation while also eschewing the racism, sexism, classism, and queerphobia that often attend, and unintentionally nourish, that critical realm.
Rather, Khubchandani’s methodology presents an intersectional heuristic that demands attention to style and performance over appearance and dress, thus flinging the very real materiality of identity politics into kinetic moments that transform cultural meanings with every second. To this end, the author defines the meaning of “Ishtyle” as: “a playful and common South Asian (more particularly North Indian, and even more specifically Bombay) accenting of the English word ‘style’… I mobilize Ishtyle to work beyond its vernacular use and serve as shorthand for ‘accented style.’ Thinking broadly with accents allows me to analyze differences across borders and scales, but also to ask how brown bodies, regardless of cultural performance, are rendered accents” (6). Framing the embodied critical and political stakes of his research, he concludes, “I developed new intimacies with places I already called home, made new friends, and fell in love several times over. Nightlife, proximal to and imbricated in spaces of work, home, protest, and violence, feels present all the time” (27).
To this end, the author organizes Ishtyle into three parts, which each contain two chapters. The first part’s two chapters take place and seize space in India’s tech hub, Bangalore. The first chapter, “BInaryC0des: Undoing Dichotomies at Heatwave,” aims to demonstrate how attendees to Heatwave parties effectively resist binary identities that codify these parties in India’s “Silicon Valley.” Rather than defaulting to Western aesthetics (white, gay, cisgender, masculine, and middle-upper class), attendees resist, argues Khubchandani, corporatized gay culture in favor of accented stylistics of queer nightlife cultures. Its second chapter, “Dancing Against the Law: Critical Moves in Pub City,” focuses on legal restrictions of gay nightlife in Bangalore constellated around the postcolonial country’s notorious, Victorian-era Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. This chapter speaks to the ways in which women, trans people, and other queer folx practice ishtyle despite the city’s 2006-2014 ban on social dance – exploring how these ishtyle agents of queerness “dance” around the law.
Part II’s two chapters: — “Desiring Desis: Race, Migration, and Markets in Boystown” and “Slumdogs and Big Chicks: Unsettling Orientations at Jai Ho!” — shifts Khubchandani’s ruminations on ishtyle to the gay environs of Chicago in the United States. Chapter three thus examines the LGBTQI+ neighborhood of Boystown as a marketplace for desi bodies where white gay men view them as ornaments for homonormative whiteness. Leveraging compelling interviews and field research, Khubchandani apprises readers on how “(c)olonial legacies have affixed race, gender, sexuality, linking hyperfemininity and Asiannness, hypermasculinity and Blackness, and passion and Latinidad;” this brings the gay desi male’s “brown migrant body into a kind of good gay gender” (85). In the fourth chapter, the author demonstrates accented cultural elements of Trikone-Chicago (a nationwide, pro-LGBTQI+ South Asian organization), which hosts a quarterly Bollywood dance party called Jai Ho! that definitively challenges the overt orientalism and subtle white supremacy of commercial bars and clubs.
Part III examines nightlife choreographies as global accentuations that undergird resistant practices Khubchandani described in Bangalore and Chicago earlier. Yet the author extends analysis by delving into fieldwork that centers, in Chapter five, interviewees’ memories of nightlife, childhood, and, cumulatively, different articulations of “home” and ishtyle as cultural strategies of homemaking. This homemaking occurs in the context of popular Bollywood song-and-dance numbers like those of Hindi film sirens Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit. Chapter six critically ruminates on ishtyle, analyzed through the intersectionality of class, caste, region, and, of course, gender and sexuality. Here, Khubchandani traces dappankoothu music and dance from Dalit communities, threading them through Tamil films and into a queer dance party called Koothnytz— wherein dappankoothu rejects both hetero and homonormative “respectability” by subverting propriety as another strategy of ishtyle.
An award-winning volume, Ishtyle: Accenting Gay Indian Nightlife is as provocative as the cultural artifacts and films it analyses. The book is at once a glamourous explosion of queer critical cultural analysis that, like a pink-powdered Holi party, at the same time remains down to earth and exceptionally honest, based in Khubchandani’s painstaking field work and ethnographic recordings. Khubchandani has forged a fabulous, compelling comparative study of queer Indian subcultures that deploy ishtyle to subvert the normalized ways in which colonialist and white supremacist gay culture fetishizes Black and Brown bodies, as well as the English language, while lording over them in consumer cultures. While these consumer cultures are staged as celebratory steps towards gay visibility, Khubchandani convincingly urges readers to recognize that any study of non-white, contemporary queer culture is incomplete without a sober reckoning of ishtyle today. This study will be formative for students, teachers, cultural analysists, South Asianists, and general readers alike for the ways in which it encourages us to locate the inflected accents that reimagine ourselves and the daily environs that surround us.
Rahul K Gairola