I have been called “half-lesbian”, asked how I “do it”…guy friends have even wanted to watch! Initially, I used to snap at ‘em. But then I started taking the opportunity to educate them.
In the spirit of the ongoing ‘Pride Month’, I decided to talk to someone who is actively heading an inspirational movement within the LGBT+ community. Homophobes may kindly excuse this article since there is no place for haters in this story! I want people to be more aware of what it’s like to be queer in today’s day and age. This uncensored interview with Debarati Das (Debbie) will explain the legal and softer aspects of being queer in our country, apart from her evident love for tattoos and monochrome photos!
Debbie is popularly known as a badass thrash & black metal drummer, animal liberation activist, an activist in the LGBT community, a feminist, a lawyer and an obsessive tattoo collector. Her life and work is an excellent example for people who want to DO things and not just talk about it. She can get extremely loud on social media when she’s pissed off, but otherwise, she’s just a calm soul. You’ll barely even hear her voice or know that she is in the same room because that’s how quiet she really is. I am actually quite impressed with people who don’t need to use social media to bring about a change. This woman does the job with such finesse! Take a look at her life, her views on drumming, the current legal system in our country, The Pride Walk, the LGBT community and subsequent clichés, cross dressers today, her bands and her eleven fascinating tattoos. Yep, you read that right. ELEVEN!
Reena: Who is Debarati Das?
Debarati: I am a 24 year old woman. I grew up in Assam, did my schooling there and then moved to Kolkata. I’ve been living in Pune for the last six years. I play drums with a thrash metal band called Sephiroth and a black metal band called Vinaash Kaal. I run a campaign for Queer visibility. I’m also an animal liberation activist. I’m a Queer feminist metalhead, haha! That’s pretty much about me.
R: To call you multi-faceted would be an understatement. But, what tops your list of stuff you are involved with?
D: Drumming and writing.
Playing drums is something that I love doing the most! I love the fact that the instrument is so physical. You play it literally with your whole body, and if you love it enough, with your soul too! It literally surrounds you, engulfs you… and you create music in the process. That’s surreal!
I love writing as well. I mostly write weird poems about sadness and love- perhaps the two most genuine emotions. I like dark imagery and death as poetic concepts.
In fact, I’ve been writing for metal music webzines for the last 4-5 years now. Doing so exposed me to musical dimensions I perhaps wouldn’t have known otherwise. I’ve interviewed over 25 Indian metal bands so far. I had the opportunity of interviewing the likes of Nick Menza (Megadeth) and Marco Minnemann (The Aristocrats/Steven Wilson). It’s enriching to know how artists perceive the styles they play!
Recently, I’ve also done my post-graduation in Constitutional and Administrative Law and am a lawyer now.
R: Why did you become a lawyer?
D: Because it’s empowering to know the law. Law in its true essence is just and rational – attributes that I want to have as a person. Law is ever-evolving. The fact that law offers so much scope for interpretation to suit the changing needs of justice is intriguing!
Having said that, we have quite a few bad laws as well. I thought it was important to be able to analyze the defects in law from a legal point of view to be able to help who’re affected by it. Hence, I thought studying Law was necessary.
R: You have been tightly involved with the LGBT+ community…
D: I identify as a bisexual woman. My pronoun is “she”. I have been part of the Queer movement for quite a while now. I realized that we end up being under-represented or misrepresented in the mainstream. We’re often stereotyped by mainstream media which reduces our entire existence to queer-phobic jokes.
There are Queer people all around who do amazing work but they aren’t visible. Young people identifying as LGBT+ want to look up to inspiring Queer people. But sadly, when they look around, they might find no one, due to lack of visibility. Hence, they perhaps won’t know that there are others with similar stories and struggles; they perhaps won’t be reassured. So, I wanted to broadcast live experiences of Queer people.
In 2015, I started The Visibility Campaign. The idea is to broadcast real life accounts of Queer people and views of allies to the mainstream. This is to tell the world that Queer people have their own strengths and weaknesses, their struggles and experiences — perfectly normal! I started receiving stories, mostly anonymous, from people identifying as LGBT+. Although “anonymity” and “visibility” are polar opposites, I featured their experiences on the campaign. I thought it was important that the stories were visible, if not the people themselves. Because those were stories to which perhaps many would relate. Slowly, the campaign began to grow, and people started writing openly along with their photos and identities. It was covered by Queer webzines and aired on radio as well. A leading publishing house in Mumbai offered to publish it in the form of an anthology. We are working on it. The book will have some brilliant stories from Queer people and allies from many different walks of life!
R: Most of the mainstream is clueless about what are the Pride Walks…
D: In a nutshell, a Pride Walk is a stance against discrimination and violence against Queer people. It’s about taking “Pride” in who we are. It’s about coming out on the streets to assert our existence and identities. Everyone is welcome but there’s no place for hate.
On June 28, 1969, something unremarkable happened in New York. The police raided a Queer bar (Stonewall Inn). But that night, the people at the bar did something that would be marked forever in history. They fought back. The Stonewall Riots are the single most important event that triggered the worldwide contemporary Queer liberation movement. So yeah, that’s what the first Pride Walk looked like. It was a fuckin’ riot! I read an eye witness’s account; he saw a drag queen trying to choke a cop with her stiletto. The movement has come a long way since then. Even in India, it is ever-growing. From only a handful of people walking the first Pride in Kolkata in 1999 to over 10000 Queer people and allies out in the open at Mumbai Pride 2017! However, it’s a long battle to fight. There is no going back!
R: From the legal point of view, what laws need to be revisited and why? (From the LGBT perspective of course)
D: Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalizes sexual activity “against the order of nature”. It criminalizes all sexual acts except peno-vaginal intercourse, regardless of the gender/sexuality of consenting adults. What is “against the order of nature” is not defined anywhere. Although it criminalizes certain sexual acts between heterosexual people as well, it is more discriminatory against the Queer people. Because we might have comparatively limited modes of sexual expression, and 377 criminalizes them all! This law needs to be revisited. It was given to us by the British ages ago, and the British themselves have gotten rid of it! It’s orthodox, discriminatory and unconstitutional. 377 denies us our right to life, liberty and privacy. Laws need to be kept off our bodies and bedrooms as long as we’re consenting adults.
Same-sex couples should have equal marriage rights (Although I don’t believe in marriage, I believe in equality.) This should also entail adoption rights, property rights, etc. arising out of marriage, just like in case of hetero couples.
R: Please reflect your views on cross dressing and tell us why it’s okay/not okay…
D: Anything that’s gender non-conforming is awesome in my book! Cross dressing rejects the limits which society sets on one’s bodily expression. It rejects patriarchy. It’s about free self-expression. It is a fearless rejection of flawed social conditioning. It makes a statement that gender cannot be caged.
R: What about colored eyebrows and similar clichés?
D: TBH, I love it when people do make up and wear clothes in max flair and flamboyance, haha! I’ve never colored my eyebrows, but I’ve seen people slaying with purple, pink and red eyebrows.
R: Has anybody ever asked you if you are sure you’re bisexual?
D: Only if I had a penny for each time I was asked something like that, hahaha! I have been called “half-lesbian”, asked how I “do it”…guy friends have even wanted to watch! Initially, I used to snap at ‘em. But then I started taking the opportunity to educate them. I told them how “jokes” are nothing but our deep-seated prejudices expressed. All my friends know I am Queer and they don’t ask stupid questions any more.
R: How did your family react to your sexual orientation news?
D: Dad and sister don’t give a fuck. They’re the coolest people ever! Mom had many questions. Initially, she was tolerant of my sexuality. Now she’s 100% accepting of me. She still has questions every now and then, and I gladly answer. She’s also very supportive of my Queer campaign and is waiting for the book to come out.
What bands or artists have inspired or influenced you?
Too many artists inspire me! From John Bonham to Dave Lombardo, Chris Adler and Marco Minnemann..the list is too long! Different attributes of different artists inspire me.
R: Tell us about your band, your music…
D: My journey as a drummer is not that long so far. I picked up sticks to learn drumming four years ago. Prasenjit Paul (Halahkuh) who taught me to drum, put sticks in my hand one day and asked, “What are these?” I said, “Drum sticks.” He said, “No. These are your weapons.”
My parents still don’t know that I play drums. It used to be difficult to afford classes, so I took to YouTube after a while. I am a drummer without a drum kit. TBH, it gets a little difficult sometimes. I am saving up for a kit but can’t afford it at the moment. I play on practice pads and pillows at home and work on footwork.
I started jamming with friends and met my current bandmates. We started off by playing hard rock and called ourselves Sephiroth. When I got my double bass pedals, our sound started getting heavier. We began channelizing our influences better and started playing thrash. We’ve played original music at shows. The first studio single has been recorded..hoping to put it out in a few days.
Eventually, I met Vinaash Kaal who were looking for a drummer. I love black metal as a listener and always liked their music. So I said Yes when they asked if I’d like to jam. We clicked! I’m excited about the fact that playing black metal is making me push my limits and improve my consistency. I enjoy jamming with Vinaash Kaal. Looking forward to playing with them and doing shows!
R: What kinda music are you currently listening to?
D: I’m listening to a lot of doom! Mournful Congregation, HellLight, The Howling Void, Ankhagram etc. I’m discovering some great music in the process!
R: Tell us about your tattoos…
D: I have eleven tattoos by seven different artists so far.
I have the artwork of Candlemass’s debut album ‘Epicus Doomicus Metallicus’ on my back. It’s one of my most favourite albums of all time and I’m a huge fan of the band! Siddhant Nigam of Inkarnation Tattoo Studio, Pune did that one.
He also did the Chaos Star on my leg. It signifies the real world, the failure of predictions, the chaos before creations. Eight asymmetrical arrows pointing towards eight directions with a lot of dot work!
On my chest, I have a cover-up on a fail tattoo I got when drunk. (Kids, never get drunk tats!) Siddhant covered it with a lovely abstract design of pine trees and their reflection as sky-scrapers. I perceive it as denoting both the harmony and distinction between nature and us. It’s also like an imagery I have in my head while reading some of Kafka’s stories.
My most favourite tattoo is the one on my forearm. It’s an ornamental piece – origami portraying a scene. I love the shades of black and grey, the origami art and the ink blots. I got it done by Anirban Roy Choudhury of ‘Forever Poetry’ in Kolkata.
Anirban also tattooed a design portraying equality near my ankle. It is two puzzle pieces, apart, but which can perfectly fit together. One of the pieces bears the “equal to” sign. It signifies my support for equal rights.
I have a very special tattoo on my back. It’s lines from a poem someone very dear once wrote to me. It says,
“I’d taint your lips with the cocaine of Anarchy
To be able to cringe forever without them
But they would still cry war
For all the battles I’ve lost with you.”
This person held my hand through the lowest lows. I got the tattoo not because I was sure we would last forever. I had the tattoo even before we started what society calls ‘dating’. I got it because I knew those moments were real, and nothing can ever take away those experiences from me.
I have an owl seated on a rose bush on my back. The owl signifies wisdom. I got it done quite long ago at Crazy Finger Tattoo Studio in Pune.
I have a quote which says “The impossible is often untried” tattooed above my knee. Guess it’s self-explanatory. It was done by Saaransh Goenka, an artist who was then based in Pune.
I have ornamental stars on my chest- my first tattoo! Got it done by Niloy Das of Lizard’s Skin Tattoos, Kolkata what seems like ages ago now! He had just opened his studio then. It’s great to see that the studio has grown so much!
I’m soon going to get my twelfth tattoo from Siddhant (Inkarnation, Pune). It’s a quote by Sylvia Rivera. She was a transgender activist, perhaps the first woman to throw a bottle at the Stonewall Inn raid in 1969. She was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance. A pioneer of transgender rights, she said, “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned.” The tattoo will have the quote and her silhouette which bearing a revolution scene. Siddhant showed me the beautiful artwork and I just can’t wait to get it done!
R: In the current day and age we live in, what are your views on women living the counterculture life like you do? What are the regular challenges you face?
D: I think I’ve been living an unconventional life since childhood. While convent school tried so hard to ‘correct’ my ways, I never stopped being a round peg in their square hole, haha! I kept wearing ‘boy’ shoes to school, broke my front tooth playing rugby (it’s still broken LOL) and kept doing things I enjoyed despite being forbidden. Because I saw no justification behind those ‘Don’t do it’s. Expressing myself in unconventional ways was never a conscious effort. This is how I am. I chose to play metal in which (as much as I hate to admit) the ratio of men is to women musicians is well..we all know! As a woman who plays drums, I come across people who appreciate the fact that I play the instrument- I’m grateful. I also come across people who are surprised by a ‘girl playing metal on drums’. Although they have good intentions, I think them being surprised somewhere tells me that it’s a man’s job that I’m doing, which kinda sucks ‘cause it ain’t true! I am a lawyer who works 9 to 5 but I also like playing heavy music and expressing myself through body art. I have learnt to not give a fuck about normies trying to tell me what not to do, haha! I really appreciate women who do their own thing, regardless.
R: Do you think people/the society is still judgmental about the inked community?
D: Yes. The masses are still judgmental about inked people. I don’t really blame them. Although tattoos have been a part of many cultures in India since ages, the mainstream is conditioned to think in certain ways. Social conditioning begins corrupting us with stereotypical bullshit when we’re children and never stops! Since most people are not willing to accept diversity, non-conforming modes of self-expression which also include tattoos piss them off. But times sure are changing. Slowly but surely. Till then, I’ll deal with their judgment by not giving a fuck!
R: What inspires you? What excites you? In life…
D: There’s so much of inspiration all around. I’m inspired by people who are unafraid to question what is wrong, people who refuse to be fed society’s bullshit, people who get things done, people who reject norms and make a statement through music and other forms of art, people who go ahead an
d do the rad things society taught ‘em not to do.
The idea of freedom really drives me. Hence, my involvement in Queer liberation and animal liberation. I think living just for my own self will belittle the purpose I’ve assigned to my life. I want to do the best I can to give a voice to the voiceless and defend the defenseless. I want to speak for the animals whose screams go unheard. They’re innocent sufferers of ceaseless exploitation; the idea of liberating ALL animals drives me. I also feel happy about the fact that the Queer movement is gaining beautiful momentum today and that I’m a tiny part of it. I want to fight the long, patient fights that I’ve involved myself in, with all I have.