BURLESQUE AND IDENTITY

Words byJai  Deo

Unbeknownst to my mother, I do practice some connection to my Indian heritage. After skiving Punjabi lessons, mediocre cooking, and my failure to be technically religious, my most genuine and favourite way of celebrating my identity came in the form of burlesque. I’ve been doing it for about a year now, and I’ve found a happy niche in, as my bio says,


‘combining the seductive power of burlesque with the grace of semi-classical Indian dance.’


As with many things, after fetishising the Indian women of the mysterious orient, the pendulum of white supremacy has swung back round to seeing Indian women as timid, sexless beings. I like to upend this stereotype, but I do sometimes worry that I’m just re-fetishising a culture, yet that fault doesn’t lie with me. Crucially, there are real erotic roots that I’m connecting to. Ancient Indian courtesans and their dances, style, and power have influenced much of what we recognise as Bollywood now, before they were condemned by British colonisers.


It’s important to me, when considering my identity, to acknowledge an ancient pre-colonial past and heritage, untainted by western oppression, even if I’ll never truly know what it feels like.


More recently though, is my appreciation of burlesque’s relation to my sexuality, specifically my ace identity. As many queers will no doubt know, being in complete control of how you’re perceived is a very rare bird. One way to overcome this barrier to happiness is to arrange a captive audience, sit them in a room, and make yourself the most interesting thing in there. Generally in cabaret, everything is set up to allow you to pull off whatever flight of fancy you’ve decided on that evening - you’re a goddess, you’re in a boyband, you have a literal fish down your trousers (shout out to Manly Stanley). For anyone who spends most days acutely aware of how they’re being categorised in people’s heads, it’s quite heady to suddenly be in control of that. Having spent so long feeling that the way I expressed sexuality was completely at the mercy of a white cis-heteropatriarchy (even if I didn’t realise what I was feeling at the time), burlesque really does feel like a form of therapy. Arguably I’m presenting myself in exactly the way you might expect - the difference now is that I’m choosing it.


In the same way that Toni Morrison’s eritocism lies in knowing yourself, exploring what makes you happy, and connecting to your environment and heritage, there is an erotic pleasure in doing what I do, but it lies in the connection of it, rather than the physical. I don’t really feel the sexiness of it, and it flatters but baffles me when people tell me they’re physically affected by watching me even if they don’t know me, or my sense of humour, or how I hug, or even what my voice sounds like.

However, I do feel the eroticism - the pleasure in doing something I enjoy which connects me in such a tangible way to my community, my gender, and my sexuality.


In the same way that Toni Morrison’s eritocism lies in knowing yourself, exploring what makes you happy, and connecting to your environment and heritage, there is an erotic pleasure in doing what I do, but it lies in the connection of it, rather than the physical. I don’t really feel the sexiness of it, and it flatters but baffles me when people tell me they’re physically affected by watching me even if they don’t know me, or my sense of humour, or how I hug, or even what my voice sounds like. However, I do feel the eroticism - the pleasure in doing something I enjoy which connects me in such a tangible way to my community, my gender, and my sexuality.