Kareem Khubchandani’s book, Ishtyle, comes out July 17th with University of Michigan Press. The Mellon Bridge Assistant Professor in the Department of Drama & Dance and the Program in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Tufts University, Khubchandani conducts research on the relationship between colonialism, race, sexuality, and performance.
“Ishtyle is something I grew up hearing. Nowadays, lots of memes joke about ishtyle. It’s saying ‘style’ but with an accent, the way the word is accented by people from certain regions of India,” he said.
“But ishtyle is often used to refer to excessive performance. Accented language is language with a little bit of excess that the body brings to it. Ishtyle, then, symbolizes the kind of Indian accent that’s performed to embody global style.”
The book follows queer Indian men “across borders into gay neighborhoods, nightclubs, bars, and house parties.” Using nightlife scenes in Chicago and Bangalore as case studies, Khubchandani shows how queer people in the Indian diaspora use creativity and performance as ways of claiming space for themselves in society.
“Performance can also be used to critique the dangerous and violent systems that threaten racial and sexual minorities,” Khubchandani said. “This book specifically focuses on nightlife as the site of such critique.”
Khubchandani explained that the bulk of the book’s ethnography originates from his time in graduate school at Northwestern University. There, he earned his MA and PhD in Performance Studies.
“In 2009, Section 377 of the Indian penal code was revoked, making sodomy legal. Then, in 2013, it was criminalized again. So, my research for Ishtyle took place between 2009 and 2013,” he said. “There was this visibility around what was happening that pulled me to India for a transnational perspective.”
“One of the chapters in the book is actually about the relationship between law and sexuality. In that chapter, I focus on a ban on dancing in Bangalore to show it’s not just Section 377 that’s structuring people’s access to pleasure, sexuality, and community. Between the dancing ban and the strategies of the police, sexuality is regulated in multiple forms. 377 gets a lot of attention, but I wanted to distribute that attention to multiple forms of policing and surveillance.”
When Khubchandani started the project, he imagined New York City as his diaspora site and Mumbai as his India site. A lot of the scholarship and writing in queer Indian studies, he explained, currently privileges these urban centers.
During his time at Northwestern, however, he became familiar with the South Asian queer organizing scene in Chicago. He also found that people from all over the Midwest would drive to Chicago for a chance to convene without venturing all the way to the coasts.
“As for Bangalore, I traveled there to stay with my parents when I began my India research,” Khubchandani said. “I found such an incredible scene there. South India isn’t usually thought of as ‘queer India;’ a lot of that discourse focuses on the North.”
“It was important to locate Bangalore and Chicago—the Midwest and South India—as these unexpected regions of queerness where organizing, discourse, and community-building strategies have diverged from the usual national and global narratives in South Asian queer organizing.”
The relationship between migration, labor, and sexuality is central to Ishtyle. Khubchandani said he not only met the same type of professional in both cities—new middle class, including many medical professionals and IT engineers—but he sometimes ran into the same exact person at both field sites.
“There’s this global circuit of labor that literally moves people across the world. Because they’re constantly moving, the night clubs actually provide a sort of grounding that allows them to feel like they’re in a similar place, even after they’ve been displaced across national and regional borders.”
Khubchandani believes in nightlife as a place of “creativity, beauty, and possibility, where people are making friends with strangers and finding love.” While he was living in Chicago, he threw several queer Bollywood parties that brought together couples who are now married.
“But one of the things I learned while working on Ishtyle is, there’s a nightlife scene I’m unable to write about, and that’s nightlife at home. From private house parties to people who don’t really believe in the night club, to those who have anxiety or can’t afford to go out—these people get left out of the story I’m telling,” said Khubchandani.
“Across the project, it became important to understand that home is always a part of nightlife. People go to the nightclub to escape home, to get away from family. For some of the people I know and have interviewed, who were pressured into heterosexual marriage, being able to go out is an escape from their heteronormative lives.”
Khubchandani said people often describe his work as “fun,” but they say it in a way that implies research isn’t supposed to be fun. Recently, he wrote an essay for South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies about fun as a research method.
“Research is our job as academics, and we need to enjoy it. We shouldn’t disavow the pleasures that come with it, whether it’s going out to nightclubs or sitting in archives. There can be rigor in fun, and fun in rigor. That’s an important claim the book is making, methodologically. While Ishtyle rigorously critiques different types of privileges and systems of governance, it was still fun to research, fun to write, and has a lot of fun inside of it.”