Photographs by Aabhishek Gunaratnam
Makeup: Divya Rajshekhar, Somdutta Pal
Stylist: Ritupriya Basu
“I have always just wanted to be me, to be real”, she said in a calm and composed manner. While that is what all of us aspire to be, it is different for her – after all the years of self discovery and trying to be herself, she is already as real as one can get.
While there are different faces of her, I had walked into this interview with a purpose to deconstruct this woman, to find out who she really is. The big, tall, intimidating person I first took her to be are just the physical attributes we employ to quickly judge people we meet and put them in our little boxes of conformity. I wanted to fit her into a smaller definition, like an easily digestible pill, to present to the world the Queen of Electronica – Ma Faiza. This interview, like her story, is about freedom and breaking moulds.
I stepped into her home, her temple of creativity – a three level penthouse in Pune, the top two levels of which are open to the stars. A very stylised bohemian space, this is where all her creativity comes together – a bright home with large windows, an open kitchen and a bar counter adorned by her name. There are books all around, a lot of curios collected during her travels and an equal number of them created by her. There are mirrors bordered with dried sticks and twigs. There are records and stars hanging from the roof. Among these is a larger than life picture of a gun totting Ma Faiza wearing a top hat. On the other side is an array of family pictures with a studio on the same level. Moving further up the pink circular iron staircase, you step into a more open space and a room, which mostly serves as her wardrobe. Further up is the terrace with a white four-poster bed in the middle of a beautiful garden, all open to the elements of nature. “There is no parallel to sleeping under the stars”, she says. I ask if she sleeps here only occasionally, to which she replies, “Only about two months this year because of the weather, but I try to for as many as 6 months in a year”.
Ma Faiza was born in Africa and her family moved to England soon after. With a Gujarati father and a Kutchi mother, her roots are very much Indian although she spent her growing years in a very English neighbourhood of London. Going to school with 1800 English kids, she was the only brown kid in the mix. I ask her about her school days, and she says she was very bright with an exceptional IQ, and was asked to join Mensa at age 11 but the school system of exams never worked for her. Through her years in school she studied a variety of subjects, from Economics to Sociology and Business Studies. She later adds, “My father picked all of my subjects, I never had the freedom to choose them. Even if I wanted I could not have taken up Arts”, she goes on, “you know how it is with Indian parents, my dad was very proud of his genius daughter, he expected her to get her PhD by 10!” She was equally proud of her family though, “I come from a good stock”, she says. Her great grandfather was the Prime Minister of Zanzibar and was responsible for freeing the last slaves. He is the only man in history to have been knighted twice by Queen Victoria, once each in Zanzibar and England. Her father himself was a lawyer in London and responsible for bringing great changes for the profession.
“I came out at 17”, Ma Faiza has been openly gay and yet you don’t hear too much about it. For her it is no different than being straight or anything else for that matter. This is her normal. But we have built a society where the majority decides the normal and everyone else is a freak. Undeniably this has been one of her biggest struggles. She succinctly says, “if you can’t put a person in a box it’s already a problem. That is what we are conditioned to, and the single most important box we have from the moment we are born and even before birth is the gender that we have, and if you challenge that… you are fucked… you will defend your whole life, your reason to be who you are and that can be very challenging and very empowering”. This sets our tone for the rest of the interview. I ask her if it was easy for her family to accept her when she told them, after all they were progressive in their thoughts and it was in the England of the 1980’s, but it was far from easy. While their expectations were of a conforming dutiful daughter, what they had was a tattooed girl with a lot of piercings. To make things more interesting, she was a lesbian. “They were all like (puts on Indian accent) ’Why do you say this, why do you have to tell anyone, why can’t you just be, why why why…” she very animatedly demonstrates. But she did get a lot of institutional help at that time in London and that eased the journey a bit. It took her over ten years of being isolated from her parents, but now they have finally come to take her for who she is, “maybe there is a bit of acceptance too”, she adds. Now her parents visit her and spend a good part of the year with her in India. Her mum comes for her shows, even tours with her and enjoys it.
“You have seen the movie Jobs? I was growing up during that era”, says Ma when I ask her about growing up in the London of 1970’s and 1980’s. Her friend had a ZX81, one of the first personal computers for home use. “I was a complete computer geek, we were working on it all the time, writing software”, she excitedly goes on to add, “I used to attend these workshops by the author of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams), we were building our own computers and stuff like that”. The last thing I had expected during this interview was a reference to computers and the ZX81 of all things. She talks about her chess classes and horse riding and working in the stables. All this while I sat there wondering, when did art and music come into her life. Of my allotted 60 minutes, we had spent 30 minutes not once mentioning music. But there would be time for that.
It was a time of great change in England. There were youth movements and protests and Ma Faiza was a part of many of them. She was an activist like many of the country’s youth. She recalls being at sit-ins at Trafalgar Square, Houston and House of Lords among others. She was part of the protest with Kiranjit Ahluwalia (on whose story the movie Provoked is based). She talks about the bonhomie at these marches and about being alive, about fighting for causes she believed in. The gay rights movement was one of those.
We then spoke about the era in that part of the world where music both pop and rock was on a swell. Music had been a constant in her life, almost like a soundtrack to it. Her earliest memories were of listening to the song ‘Cars’ by Gary Numan, “I remember listening to it all the time and drumming along”, she said as her eyes lit up. We were moving into her comfort zone and the nostalgia was filling the space around us. “My dad used to buy me all the records. I grew up in that era of Pop in London, listening to Madonna, Prince, watching videos on MTV. We were young then and videos were new.”
I ask her about her initiation into playing and making music, “I learnt music as a child, in school. I can read and write music, so unlike most DJs I have done my time with music. I can play the flute, trumpet, tuba, guitar and piano and that is five instruments more than many electronic musicians around. I have sung in orchestras. I was the only female to sing the tenor in the choir that performed Messiah (music piece by Handel)”, she says talking about her earliest performances at age 10, “at the Royal Albert Hall, but we were some 3000 of us”, she adds matter of factly.
Ma Faiza came to India as a 23-year-old to discover her roots and Indian-ness. She first came here with her girl friend for three weeks. After landing in Goa, she did travel to Pune and Mumbai but most of her time was spent on the beaches in Goa, partying, experimenting with drugs and living the Goan life. Something clicked and she returned for a longer time. Between these back and forth visits she spent her time in London working with children at a women’s safe house for women fleeing domestic violence. “When I finished all my studies and failed them all I was working at a petrol station. I was a manager there at a Texaco.” She was working long shifts over 16 hours a day, putting in over 100 hours a week and having a great time. She spoke fondly of her time there and the people she met all the time, chatted, shared tea, smoked together, “because in those days one could smoke at a petrol station”. I had never before heard anyone speak of their laborious job with such love and gratitude, “It was a really cool job”.
By now we are jumping back and forth in time, the timelines are jumbled but there is a method to this madness. There is a process of discovery. While she worked in London, she partied in India. Living on the beaches she traversed the flea markets and found people selling tapes with music, which she thought was horrible. This was where the seeds of being a DJ were sown. She started making compilation tapes and selling them at these flea markets in Goa. She sold enough for three months, and travelled for the next three months in India. The year after that, she did the same thing for six months; but there was never any planning to all this. She was doing what was needed to survive and have a good time. She started distributing the tapes and CDs in restaurants, boutiques and shops she visited or those that belonged to friends; enough people were buying and sharing the music which helped spread the word.
“Oh God, yes there was that moment when I thought to myself, so I am a DJ now, when I finally realized I am a DJ. It was when I started getting international bookings in 2001”, she reminisces. “From starting to sell tapes on the beaches in 1994 to taking on the role of a DJ in 2001, it wasn’t an easy ride, and there wasn’t a road map I was following. I got booked to play in Germany, and I actually got paid. I started DJ-ing with tapes – set, play, fade, play, flip, it was an arduous job then.” She moved on to mini disks after that and had about 1500 of them lying around. Recording a tape wasn’t easy, one tape took 90 mins, and she could do about 50 tapes in a week despite several power cuts.
All of this was an outlet for her creative energies, she just likes doing things and her home is a testimony to that. She was playing to foreigners, some loyal Indian fans at parties in random locations, by the lake, in a secluded area, houses, anywhere. These were not commercial parties that we hear about these days. Somewhere around 2006-2007 she decided to stay in India and didn’t do as many festivals and gigs around the world. She spent more time in her house, building her life around it.
In the midst of this she fondly talks about a protest in London, where the government technically banned dancing to electronic music and how the youth took over the city streets to reclaim their rights. We move on to a long winding discussion about India. “When I first came here it was beautiful, I fell in love with India, it was like a seduction, she was like this amazing beautiful woman that was just inspiring,” and she continued to the India of now, “she is a bit jaded, bitter, corrupt, judgmental, she thinks she is better than everybody else with these high morals but shit floating just below the surface”. When Ma Faiza decided to stay in India, she gave her all to the beautiful country and took back inspiration and love in return. Now she tries to mix her time by living here for three months, travelling for another three and so on.
“I am not a commercial person and if you put me in that cage I am going to die”.
I ask her about her constant support – her parents. Even if they haven’t been happy with her choices they have been around and she is grateful for their presence, “I know I am loved and am finally being understood”. Beyond family it is her fans, “they come to me after the gigs and they don’t even know what to say, I can see it in their eyes, the love they feel. I am grateful for all the love I have received”.
Talking to a well-read DJ who has researched sound to the extent she has is an enlightening experience. She talks about the importance of frequencies in making music, to understand what they do to a body. “One needs to know the limits in sound, pushing the limits won’t do anything but destroy. I believe a good DJ should interact with the crowd and share her/his personality. A live performance is an audio-visual experience and the artist should respect that and cater to it.” But this journey of being on stage hasn’t been an easy one for her. She confesses she is very conscious on stage, and has had to battle with it throughout her career as a DJ. She puts in a lot of effort to bare her soul on stage for the audience that comes to her shows.
I ask her about her lowest point in life to which she honestly accepts, “accepting who I really am and what God gave me, all the good and the bad”. She talks about her days in school when all the boys would rate girls, “this one for her tits, Laura for her lips, that one for her hips, and Ma, oh she is cool to hang out with, Ma has a good personality”, she jokes, “I wanted to have the tits and the lips, I wanted to get laid. Fuck personality, fuck being a good person”, she laughs about it now. It took her time to accept herself for who she was, “I can’t cut my feet off, I can’t cut my hands and i certainly would never want to change my voice. There are a few things I would want to change, I tried and I failed. Am I going to go and have plastic surgery? No fucking way. I am me. I am real”. There is a sense of calm and contentment about her own self now, “I realized that none of it matters. I have had beautiful women, by my side, in my bed, being my friends. I have had men who come up to me and say Ma Faiza, I love you”.
I had to ask her, who is the real Ma Faiza, the one on stage, the one off stage or just someone else. But she is all of them at the same time, always striving to create, to entertain, to be kind and compassionate, to be free. “It is the same me on stage, in fact I have a picture of me when I was 3 years old and I have the same expression now when I am on stage”, she says and makes the expression, it is the same one we have seen her have in many of her photographs as a DJ.
It has been a long chat over tea, I can hear a distant rumble and the strong winds are filling her house with cool breeze after a very hot day. We talk about her plans for the future, “I am just a hippie, I make, I spend, I enjoy. I am not a planner, I haven’t planned any of this. That’s my life, completely spontaneous. Success to me is the quality of life and peace. A rich person is someone who has all the time in the world, now that is my vision of success”. But you can never be sure with her. Things can change in a moment, she could be off tomorrow and you would never know or she could stay here for a very long time. There is a creative chaos in her mind and it finds expression through her work as a DJ and her house, her travels and her connections with people. Ma Faiza has been a very busy artist, doing around 100 shows a year, having to be away from home at least 200 days a year for work and yet having a social life and a spontaneous bent for travel. All you see around her has been built by her, bit by bit, with love and passion. “I came here as a hippie on a beach in Goa, in a lungi and a shirt, everything here, I built it, designed it, created it. I didn’t know anybody when I came, I did not know the language or the culture. What more do I want, may be a bigger TV,” she frowns, “I have come here, given my heart, given my soul and I have got so much love back”, she smiles.
She once played in Mexico at an air hanger to a crowd of 50,000 people, “before me was an 86 piece philharmonic orchestra on the same stage and then I followed alone”. From her earliest performance of being one in 3000 to this, she sure has come a long way. It has been an intense interview and her next appointments are waiting. It is pouring outside. Her sense of energy is undying. I stick around for a bit watching her dive head first into the next shoot with all her enthusiasm. The creativity in the house is infectious.