“It became a community, a global queer community”
BY NIC CROSARA, IMAGE BY NICOLAS CHINARDET
In 1991, Rita walked into Ritu’s DJ booth at the London Lesbian and Gay Centre in Farringdon and requested ABBA’s Dancing Queen to be played. Fast forward to 1995, and the duo founded Club Kali, an inclusive LGBTQI space with a focus on South Asian heritage. 27 years later their club nights, Chutney Queens and socials have nurtured a chosen family and provided a vital safe space. The two have also been partners and collaborators of South Asian Heritage Month (SAHM) since it was first launched. I sat down with the inspirational duo to talk about this year’s SAHM theme and their Club Kali journey.
DIVA: What does this year’s South Asian Heritage Month theme, Journey of Empire mean to you?
DJ Ritu: For me as a second generation South Asian, the legacy of “Empire” is personal as my parents experienced colonial rule in 1930s “British India”, the struggle for Independence, the horror and subsequent exile of Partition, from there they embarked on an incredible and brave migration journey into the unknown.
Rita: I know that what’s been done is awful in terms of colonisation, but that journey has also made me who I am today. So what I want to do for me, with this year’s theme, is to celebrate those journeys and acknowledge that we are a mix of those journeys and histories and cultures.
And then, how does the theme make you feel when looked at via an LGBTQI lens?
DJ Ritu: Those stories and histories are as yet undocumented, but need to be! I’m hoping that South Asian Heritage Month might instigate something.
Rita: I feel privileged that I’m here and not in a country where being LGBTQ-identified is a criminal offence. So in a way to be able to celebrate that journey of arriving here, my cultural heritage and my queer identity, it’s actually a privilege. And I’m blessed, fortunate and grateful. I’m sad at the same time that our siblings in other parts of the world cannot be. We have a long, long way to go.
What inspired you to start Club Kali?
DJ Ritu: 1995 felt like the right time to open Club Kali. We felt that there was a need for a more inclusive and diverse club space, that also combined Eastern and Western musical flavours, but from a South Asian – or British Asian perspective, celebrating our brownness, queerness, music, culture and even all of our annual festivals – Diwali, Eid, Navratri, Vaisakhi, as well as Christmas and Easter. To some degree, Club Kali continued the groundwork that I had started in 1988 through clubs like Shakti Disco and world music night, ASIA. I’d been decolonising dancefloors for years! Effectively, Shakti Disco, and then Club Kali, were the first Queer Bollywood Clubs in the entire world, and hubs for cultural unity, sanctuary, and the full spectrum of the LGBTQ+ community.
What is Club Kali’s mission?
Rita: It started off bringing the richness of the East to the West, which is where we live and where we have our lives and the space that we inhabit. But actually, it became a lot more and the mission became one of celebrating our diverse identities through music, so celebrating who we are and celebrating our heritage.
I started to reclaim Bollywood and the songs. The stuff that I had disassociated with because it was oppressive to me, because it was forced upon me to live a life within the sort of patriarchal definitions and structures. So I reclaimed everything. And so, Club Kali’s mission became one of celebrating who we are through our heritage. And the other thing was that we got people from all over the world coming because it was a safe space.
We had people from all over the world, but we had white people, we had people from Latin America, we had people from the Caribbean, from Africa, from Asia. So it was a real melting pot, a real mix of people. And that alone is worth celebrating. When you get different faiths in one room, and they’re not killing each other. We were just like, “Wow, we’re just united in our queer identity here”. So it was beautiful.
How have your experiences of the club changed from 1995 to now when it comes to nurturing this space?
DJ Ritu: We’ve seen so many changes in almost three decades, haven’t we? Whether that’s in terms of how LGBTQI people are perceived in society at large. Being able to, in my case, go off and DJ at gay weddings, which wasn’t a thing back in the 90s. We’ve watched generations of people come and go, including lots of different groups of Chutney Queens, lots of lesbians, lots of gay men, lots of non-binary people, and lots of trans people who, often we were the only only ones that they’d come to for any support or advice.
And we’ve watched attitudes change towards South Asian people as well, like in the 90s when we went through a cool, trendy period thanks to things like the Asian underground music scene and TV programmes, like Goodness Gracious Me – the South Asian community became more visible in the UK and diaspora. But after 9/11, Islamophobia and racism knocked us back down, for decades. We’re just starting to see South Asian trendiness again, which is good.
Is there anything you’d like to address before our time comes to an end?
Rita: We set up Club Kali, and we intended it to just be a club night. And it became a community, a global queer community. So that was amazing and unforeseen.
I think the community that we’ve created, the community that now exists, that is Club Kali, it’s not me – Ritu and myself – it’s the people. We’re intergenerational now, and the older generation is welcoming the new generation.
I think it’s really, really important that Club Kali continues to provide that. And that’s why we’re still here. Because we’re able to do that through the love and support of the Kali members, the original members, the community that were there, you know, welcoming each other and being there supporting each other, through the AIDS crisis, through Section 28, through COVID. And now welcoming and empowering the next generation, I think it’s completely unique.
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