Before we dig into Mumbai’s music scene, let’s take a small detour through India’s rich history (approximately one month ago). Ok, it’s not a small detour. We’re actually driving five hours north of Mumbai, through cow- and monkey-ridden banana plantations, towards a small state in southern Gujarat teeming with pink palaces, called Rajpipla. Meet Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, master Indian classical harmonium player and LGBTQ rights activist. At his pink palace, Manvendra ji is hosting a three day-long mela (music concert), sponsored by his HIV/AIDS non-profit organization, Lakshya Trust (Lakshya means ‘goal’ or ‘aim’). He has invited thirty amateur and professional musicians and dancers, including myself, to perform. You have also been invited to watch:
Manvendra has become a trailblazer of LGBTQ rights in India. This is largely because of a personal contribution he made to the movement in becoming India’s first openly gay person of royal heritage. In 2007, Manvendra made headlines when he published an article in a Gujarati newspaper stating that he was gay. The public did not take this news well. Local Rajpiplites held massive demonstrations, wherein effigies of Manvendra were burned. His parents, the King and Queen of Rajpipla, also used the media to launch a campaign offensive against him, officially expatriating him from the territory. The more his family maligned him, however, the more Manvendra’s public appeal grew. Later that year, much to his parent’s chagrin, Manvendra made international news after an appearance on Oprah’s special featuring influential LGBTQ icons, called “Gay Around the World.” On the show, Manavendra made his coming out story public. I interviewed him about it, and this is what he had to say:
I have known Manvendra ji for almost three years. What I find most intriguing about him, is his ability to stay calm through turbulent times. He is one of the most “zen” individuals I know. For instance, on our way up to Rajpipla, there were several instances when we were close to hitting errant animals on the road (you name it: a cow, a buffalo, a family of monkeys, or the occasional elephant). When I was braced for impact, Manvendra never batted an eye. On many occasions, I have mentioned to him this remarkable ability of his to stay calm, and in response, he has always given credit to his music. Indeed, music was one of the most important stress-relieving devices available to him during the height of his coming out drama. Music was his coping mechanism, especially during the times when he was “challenging or going against the current”. Instead of attacking his opponents, Manvendra attacked the harmonium key board.
Manvendra is also one of the most giving individuals I know. I find it remarkable that, despite the intensity of hostility he faced while coming out, he still found a place in his heart to give back to his community (and even to the people that hurt him so much). At a time when HIV/AIDS was just being understood, Manvendra founded the Lakshya Trust to provide education and resources directly to the communities in India that were hardest hit by the disease. As a result of his work, Gujarat, the state which the Lakshya Trust serves, can celebrate its achievement of having among the fewest HIV/AIDS cases in India. Manvendra has also become a remarkable spokesperson on the preservation of Indian folk and classical music, two art forms that are under increasing threat of extinction in India. His music concert has been running for over 12 years, and continues to grow in stature, attracting A-grade artists from the area and Mumbai, and giving a platform for young, emerging artists to perform.
Undoubtedly, it is his personal investment in and passion for both causes that fuels this growing movement around India. In my opinion, that is what makes him less of a prince, and more of a king among those work for the advancement of peace and harmony-um (cheesy, I know…).