Welcome back to the Koovagam mela, the annual meeting place for India’s transgender communities. The morning before the religious ceremonies (see Koovagam Part 1), one of three “Miss Koovagam” Beauty Pageants was in full force. Over 100 Transgenders, Aravanis, and Hijras of all ages and sizes participated in the pageant, which included dancing, strutting, speaking, and general fabulous-ing. For everyone’s enjoyment, a live band provided the contestants with Bollywood, Kollywood, Tollywood, and ___wood music for the three hours (or so) of the competition was held. Meet Gopi, the band’s ring-leader, Tamil playback singer S. Janaki reincarnate, who’s talent was hard not to notice. Incidentally, Gopi’s gender-bending “side attraction” got most of the attention that morning, earning praise from many of the performers who participated in the competition:
Gopi’s nostalgic singing style mimics that of popular playback female singers in the Tamil film industry (Kollywood). Yet his appearance vis-a-vis his gender and lively persona adds a special je ne sais quoi to his performance.
Gopi is an artist, out of time. In one way, he is a relic of the past, like many male entertainers who acted and/or sang female roles in film. On the other hand, Gopi is a vision of India’s future, namely one that accepts gender queerness, and all of its manifestations, as one inherent aspect of the country’s incredible wealth of cultural diversity.
Gopi does not openly identify as LGBTQ, though his on-stage performance identity implicitly shares the theme of gender subversion through ambiguity and role reversal. Aware of the confusion this might cause for his audience, Gopi playfully subverts his role as the “female” vocalist in his stage act. For example, in the video above, Gopi sings a duet with his male counterpart to the Tamil song Kotta Pakkum (Betel Nut). The song traditionally incorporates male and female lyrics for clearly defined gendered performers. In the performance, however, Gopi and his partner switch roles even while Gopi continued singing in his falsetto thus mimicking the female voice. Singing as a woman yet to traditionally male lyrics added an element that we might call “meta gender-reversal.”
Whether on stage or not, Gopi’s magnitude of personality reflects a type of talent that you find once in a blue moon. His voice sounds like silk (bathed in chocolate, honey, and rose water), perfectly emulating his female idol S. Janaki, one of the Tamil film industry’s greatest musical figures.
Originally from Pondicherry, Gopi performs professionally in various parts of Tamil Nadu, most often with his band. For 20 years, the 34 year-old (Yes, he’s only 34) has also been active in Kollywood, singing alongside the great singers in the industry. Unfortunately, Gopi is still searching for his big break.
Here are a few more samples of his incredible voice. The footage is not translated, so as not to distract from his incredible voice. The following video is another popular Tamil song:
The below video is a rendition of a popular Hindi song, followed by a Malayalam song, for your viewing pleasure:
A great many translations were required to make the above video. BIG THANKS to Taejha Singh Susheela and Varsha Yeshwant for their help!