San Jose native and San Francisco resident Sarang Bhatt came out as queer later in life than many of his peers. That coming of age gave him a unique perspective on how to live with seemingly diametrically opposed identities, being queer and being Hindu. Sarang doesn’t feel the need to give up anything, being equally comfortable at an LGBTQIA+ party as he is singing Krishna bhajans at a local mandir.
We Belong is a visual series highlighting different experiences of South Asian and Indian identity. This series was produced by India Currents in collaboration with CatchLight as part of the CatchLight Local CA Visual Desk. Photographs and interviews by CatchLight Fellow Sree Sripathy. The project is currently on exhibition at the ODC Theater now until October 2, 2023, for more information about the exhibition and associated events visit: https://odcsf.my.salesforce-sites.com/ticket/#/instances/a0F5b00000jPkBsEAK
Where were you born and raised and where is your family originally from?
I was born and raised in San Jose, California. My family comes from the city of Baroda. They landed in San Jose in the early 80s and have been there ever since.
How did your parents play a role in your upbringing?
My mom and my dad were both equal proponents of my cultural upbringing. I think they facilitated it in different ways, given the standard gender roles. My mom definitely did more of the parenting and the driving around to dance class and music class or language class or Sunday school, but my dad was the one who loved art and performance and gathered people together. We often held pujas at my house or facilitated cultural or religious gatherings. He was the one that was affiliated with the local Indian society and supported me, my music, and my dance education for all of my life until I stopped.
How old were you when you started learning music and dance?
I started Hindustani classical music, singing, and harmonium when I was in early elementary school and I think I started dancing garba-raas on stage probably in kindergarten.
You stopped learning music. Why?
I was a very shy vocalist. I enjoyed learning music. I enjoyed singing, but I don’t think it was ever a true passion of mine. So I didn’t practice very much. My parents, when some stranger or an Uncle or Auntie would come visit, would often ask me to perform for them. It’s not like the guests wanted to hear me sing. It’s not like I wanted to do it. But everyone accepted that this was going to happen. And I didn’t like it. And so I didn’t want to continue performing like this for whoever walked in. So that plus like, not really liking practice. I stopped my musical training. But I kept dancing all through from kindergarten, virtually nonstop, through college.
Were you part of a college team?
There was no garba team in college because garba was not as cool as bhangra and the ABCDs that went to my university at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, were much more inclined to do something that was cool. I was part of a garba team for a little while after graduating college in my early 20s.
What is your relationship with Garba-Raas now?
Oh, it’s my favorite thing ever. Still. I love it. It connects me to Gujarat. I think it actually exposes me to different parts of Gujarati culture than my parents might have [experienced] because garba-raas was originally a folk dance from various rural areas of Gujarat that found its way to the city.
My parents, of course, know garba. They danced it when it came to Baroda, and it was also Baroda that really popularized it as a more contemporary folk dance form that people in the city might do. But there’s no family memory of doing garba in the village. We’re not village people. We lived in the city. And so I think my exploration of garba and its music and its origins has taken me past the lived experience of my parents and into other parts of Gujarati culture, which has been interesting.
How do you connect now or identify as an Indian?
You carry it with you wherever you go. I don’t have the option of being an olive-skinned Mediterranean person just to be able to blend in. I’m always going to stand out as an Indian person. It took the journey of my life to accept and be happy with the fact that I couldn’t be anybody else. And so I carry it proudly within because it gives me a lot of joy.
It’s not a burden to be a member of my culture. Nor I don’t feel like I have to trade anything away. I can do the Gujarati thing, I can do the American-born Indian thing, I can do the queer person in San Francisco thing. And those three things have overlaps, and those things don’t have overlaps. And I can do all of them at the same time without feeling guilty or feeling loss. Culturally, I feel like it’s all additive for me. I don’t know that everyone has that attitude, or that mindset that lets them view their personal cultural development in an additive way. I think a lot of queer people have had to give up their pasts in order to accept their present and accept their futures. I haven’t had to do that.
Can you tell me a little more about how or why you haven’t had to give that up?
I was lucky with my parents. They’re typical Indians, and they don’t really understand queerness in a real way. But they love me more than they hate or dislike or don’t understand queerness. I was never at risk of being thrown out of my family. I was never at risk of being thrown out of my religion or my culture. I was asked to make uncomfortable choices and try to tamp down, but I was having these discussions with them.
After I had realized my own adulthood, my own agency, and my own independence, financial, emotional, physical, I [realized I] don’t need them. It’s nice to get the approval of your parents, but in my situation, I was having these discussions so much later in my life relative to other people, that I wasn’t afraid of what they would say and what that might mean to my physical safety. So I didn’t fear that kind of rejection. Also, I grew up my whole life dancing to Bollywood music, like what’s gayer than Bollywood? For God’s sake!
Why and how do you use the term queer?
Queerness, for me, is defined as living against the norm. I think inherently being a gay person in the world, unfortunately, means giving up what you were taught, in order to fully accept or understand who you are. But that’s not as sad as it sounds. Because when you’re taught things that limit you, when you’re taught that you can’t or shouldn’t do things because of made-up reasons or because of reasons of control, or because of the patriarchy or because of racism, then those are stupid things.
And once you can accept those things to be wrong, and those things to be the reasons for why you’re doing things, then it’s very easy to walk away from those things. And so that means that you have more and more options in your life, and how to live your life. And so queerness, for me, is about embracing those options. And I think it’s a broader term that allows for more flexibility and more options and more growth, more room for growth than just saying that I’m gay.
What term would you use to describe yourself?
I was talking to a French person, a person who immigrated to San Francisco from France. She’s black. Her family comes from West Africa. She was raised in Paris and has lived there for most of her life, and now lives here. And she’s like, “You Americans are so obsessed with how your experiences separate you from other people within this country. I was born in Paris. I’m Black. I’m not a Black French person, I’m a French person.”
And I thought she’s right. There’s a complex that we have given ourselves here in America. I don’t think she’s wrong. For us, it’s this idea of the United States being a salad bowl, where we all keep our own individual identities, but coexist amongst each other. I’ve always enjoyed that, about being an American. So to your question, I identify as an American, I identify as Indian American, I identify as a West Coaster, I identify as a Californian. When I travel abroad, they will ask me where you’re from, I say California, if not San Francisco.
You mentioned originally that you connected to Indian culture through music and dance. Are there other ways that you connect with your culture and religion?
I still speak Gujarati at home or amongst Gujarati people. I enjoy a conservative amount of Indian pop culture. It’s not really my taste, but I respect it and enjoy it from time to time. Religion I carry with me all the time. Why do I feel like I’ve been able to incorporate my past into my present without having to give it up?
The religious upbringing or experience that I’ve had with my family and my community has not been an exclusionary one. So they haven’t been like, “Oh my God, you’re going to hell!” Second of all, my parents don’t think that way. Nor do I belong to a spiritual community that contains or supports the tenets of that sort of Victorian homophobia.
There may not be an active discussion or understanding of what queerness is and what it could mean, in a contemporary setting amongst Hindus, but at least in my spiritual community, there isn’t a predefined denigration of it. There’s no predefined idea already that says, this is bad, you’re going to hell, or that you’re so you, so you must change it. People don’t talk about it, we don’t think about it.
I have a spiritual guru whose lectures and whose relationship with me I cherish and I use as a North Star in my life in terms of the principles that I adhere to. I feel fortunate that my guru’s teachings have not been ones of admonishment or exclusion. It’s more – just have compassion for yourself, have compassion for other people, try to live your life, or have the activities you choose to do in life be guided by love.
I find myself able to continue on in the spiritual community that I was raised in without any feelings of conflict with my contemporary secular life. I can very easily stand in my truth as a religious person. And also “party party” if I want to and whatever I want to do. So I don’t feel like I need to stop drinking because God said so. I think the way I see the world is bigger than individual rules like that. It’s more, why do you do things and how will you continue to strive to be more compassionate and more loving in your life?
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This series was produced by India Currents in collaboration with CatchLight as part of the CatchLight Local CA Visual Desk. Contributors include Vandana Kumar, Meera Kymal, Mabel Jimenez, and Jenny Jacklin-Stratton. Learn more about CatchLight Local’s collaborative model for local visual journalism at https://www.catchlight.io/local
This series was made possible in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program.