Interview with spoken word artist Uppa Tsuyo
Uppa is a poet and spoken word artist from Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India. She has been performing regularly at Delhi Poetry Slams and likes to write about the struggles of the people around her. Uppa wants to reach out to the people that inspire her as well as to the rest of the world. She wants her words and writing to provide comfort.
Sneha met Uppa to talk about being a gender fluid performance artist, how we can be activists by being ourselves, the negative competition in performance art, politics of art spaces and how we could do well to see more than a few shades!
Sneha Rooh: Hello Uppa, can you talk about performance poetry and how you came about discovering yourself as a performance artist?
UT: I started writing very young. It was a channel to confirm things I felt and to connect to them in such a way that I would be able to understand them better and to make peace. It was sort of my own therapy. I love words and the power they hold. They can save you, and I am a living example of it.
Spoken word however happened really late for me. I have always been a huge fan of Eminem and rap culture but could never get my rhythm right. I have no recollection of contemplating and deciding to become a performance artist. I just remember wanting to be brave enough to speak up and wanting to be heard. So I guess one day when I played Kate Tempest in loop forever and gathered enough courage, I went and spoke. And since then haven’t looked back.
SR: What informs your work and what areas do you generally write about?
UT:I would say my works are stories of hope and survival. It’s an attempt to touch lives and be touched by them.
SR: You also identify as a gender nonconforming artist and have written a lot on LGBTQIA issues. I have seen that your poetry and introduction proceedings have an embracing quality. How are you using your poetry to change the social structure and inner structure with regard to LGBTQIA issues?
UT: I cannot exactly say I define as gender non-conforming. I would say I am more of a person who defies the gender norms and does not like stereotyping the gender structure. I am more fluid.
I try to write about things I have gone through, hoping people can relate to it and understand they are not alone in this journey.
I cannot call myself a forefront activist either, and I don’t believe everyone can become that. But each one of us can contribute to this struggle by just being ourselves and just being brave. And that is what I am doing with my poetry, being brave to be seen and being brave to accept myself.
SR: Invisibility of Queer performers has been an issue and on the other hand there is the question of safety and physical harm, especially people for who are living in an intolerant environment. How does one manage this? Did you ever have to walk on this tightrope? Could you give us an anecdote please?
UT: I believe I have been fortunate to have met amazing people, groups and very supportive spaces. Or maybe I haven’t explored the difficult territories. Queer performers are here and they are seen. I mean I am comparing things to a time when queer performers were the weirdly portrayed transfeminine characters in Bollywood movies or shows. We have grown a lot since then. Of course this is from a perspective of a person who lives in a more or less tolerant city. I cannot imagine how things would be in an intolerant environment. And by intolerant environment I do not mean the suburbs or rural areas. I personally know of queer artists from the smallest of towns, living their lives and being out and open about that.
SR: What is the present situation of politics of the stage with respect to queering performance in India? What are the challenges and where do you see it going in the near future?
UT: Performance art is a very strange place. A lot of people have this theory that art is for itself and it’s not commercial. But performance art is different. It needs an audience and everyone wants to be heard. It’s no different with queer performers. Everyone wants their stage and their voices loud, which I think is such a great progress because we come from times when queer people didn’t want to be seen. I think one big challenge I can foresee is negative competition. Artists cannot help but compete, but when competition becomes toxic, it’s a difficult environment. Also the stage should not be ruled, it is meant to be shared.
SR: There are many issues that need to be addressed within the LGBTQIA community like the invisibility of bisexual people, intimate partner violence, gender roles, marriage being considered as an offering of rights. How does your work address these issues? How do you suggest we use art to address them?
UT: There are a lot of issues we need to talk about in the community. Art can certainly be a strong medium to highlight and normalize such concerns. I personally find it easier to say difficult things through my poetry – and people like listening to it. For instance, if I sat down and told people of my life story and how my becoming happened, it would be a boring monologue. But when I write it into poetry and highlight all aspects of how gender evolved for me – it was actually not so bad. I think sometimes art can be that agent which lowers the taboo effect to some extent. And the art revolution in our youth is a good way to connect with them on such issues.
SR: What would you have to say to artistic space owners and audiences if you could communicate about the need for diversity on stage and how they could make it a possibility?
UT: I think I would like to thank all the amazing people and allies who come to support us and contribute in their own ways towards this struggle. One thing that all artistic space owners and audiences should understand is that art is not biased. Queer artists are no different from any other artists. Their art might be influenced and inspired differently by their life struggles but that is what makes art interesting, isn’t it? When different people show different shades of life? Anyone and everyone who has an interest in art should realize the potential of diversity in art. The amount of stories and experiences out there is immense. We just need to open our minds to more than just a few shades.
SR: In three words, if you would like to sum up, what we as Queer artists should be aiming for both in terms of self expression and Art?
UT: Just. Be. Brave.
Dr. Sneha Rooh is a palliative physician, a person who loves cats and cat naps. Her passions include getting people to talk about death through death cafes and women to say “vagina” without flinching. She travels around India using art theatre and dialogue to bring up matters like sex, death, menstruation through her organisation called Orikalankini.