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An Indian Studio 54

Canadian DJ Ryan Lanji is turning out to be a cultural catalyst in East London’s queer South Asian community with his Hungama nights

A Hungama night at Colours Hoxton
A Hungama night at Colours Hoxton (Photo: courtesy: Hungama London)

Across East London’s popular queer party venues such as Colours Hoxton and Dalston Superstore, tunes from classic Bollywood films like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge set to electronic beats by Jamaican-American dance music trio Major Lazer and modern Pakistani qawwali remixed with a dance track by Damien Lazarus are setting dance floors on fire.

Ryan Lanji
Ryan Lanji (Photo: courtesy: Bella Howard)

On paper, the music may seem chaotic, but it’s a fine line between genius and madness that Canadian DJ Ryan Lanji traces with Hungama nights, his now famous independent DJ sets. “As a child, after my mum threw kitty parties, she would describe them like, ‘It was such a hungama! It was amazing!’, so I used that word. It’s like (the famous 1970s New York club) Studio 54, but Indian," says Lanji. Since 2017, he has been expanding the venture as a permanent part of London’s queer and South Asian diaspora culture.

He kicked off the New Year this month in India, playing at Kitty Su in Delhi and The Soho House in Mumbai, where I met him. He is slated to play at Kitty Su in Mumbai on 30 January.

Almost a decade ago, Lanji moved to East London to become an art and fashion curator, organizing much-talked-about shows such as Nailphilia with Revlon, at Dalston Superstore’s themed exhibition Dalston Screen Tests (possibly the world’s first nail art exhibition), and the Animal Ball Collection funded by Swarovski at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum—which showcased animal couture masks crafted by fashion houses.

However, Lanji realized that he did not wholly belong to either art or fashion. “When I tried to integrate myself into East London’s cultural scene, the reception made me feel very invisible. I didn’t feel seen, heard or understood because of how Western and white-oriented these spaces were," he says.

He was missing Bollywood music. “I grew up with these songs from New Bollywood’s golden era (from the 1990s to the present). The older generations revere it because it’s before Bollywood music became commodified. Even if the younger lot don’t like it, it’s part of their sound palette."

His Hungama nights have unwittingly started a conversation about the importance of diverse, queer-friendly safe spaces. These have also offered something new to anticipate in India’s thriving queer nightlife—one that usually takes place through specific organizations than at nightclubs. He says, “The nights have helped in acknowledging the fact that having coloured skin is perceived to be a disadvantage and that racial oppression exists." There’s also a keen understanding of how, sometimes, South Asian cultures address sexuality in uncomfortable and phobic ways. “South Asian communities ignore the fact that they should unconditionally love everyone around them, despite their gender or (sexual) orientation," says Lanji. “At Hungama, everyone’s welcome, but queer, South Asian people are celebrated," he adds.

His shows often feature drag performances by members of London’s queer community that strip Bollywood music’s gender and identity norms, such as a performance to Pyaar Tune Kya Kiya’s (2001) title track, for a diverse audience. “We have all been at the receiving end of some part of Indian culture where the community hasn’t understood what we want out of it, but we have managed to elevate the music for queer South Asian people," explains Lanji.

The first decade of the millennium had DJs like Bally Sagoo and Bolly MC mixing these musical forms, but they faded out. Lanji himself doesn’t use any secret ingredientto mix Bollywood music and other musical genres. “Hip hop and R&B music have such a beautiful harmony with Bollywood music and South Asian culture because of their similar, energetic beats," he says.

The subversive use of Bollywood music mixed with music from other cultures has given South Asian culture a new, different relevance. “You either dance to the music because of nostalgia, because of the beat, or because of the multicultural curation of music," he says. A trifecta that everyone enjoys.

Ryan Lanji will play a Hungama nights set at Kitty Su, Mumbai, on 30 January.

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