GQ India: Madame Gandhi’s “Waiting for Me” is the art the world needs right now

The LA-based artist and activist’s latest music video radiates warmth and further builds out her vision of a world running on freedom and solidarity.

Photos by Sajna Sivan

February 2020 saw Kiran aka Madame Gandhi touring India in turbo mode. After a smashing performance at the VH1 Supersonic Festival in Pune, she flew into Mumbai and headed straight for the GQ x Raymond Co-Lab party, for a quick few selfies with Canadian rapper SVDP and Yanchan. A day later, she played a DJ-drumming set at Soho House before heading to the outskirts of Mumbai to shoot a music video. Next, she flew to Bengaluru for a gig at Foxtrot, and finally returned to the US to close out the 2020 Vision Stadium Tour with Oprah. Basically, mad momentum, till the pandemic hit.

“I have been at my studio in Downtown LA for the past three months,” says the music producer, drummer, artist and activist, reflecting on that fever dream we used to call normal life. “I’ve been spending my time protesting for black lives in Downtown LA, performing and DJing virtually over zoom calls, and participating in IG Live discussions about gender liberation during pride month.” Not to mention giving TED Talks and hosting an NPR Tiny Desk Concert from what seems to be her bedroom draped in fluorescent light.

In all of this, she appears decked head-to-toe in neon orange or yellow, her hair braided and wound away from her face; occasionally there’s a palo santo stick in sight; and she’s almost always accompanied by her “ambient and peaceful” OP-Z electronic synth and the darburka she brought back from a trip to the Middle East. 

Gandhi has also had the unique experience of working remotely on the edit of that music video she shot in Mumbai. “Waiting For Me”, out now, is a song of protest and display of solidarity rolled into one. The song, the last off her latest EP Visions to get a music video release, is “an anthem about moving from oppressive environments into liberating environments; questioning society’s most problematic norms; and valuing freedom, love energy, fashion as self-expression, and feminine and queer voices.”

It also traverses a spectrum of surrealism. The film begins by depicting a class of 10 girls in dull grey school uniforms marching robotically up, down and within the dull grey concrete of a building under construction. Through this garb of conformity, there are shots of neon – a sock here, a ribbon there – denoting an innate, undercover desire.

Halfway through the video, they walk out of this rigid, structured, sedated existence and into a forest. Here, they break out of their belts, ties and pigtails, and let nature (and the designers Kanika Karvinkop of NoBorders and Indrakshi Pattanaik) take over; even as Madame Gandhi utters low-pitch over skittering drum beats: “I won’t take in what they feed us, run away in my Adidas.”  

“I grew up in Mumbai between 1997-2000 and attended the St. Anne’s school,” writes Gandhi, “where we had a very strict uniform from head to toe. In my music video, you follow the story of 10 girls moving from individualistic, restrictive and problematic environments to unified, joyful, free nature environments. We are all in the collective protesting joyfully with drums, wearing colors that keep us all together in the same palette while each person has their own take on that self-expression. The story is about questioning environments that do not work for us and designing the alternative.”

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The cast includes, among others, queer activist and artist Priyanka Pauly; the trans activist Shanthi Muniswamy who “I did a project with in Bangalore last year”; Angel Georgina Konthoujam, an activist who represents the Meitei people of Manipur. “Each of the 10 cast members is a gifted artist in their own right and I wanted to feel the solidarity with each of them both on and off screen. It was a mutually loving and supportive environment, which meant a lot to me.”

It’s not a coincidence that the music video arrived on the last day of June, as Pride Month comes to a close. Madame Gandhi, who has also toured drumming for M.I.A and Thievery Corporation, believes it is her mission to celebrate gender liberation. There is consistent evidence of this: Whether it was the voluntary free-bleeding London Marathon run or the queer femme-focused music video for “See Me Thru”.

“To me, the queer community understands that gender is constructed to keep some people in positions of power, and other people not. It is the bravery of the members of the LGBTQIA+ community that reminds everyone to celebrate their most authentic self.”

This year is significant for Madame Gandhi for more reasons than one. “I think one of the biggest shifts I am seeing this year is more attention paid to history,” she says. “In India, folks are recognizing how multiple expressions of gender existed in a pre-colonial time, and that the gender binary is a Western construct that needs to be dismantled because it is associated with power and privilege. In the US, there is a larger celebration of black trans female leaders like Marsha P Johnson who led the protests at the Stonewall Inn in NYC which started the global pride movement as we recognize it today.”

“There has historically been less intersectional support of these different liberation movements,” she continues, “and so it feels powerful to see that this year, because there is so much global unrest, we are realizing the power of reinforcing these different movements collectively, rather than tearing each other down.”

The road to this 21st century ideal of an intersectional world isn’t easy, and to find the harmony in it is an artist’s job — at least for now. And who better than Madame Gandhi to draw it out, seeing as she is determined to use her art to re-imagine the world as the one she wants to live in. “When I go inward to share what I truly think and believe, that is when I connect and resonate with my audience most, and am able to actually add something unique and valuable to conversations around activism.”

She also demonstrates that intersectionality in this excellent mixtape she made for GQ India in honour of Pride — featuring songs and avant garde videos from Canadian rappers Cartel Madras; American R&B songstress Raveena; British electronic musician Leo Kalyan, Malaysian queer pop star Alextbh, and a spoken word performance by Alok Vaid-Menon, among others. “It’s a diverse selection, vast in scope, and like everything else she does, anchored by a simple message: “None of us are free until all of us are free.”

Listen to Madame Gandhi’s Playlist for Pride Here!

By Nidhi Gupta for GQ India