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May 07, 2018

Do Female Musicians Feel Pressured To Create Glamorous Personas On Stage?

Text by Sadaf Shaikh

Indian folk-rock artiste Alisha Pais talks about choosing comfort over allure when she performs

Musician Alisha Pais can’t perfectly recall what she wore to her first gig, but she remembers that it was the result of a misplaced attempt to appeal to her audience and wasn’t particularly comfortable. This brings us to the question — do female performers feel pressured to create certain personas when they perform to pander to the male gaze? We explore this premise in a freewheeling conversation with the artiste.

How has your journey as an Indian folk-rock artiste been?
“So far so good. I’ve played on stages all across India — and in Hong Kong, more recently — and have had the privilege of collaborating with some great musicians. I was fortunate to be able to perform some of my original content on television too. At the moment, I’m learning how to produce music so that I can release a couple of my original compositions that I’ve been working on.”

You were eliminated a lot earlier than expected when you participated in The Stage in 2015. As an accomplished singer, why do you think this happened?
“I think everyone on The Stage was pretty phenomenal and came with their own strengths. At the end of the day, it was a reality TV show that was looking for the next pop star. Being an independent folk artiste who had already developed a style of her own, I don’t think I fit the idea of what they were looking for. I had a great run, however, and made some special friends along the way.”

Last year, you were part of a performance that explored the idea of gender and identity called Me & The Other 2. Can you talk about it?
“Me and the other 2 was a great space for an open conversation about gender fluidity and equality through music, art and dance. I believe that people from all walks of life need to be heard in society at large. It’s the idiosyncrasies that make us vast, special and dynamic, without which humanity would be perceived as a monotone species. My performance included a few of my own songs that talk about love, sexuality and life.

I am a feminist and I think women, as well as men, are heard better in an inclusive environment where normative roles are not forced on them. Feminism gives people a voice that is not often allowed within a patriarchal society and makes way for honest expression. We are a sentient race and given that we have the intelligence to choose what works for us best, why not take it? That was the whole idea behind participating in Me & The Other 2.”

Certain looks like Beyoncé’s yellow dress in Hold Up (Lemonade) have become iconic in pop culture but that rarely happens with Indian musicians. What is your opinion about this?
“Beyoncé herself is iconic, and her yellow dress personifies femininity in a very casual way as she’s smashing car windows and being a total badass. It’s relatable and grand, all at once. I think works of art are created by absolute fluke sometimes, and I’m sure Indian musicians have their days in the sun too.”

Do you remember what you wore to your first-ever performance? Has your sartorial sense remained the same since then?
“I’m not too sure what I wore to my first gig, but I can definitely say it was not very comfortable and an attempt to be more ‘for the stage’. I have since learned that I perform best when I am dressed in sync with my personal style. That’s not to say that I’m resistant to experimenting, but I ensure that I am able to bend and walk around comfortably.”

You don’t have a specific “look” associated with your onstage persona — it seems like you wear what your mood dictates. Is this a deliberate choice?
“I do wear what my mood dictates, but I also have a specific style. I usually like to wear pants or jeans with boots, and a variety of funky shirts and t-shirts with the sleeves rolled up. When I’m not wearing these, I like to dress down and go with something simple and monochromatic, with some accent or the other. My hair has the biggest role to play in every outfit.

There have been times when I’ve had to perform while dressed in a way that I wasn’t comfortable with. It was when I was shooting for a few advertisements as well as during my time on The Stage. Television is a stylised medium and there are always compromises that have to be made under those circumstances. The producers and I meet in the middle by avoiding outfits that are too far out of my sense of style.

It’s usually female musicians who have a recognisable fashion aesthetic as performers — usually an exaggerated version of their personal style. Do you think that women feel pressured to create these characters when they perform, as opposed to men?
“I think all performers, to some degree, have their own aesthetic that highlights their musical style and self-expression when they go up there. Being on stage means having every pair of eyes on you, so I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily just the male gaze we’re pandering to.

What I wear for a performance is the last thing I think about before the gig, and I have the most fun getting ready; I sometimes even do it in the company of friends! Half my cupboard is emptied onto my bed and there are various iterations of mixing and matching until I find the perfect one for that particular day and show. I always like feeling powerful and my boots make me feel like I can take on anything. That, and a little hair product. I really like how Kat Frankie and Tash Sultana present themselves on stage. I share their aesthetic, which is normcore.”

What are you currently working on?
“At the moment, I’m teaching myself production while going to law school and interning simultaneously. I’m also writing some more songs. My plate, as they say, is quite full!”

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