Dishoom: The Dance Party at the Center of the World

The second time I went to Dishoom — the Indian dance party thrown by DJRang that’s become a phenomenon in Durham, North Carolina — I danced for four hours straight. That was a mistake. My stomach hurt so much that when I went to bed, I couldn’t fall asleep. After some back-of-the-envelope googling, I realized I’d strained my abdominal muscles from too much twerking.

That’s the sign of a good dance party.

But to call Dishoom just a good dance party would be to understate its significance. It triggered something in me about our cultural moment. For the first time, there’s a national conversation about how the white gaze works in shaping pop culture: what art gets considered “mainstream” and what’s considered “fringe.” To summarize, white gaze centers the perspectives, experiences, and stories of white people in U.S. pop culture; and requires that all other output is peripheral to, or in service to, that narrative. Even the word “diversity” is a white fantasy, because it assumes that whiteness is the default to which things are added.

I understood this in my head. But Dishoom drove it home on a physical level. It’s a dance party of primarily Indian music, run and created by people of color, the children of immigrants. For those reasons alone, white gaze would dismiss it as fringe. But the party’s overwhelming popularity with all kinds of people signals just the opposite. When I was there, still dancing even though the dance floor was packed so tight I could barely move, all I could think was, This is not the fringe of US pop culture. This is anything but the fringe. This is the center.

~

DJRang — aka Ranganathan Rajaram — doesn’t set out to effect social change. He sets out to throw a good party. But art is always a mechanism of social change, simply by existing; the better the artist, the more profound its effect.

Good artists alter how the world turns.

Genius artists make the world turn around them.

Part of what makes Rang a genius is that he understands that DJing, like any live performance, requires radical presence. Most DJs phone it in, queuing up a list, hitting play, and then checking their text messages onstage. But Rang goes in with his entire musical library. When the clock hits ten, he makes a first offer. The crowd responds, or doesn’t. Then the party becomes a constant conversation — spoken in music, answered with body language, measured in waves.

He was inspired to create Dishoom while on vacation in Puerto Rico, where he went to La Respuesta, a club dedicated to underground artists. Three DJs shared two stations, layering dance hall, hip hop, salsa, and merengue until three in the morning. It made a profound impression on him. “You didn’t feel unwelcome walking in. Nobody eyeballed you. Just come in, have fun. I was like…I want this with Indian music.”

DJRang at Dishoom, May 2015. Photo credit: Tesh Parekh, IWP Photography.

DJRang at Dishoom, May 2015. Photo credit: Tesh Parekh, IWP Photography.

Rang already had a following from hosting bhangra parties in nearby Chapel Hill. His crowd had a strong Desi component, but otherwise, reflected the community at large. He wanted to use that following to curate a core crowd — friends of friends who’d spread the word, so that the degree of separation between any two people at Dishoom would never be more than two. And he wanted to host it at The Pinhook, a queer downtown space that set the tone for Durham’s revival five years ago.

The first Dishoom sold out in an hour. Over the next year, Rang added and subtracted elements until the party became what it is now: a four-hour slice of transcendent time, lit in magenta and blue, complete with pre-game bhangra lessons, live drumming, and live visuals. The vibe is welcoming. The mien is exuberant. The flyers are photoshopped Bollywood posters.

Posters for Dishoom, July 2014 and May 2015. From left to right: DJRang, singer Sandeep Kumar, dholi Jeetu Singh, DJRang, and video artist Saleem Reshamwala, aka KidEthnic.

Posters for Dishoom, July 2014 and May 2015. From left to right: DJRang, DJ Sandeep Kumar, dholi Jeetu Singh, DJRang, and video artist Saleem Reshamwala, aka KidEthnic.

The first time I went to Dishoom, I wandered around the rest of my weekend in a sort of haze. I’d had a peak experience. Everything else felt like a disappointment. And it’d brought up an avalanche of feelings I was just beginning to process.

On the most superficial level, I’d never realized how much I loved to dance. It’s because I’d never found a DJ I could trust, or even knew that that’s what I needed.

But on a deeper level, I was feeling a lot of anger. Not at the performers, of course, but at mainstream white culture for teaching me to be afraid. In the tiny town where I grew up, where the population was 97% white, I got to consider myself open-minded because I listened to Paul Simon and Cassandra Wilson. When I went away to college, I learned differently; and in a sort of self-preservation instinct, struggled with kneejerk reactions to things that seemed “foreign.”

For example, I realized I was avoiding my college’s Desi and Chinese cultural shows — which, to my classmates, were the unmissable events of the year. Of course, there were many reasons I didn’t go; I had to study, I had to catch up on sleep, I didn’t go out much to begin with, et cetera. But part of it was that mainstream culture’s dismissal of anything “fringe” made it easy for me to dismiss it, too.

I worked to deprogram myself. But I’m still angry I had to in the first place. White gaze cheats everyone. Moreover, I wonder whether I was avoiding those shows because part of me understood that art, like no other force, would require me to give up control over everything I thought I knew about what deserved my attention in life, and what didn’t.

~

Jeetu Singh is the dholi for Dishoom. He plays live Punjabi drum with the music. When he arrives, shit gets serious; the live physicality of the instrument tends to drive the crowd into a frenzy.

At one party, he wore a T-shirt by hometown brand Runaway that read DURHAM: REALER THAN YOUR CITY. The slogan speaks to the gritty underdog character of Durham itself, long held at arm’s length by its neighbors in “the Triangle” — Raleigh and Chapel Hill — largely because of racial prejudice.

Rang has played gigs all over the Triangle. He got frustrated with the racially-coded pressure to play single genre parties. “They’re for crowd control. ‘If you play all house music all night, black people won’t come to your club’…that’s how Raleigh operates.” Rang feels like he should be more vocal, but that carries financial risk. “Because I also have to work at some of those places, still,” he says, “and I also still keep in touch with some people that have said some really racist shit to me.”

He’s apprehensive about how Durham is changing, too. Gentrification is accelerating. The secret’s out, development’s afire, and condo towers are going up all over the city. “Nobody that makes Durham Durham can afford to live down there,” he says.

Meanwhile, Dishoom is an attempt to create a space that reflects the character of the Durham ideal. In fact, he wanted to go a step further: he and a partner tried to open their own nightclub across the street from The Pinhook. But they came up against constant hassle from nearby white residents who wanted to control not only their space, but the public space. They cited concerns about “noise” and “what your patrons would do.”

Meanwhile, two boutique hotels featuring $14 cocktails went up within a few blocks. Those same residents apparently weren’t concerned about what those patrons would do.

~

Saleem Reshamwala — aka filmmaker KidEthnic — mixes the live visuals for Dishoom. That means he “scratches” video in real time to the beat of the music, usually vintage Bollywood movies or corny Indian 70s shows. He comes from Indian, Japanese, and Middle Eastern descent, and at his first Dishoom, wore a T-shirt that read GRIND OF AN IMMIGRANT.

“Racially, I read as a lot of different things given different situations,” he says. “Everything depends on my hair and facial hair.” That social fluidity allows him to play with people’s expectations, in a way that gives him a kind of wicked pleasure.

Rang and Saleem met less than a year ago, but watching them onstage, it’s hard to believe they aren’t boyhood best friends. They have similar build. They read each other’s energy. When the visual mixing starts up, they bounce all over the stage like spring-loaded action figures.

But their sense of play has a serious purpose. In a club, the crowd is surrendering their bodies. It’s an act of vulnerability. Some DJs address that vulnerability by taking requests during shows. Rang addresses in the exact opposite way:

No requests, ever.

Trust the DJ.

Saleem also recognizes the element of trust involved. The videos he’s remixing are part of the very issues he wants to address, including among his community in Durham. “When you’re dealing with old footage, you have to deal with racism and skin-shade-ism and sexism and male-gaze and all that kind of stuff,” he says. But using vintage films is deliberate — their recontextualization is an act of re-creation. “We have to break old things into pieces small enough that we can recreate them into the world we wish existed.”

~

The third time I go to Dishoom, I start drinking water the night before. I prepare for it less like a dance party and more like hiking the Appalachian Trail. I wear sensible clothing — nothing flashy — a T-shirt, jean shorts, and the waterproof boots I normally only use for caving in Central America.

Before the doors open, I go up onstage to see dance floor from Rang’s point of view. His setup looks like the helm of a starship, with two glowing turntables and a board of candy-colored buttons. He demonstrates scratching, using his fingers to layer an improvised beat on top of, and in exact time with, the music. The turntables become a percussion instrument in the most literal sense. It’s not something many DJs know how to do anymore, but to purists, it’s like a visual artist not knowing how to use a paintbrush, or a writer forgetting how to use a pen. Scratching gives the music a muscularity that translates to the dance floor.

For the first hour, I just find an armchair in the back and listen to the music. Rang crossfades from bhangra to Beyoncé to Bollywood to “Beat It” in the space of a few minutes. I feel like I’m gliding from room to room of an infinite mansion, but as hard as I listen, I can never tell the exact transition point.

Meanwhile, the guests arrive. It’s like watching a human version of Noah’s Ark. There’s undergrads, mothers, dykes, bros, hipsters, otters, engineers, femmes, yuppies, artists, dentists, geeks, punks, activists, women in suits, women with weaves, women in salwar kameez, women in fuchsia wigs, women in bellydancing wraps, men in dreadlocks, men in baseball caps, men in Metallica T-shirts, men in Sikh turbans, men in slacks, Desi people, East Asian people, Black people, white people.

It’s ironic: one way to read a crowd, Rang says, is to use stereotypes to guess what people will dance to. (When asked how he’d stereotype me, he says, “White girl at an Indian dance party will dance to almost anything Indian.” Completely true, in my case.) But the end goal isn’t to stop at stereotypes. It’s to use them to create a place where — no matter how briefly — they cease to have meaning. In the space of Dishoom, Saleem says, he’s a bridge between his ideal world and the physical world of the party. “I’ll jump off the stage and run around dancing as stupidly as possible, to help give people permission to be whatever they want.” All good art effects change, but the mechanism of club dancing is unique: it overwhelms the senses, inducing a physical exhaustion that bypasses all learned behaviors, and creates a shared oblivion.

The party enters a dream space. Perfect moments line up like a string of prayer beads. The dance floor is overlooked by a mural of panda bears clutching PBRs and vomiting rainbows. Around eleven, Jeetu arrives with his drum strapped to his back, wearing a T-shirt that reads: KEEP CALM. THE DHOLI IS HERE.

By midnight, I start to get a dehydration headache, and tie my T-shirt at the midriff to give my skin more space to sweat. Around one, I start to get symptoms of heat exhaustion. By two, my body hurts too much to keep dancing. But I keep dancing anyway. The force of the music is greater than the instinct for self-preservation. The bass beats my heart for me.

Everyone is so happy.

All because we trust that we’re not in control.

~

*Full disclosure: both Ranganathan Rajaram and Saleem Reshamwala are contributors to my Patreon at the $1 level. But I’d planned to cover Dishoom regardless; in fact, Dishoom was one of the original inspirations for this column.

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