By: Kristina Kirkliauskaitė
Photos by: Markus Glanz
Coming from India, then living in the Middle East, and now being based in Berlin. Pooja goes through the journey of navigating her identity, creating inner peace and what it's like to be a queer Indian DJ in today's techno scene and beyond.
Pooja was born and raised in Pune, India, where "nightlife wasn't so much of a culture." She discovered techno for the first time when working as a flight attendant, based in Chennai. Just before moving out of India, she started to play music in 2009, slowly sliding into her DJing journey.
As she started to work at one of the world’s leading airlines, flying became a turning point in her music exploration.
"While traveling, I listened to newer stuff, and when I started Djing again, I tried to bring it back into my sets."
However, crowds had a mentality that they wanted to hear stuff they knew from radio or TV.
"That frustrated me because I was trying to introduce new music, but people still weren't receptive to it because they hadn't heard it before. I thought fuck this shit. I don't want to play stuff that people listen to constantly. It was an intentional shift from playing commercial music to house and more and more techno."
Pooja shares her experience of DJing while living in Dubai in the 2010s. Differently from commercial clubs and lounges, the underground scene in Dubai wasn't that concentrated with female DJs when she lived there.
"When I started Djing again, I often used to be the only woman in a line-up except for a party series by a queer woman. Over time, I became known for playing obscure techno that wasn't popular back then."
She also shares the issues of fostering an underground scene there generally.
"When a scene exists in places like the Middle East or India where nightlife is so anti-culture, running events is really challenging and takes immense passion. The underground scene has existed for over 20 years, with notorious parties, gay nights, and desert raves, but not much was documented until recent years, and much of the world doesn't know about it. I held residencies with Analog Room, Electric Days, and Warped, and I feel grateful to have been a part of that scene and witnessed and played for some of these events. Analog Room and Warped are the two longest-running underground nights that have rigorously pushed the boundaries in a city where super commercial clubs and bottle service were the norm. I've been a resident at both and had the opportunity to see the workings of these and other parties that friends organized from up close. While many industry heavyweights have played there, the scene roots firmly in the incredibly talented local DJs who have been foundational in creating a robust scene there despite all odds."
Pooja highlights that the scene in the UAE has been growing steadily over the years. Herefore, she touches on what it was like to be a DJ from the Middle East.
"Back then, the hardest part was being taken seriously. People in Berlin and other cities with a healthy electronic music scene would often be dismissive when they learned I was based in Dubai, even though I played in other parts of the world. Some found it shocking that a scene even existed there or in India."
Hearing a lot about Berlin's club scene, in 2016, she made her first trip to Berlin.
"I was at the coat check at Berghain, and on the stairs on the side, there was this man who was naked with a ring on his dick, just standing there casually eating a banana. I thought, okay, anyone can just be, and that's fine.”
Pooja emphasized Berlin as a place of acceptance and genuine belonging after experiencing club culture in Tresor, ://about blank and Golden Gate as well on that trip. The idea of living in Berlin followed her for a few years, and she mentions:
"Having an Indian passport is already a big challenge for getting any visa, so I wasn't sure how I was gonna get here, especially since an artist visa was out of question having payslips from airlines."
Pooja saw a job posting for Ableton in the Female Pressure group, where she applied despite not meeting all the requirements. Soon, she left her job at Emirates Airlines without having a job with Ableton yet.
"I quit in the middle of the pandemic, and my mom thought I was crazy. People are getting fired, and you are resigning from such a great job. At that moment, you know, it just felt right.”
Eventually, she made her dream come true – she got a job at Ableton, where she still works till this day – and moved to Berlin in 2021.
Even a few years before moving to Berlin, she started to struggle with her sexual identity. Being married for over 10 years put even more weight on the situation.
"As a woman, I have fought so much in the system and against the system that my female identity is dear to me. I figured that both parts of my identity could exist. It could be that I'm attracted to women and men, and that's okay."
She adds, "I needed to move away from where I was, and Berlin seemed like the perfect place to explore identity."
At the same time, deep diving into her sexual identity wasn't the only clash.
"The other bit of my identity was not having a sense of belonging that I struggled with. Because I was a flight attendant, I didn't have regular days off like everyone else, often missing plans and important occasions. I had good friends worldwide but also a huge lack of belonging. Yet Berlin has given me that. I felt that belonging when I first arrived."
Pooja describes Berlin as a liberating place that "gives you the space to breathe, explore and try out different aspects of your reality."
She also adds:
"In contrast to places like Dubai or India, where such freedom is restricted, here I have the opportunity to contemplate and even experiment with other parts of my identity, which makes me feel belonged."
Pooja shares that she still faces some widely applicable stigmas in the scene.
"People here seem woke, but I've noticed instances of racism that they're oblivious to. From comments about my English skills to differential treatment, my POC friends and I discuss how males presenting POC face micro aggressions, particularly from door staff. Meanwhile, POC women can be objectified and exoticised."
Tokenism is another reality she comes across in the city.
"It becomes evident when I'm the only POC artist on a lineup, where my inclusion seems more like a token gesture than a genuine effort to promote diversity. Once, I was basically told that my success as an Indian woman in Berlin was solely due to my ethnicity and recent arrival. Such comments reflect a lack of understanding and awareness, highlighting how deeply ingrained racism and tokenism can still exist."
"You'll be surprised by how many people don't realise they are being racist or tokenistic. They may consider themselves progressive or "woke" but fail to recognise the harmful impact of their actions and words. It underscores the importance of continuous education and dialogue to address these issues and promote genuine inclusivity."
She continues about having the pressure to represent her queerness very obviously.
"Feeling the need to put in extra effort for acceptance is hard to express. Also, revealing my queerness or fully embracing my identity isn't something I lead with. I noticed that queer spaces often lean towards being predominantly white, male, and gay. If you aren't primarily in queer circles, don't look a certain way or if you're bisexual, then you aren't really queer enough. Although I've gradually found more diverse spaces, indicating the need for overall balance."
Having her unique experience and learned lessons, Pooja emphasizes the vital role of self-acceptance.
"Having an identity of any sort is not for someone else. It's for yourself, which means I have to learn to be okay with who I am, what I'm wearing, what I'm saying, what relationships I have, what my kinks are, and with all of this, it's okay to be one or the other or both. Belonging is when you feel you can be anyone or anything."
When asked what advice Pooja would give her younger self, the answer is clear.
"Don't worry about fitting in. I can belong anywhere, just the way I’m."
Explore Pooja’s music