Eggplants, Okra, Sculpture and Opera for Raj & Bryan!

Mar/01/2021 / by Pratika Yashaswi

for Raj & BryanHe’s a globetrotting businessman turned sculptor. He’s a world-famous tenor known for his tremendous flair with Wagnerian operas. Together, they’ve shared a life with bases in numerous countries for 22 years — or was it 23? They can’t seem to agree upon the year their togetherness “formally” began, or even an anniversary date, but they are in agreement on one issue: Valentine’s Day (or for that matter, anniversaries), aren’t really their thing. Nor is marriage. Both have grown up in fairly conservative environments: Bryan at the edge of the Bible Belt in North Carolina, and Raj in India, where homosexuality was decriminalized just a few years ago. As two gay men in the arts, they have built selfhoods, identities and tremendous careers outside the circle of society’s approval. They have no use for limiting heteronormative constructs. But they do have use for celebrating love every day, with humor, immaculate standards of honesty and, of course, a life in the arts. On a beautiful, breezy day in Dubai where Bryan is celebrating his birthday month with Raj’s family, they tell us all about it over video call.

How did you meet?

Bryan: I was in New York doing “Don Giovanni.” After the performance, I was in my dressing room taking off my makeup. My voice teacher knocked on my door, and said, “Bryan, are you expecting any guests today?” And I said, “No, I’m not.” She said, “Well, there’s a very handsome Indian man standing outside with flowers, asking to meet you.”

Raj:(laughing) The stress is on ‘very.’

And from then on, it began…

Raj: And there again, we have different stories. I say he pursued me, he says I pursued him… 

Bryan: …but it began nonetheless.

Bryan, you grew up in North Carolina, and Raj, you were mostly in Mumbai before your work took you to the Middle East and Europe. Your backgrounds are polar opposites. How does this play into your relationship?

Bryan: The two unifying factors between both our backgrounds is bhindi (okra) and baingan (eggplant). It bought the two worlds together. In the southern United States, eggplant and okra are a part of our staple diet, they’re very popular. But when I first met Raj, he didn’t even know about that part of American cuisine, and he was SHOCKED.

Do you like bhindi and baingan?

Bryan: Love it.

 Raj: I don’t like bhindi and I don’t like baingan. But you know how Indian boys are? Whatever their mama likes [they do]. My mom likes bhindi and baingan, and she makes it for him, and they enjoy it together. It warms my heart, and I’m like, fine, everything’s good with the world.

The two of you travel a lot for work. Do you spend a lot of time apart?

Raj: We do travel a lot, but we don’t feel apart because we speak every 15-20 minutes, and we know everything that’s happening with each other. We’re happy together, sad together, we’re connected. And then at least once a month, wherever Bryan is, I make it a point to travel and spend a week with him.

Bryan: For my jobs, I’m usually in one place for two to three months at a time, so Raj will come to opening night, red carpet nights, parties, stuff like that, and continue on with his traveling. So, we do see each other a lot, but it’s not like a normal live together, see each other everyday sort of thing. The only time that’s happened in over 20 years has been 2020 because of Covid-19. 

How did that go?

Raj: We didn’t kill each other.

Bryan: No we didn’t, and we’re still here and nobody’s been to the hospital, so it’s pretty good. No, I’m kidding; actually, it was great.

So, you wouldn’t say any part of it was challenging?

Bryan: The challenge was not interpersonal. It wasn’t, you know, stress between me and Raj. It was just the stress of our lives being stuck on hold. All of my work was canceled, and for Raj, studio spaces were closed.

So, do you have a base at all?

Raj: New York is one of our bases, and we also have a base in London because so much of Bryan’s work happens in Europe. We have one in Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. And then we have Dubai and India and Hong Kong. So we’re not in any one place for a long time.

What are some things you do that help you support the relationship and keep it strong despite the distance?

Bryan: We talk a lot. We’re in constant communication over the phone and text.

Raj: Literally every single emotion, everything we’re going through, we’re communicating. We’re always talking. We are not making an active effort. It’s not like ‘Oh, we’re working hard.’ I mean, of course we are, but the communication is a very organic process. It’s not forced.

Bryan: But also I think the reason why it works is both of us as individuals value independence and personal, private space. We support each other in our individual lifestyles, and it works for the relationship. I know that some people would not be able to handle the fact that I travel so much. It would be a dealbreaker, and the same goes for Raj. In that way, I think, that’s one of the reasons why it really works.

Raj: Also, it helps that both our families love each other. My family loves Bryan to death and his family loves me to death, and it’s a huge support system. Right now, we’re celebrating Bryan’s birthday at my sister’s place, and it feels just like home.

What are your secrets to longevity in relationships?

Raj: Honesty. Honesty in your emotions and feelings and all your dealings. When you’re being truly honest, you know, like it’s like baring your insides and being completely open. There’s nothing to hide behind.

Bryan: Know yourself. Be able to identify what your needs are and make that clear to your partner, and know what to ask for to make you happy. And your partner has to do the same thing.

Did you ever face opposition or stigma because of your sexuality?

Bryan: There was resistance and opposition to my being gay, but they never took that out on Raj or treated him badly. Before I met Raj, I had already come out to my parents and we’d dealt with a lot of those issues. So, Raj didn’t exactly walk into a firestorm.

Raj: Bryan had to have a talk with his family and come out, but it wasn’t like that for me. There wasn’t opposition as such; the [acceptance] just grew naturally.

Do you ever feel like you’re breaking stereotypes in your identities?

Raj: If we are, we’re not aware of it because this is so organic. And I use the word organic a lot because it just feels like it’s meant to be, and this is how the world is. So, we’re not fighting anything. We’re not trying to prove anything. I don’t want to say I don’t care what other people think, but really, it’s a non-issue. I was brought up to be a strong, happy person and that’s how we live.

Bryan: As an artist, I strive so much to be me and discover all the dimensions of what that means. And I’m so busy living life and being Bryan that I don’t think about ‘How do I compare to other people?’ and ‘Am I normal?’ Cause I know I’m not normal. I just gave up on that years ago.

Before we sign off, is there anything else you’d like to add for this special Valentine’s issue?

Raj: Ok, so we should not be in a Valentine’s day issue. Because we don’t believe in Valentine’s and believe every day should be special. Every day’s a celebration. We wake up, and we’re like, ‘This is great!’

Bryan: We’re, like, post-Valentine’s. We don’t do Valentine’s or Christmas or birthdays or Diwali, where you’re expected to give a gift. We give gifts randomly.

And no anniversaries either?

Bryan: That’s, another thing. We don’t have an exact day. We have a month, but we don’t celebrate that. We’ve never wished each other happy anniversary.

Is that why you have decided not to get married?

Raj: Well, I was married once, and I didn’t find anything interesting or enticing about it. If we do get married it would be for legal or financial reasons, so we can visit each other in hospitals and stuff, but marriage doesn’t bring anything extra to the table.

Bryan: Also, when we started dating, LGBTQ+ rights weren’t where they are now. Seeing each other … It wasn’t the popular thing to do, and marriage was not an option. I feel like I’ve forged my path and lived my life in spite of resistance from people and society and culture. And I think that now by doing the marriage thing, I would be selling out or giving in. I’ve had a very healthy and long-lasting relationship for all these years without society’s permission and without society’s blessing. I didn’t need it then, and I don’t need it now. I might consider it and I think it is very romantic, but I would do it for completely different reasons.

Raj: I’d do it because it’d make for great photographs. And then we might not call it marriage. We’d call it something else. Actually, we don’t need to name it.

Does the travel and uncertainty ever get unsettling?

Bryan: Sometimes it feels unsettling, like I’m a gypsy living out of a suitcase, but that’s just the nature of my work. I mean, if I’m going to do what I do as a career, I really have no other choice. 

And the fact that we have multiple bases makes my life easier rather than more difficult. At least if I have four different homes, I have places that I can go to in different regions of the world that still feel like home instead of a hotel. I don’t think we will ever be able to go back to being regular people with one base.

Raj: Bryan sings all over the world and, before I retired I was always traveling for work. Now, with my family spread apart all over the world, I think the world is our home now. So it doesn’t really matter where we are.

Raj, you turned to sculpture after a career in business. Did Bryan have anything to do with it?

Raj: There wasn’t much support for the arts when I was growing up in India so I never let that side of me come through. But my son’s a musician and artist and Bryan’s an artist and living with them tugged at me and made me want to be like them. I’ve always looked up to artists and that played into what I wanted to do. Plus seeing Bryan so on top of his game and the joy he gets from art, to be exposed to that kind of passion and effort everyday is inspiration in itself.

No base, no anniversaries, and no legal status. That’s an amazing amount of uncertainty to live with every day.

Bryan: I think Raj has always been comfortable with it, but it took me a very long time to get here because I come from a very conservative family and area of the United States. And my brain works in those conservative constructs. So it took me a long time to get to where I am and be comfortable. 

In healthy, thriving relationships, people are together because they choose to be together. Not because they’re forced to be together or they’re bound by contract. Every day I wake up and I choose to be with Raj rather than, you know, ‘Oh, I made a binding contract with the state and before God and all that and I might hate his guts and not want to look at his face, but I have to stay in it because I made a formal commitment.’

What are some things you do that help you keep the relationship strong despite the distance?

Bryan:When we first met each other, I didn’t have an international career. I wasn’t traveling all over the world and Raj wasn’t traveling as much as he travels now. So at the beginning of our relationship, we did spend a lot more time together, physically, which laid a firm foundation. Now when the situation has changed, we’re able to adjust.

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