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Pride Month: Cultural Footprint

How visible is the cultural footprint of India’s queer community?

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

How visible is the cultural footprint of India’s queer community?

Balbir Krishan in his studio.

Balbir Krishan in his studio. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

The queer community has expanded its cultural footprint phenomenally in recent times, through art exhibitions, cinema, literature, entrepreneurship, and fashion. But the real success of this rainbow moment will be when the community also begins to get mainstream employment. 

Ten years ago, artist Balbir Krishan put together a queer-themed solo show “Out Here and Now” in New Delhi. One day, Krishan, who uses prosthetic legs, was attacked during gallery off-hours by a masked intruder who assaulted him and damaged a painting. The incident shook Krishan, but he says it also raised an awareness about a kind of art that “was mostly cloaked in shadows”.

This year, Emami’s Kolkata Centre for Creativity is hosting an entire exhibition around the theme of “being Queer, being Home” for Pride month. There are pictures of rainbow curtains, works using gouache and body hair, a man in a towel with the abs of a Michelangelo model. There is also a framed watercolour of a forest suspended from a real tree branch. Indrani Banerjee, the artist, says the bifurcated branch represents bisexuality, the picture is the forest where she yearns to belong, the bare branch symbolises isolation.

Parmesh Shahani, author of Queeristan: LGBTQ Inclusion in the Indian Workplace, can rattle off exciting queer projects around the country at the drop of a hat—a Queer Awadh Literature festival, a regional organisation called Ya All in Manipur, online spaces such as the Queer Muslim Project. The new LGBTQIA+ icons, he says, are sports stars like Dutee Chand and transgender Bharatanatyam dancer Narthaki Nataraj.

Gay Sauna, an Instagram screenshot of Avijit Ghosh’s artwork.
Gay Sauna, an Instagram screenshot of Avijit Ghosh’s artwork. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

It is easy to assume that reading down Section 377 of the IPC, which once criminalised homosexuality, was responsible for opening these cultural floodgates, but 377 was just a blip in India’s long and storied queer art history. Artist Avijit Ghosh, currently living in Paris, has been exploring queer themes via mythology. Siva as Ardhanarishwara, David and Jonathan in Christian lore, the same-sex love affairs of Greek myth are all proof, says Ghosh, that queer love is neither new nor exotic. In his painting “Dance of Tandava”, Siva tenderly places Jesus on his lap. Ghosh imagines Siva feeling the pain of the crucified Jesus just as he once felt the torment of the death of Sati. “It’s a story of two icons of East and West but above all a story of love,” says Ghosh.

For a long time this “story of love” has been depicted in popular culture as tragic and wistful at best or caricature at worst. But lately the queer love story has come out of the celluloid closet with a bang in OTT series like Made in Heaven and films like Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan and Badhai Do.

“Most series have one or two LGBTQ characters. Fame Game shows a cop raising a child with her same-sex partner. It’s a family, not a parody or passing reference,” says Sridhar Rangayan, director of the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, which just completed its 13th edition. This explosion of content allows Kashish to explore edgier territory like a film showing a gay upper-caste and Dalit relationship or same-sex desire against the backdrop of communal riots in Gujarat. It’s all about “intersectionality”, as Rangayan says.

Hard-won space

Thirteen years of Kashish is also a reminder that while Pride Month is a relatively new affair in India, LGBTQIA+ artistes like Hoshang Merchant and R. Raj Rao have been carving out their space for years. When Shobhna S. Kumar was laid up with a broken ankle, she wanted to read queer literature but found little. She started an online bookstore in 2010 but there were very few Indian LGBTQIA+ books. In 2012 she turned publisher with Queer Ink and the anthology Out! Stories from the New Queer India. Now, mainstream publishing houses have “Pride lists”. One is bringing out film-maker Onir’s memoir, another a gay guide to dating.

In 1996, long before there was a Pride calendar, dancer Sudarshan Chakravorty, founder of Sapphire Dance Company, choreographed “Alien Flower”, a ballet exploring queer desire. He says being “young and adventurous”, he had wanted to create something “unique which would be ‘my voice’”. It was not cool then. Posters declaring “Celebrate your sexuality” were torn down. Senior dancers advised him to be “less adventurous”, warning it would lead to cancellation of sponsorships and government venues.

Dream of My Handicapped life, 2008, Acrylic and ball point pen on handmade paper. By Balbir Krishan.
Dream of My Handicapped life, 2008, Acrylic and ball point pen on handmade paper. By Balbir Krishan. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Balbir Krishan can relate. The nudity in artist Bhupen Khakhar’s famous painting “Yayati” inspired him to draw a male nude, but when he took it to be photographed in Meerut, the photographer condemned it. “It devastated me,” says Krishan. “I reworked the painting to hide the genitalia behind dark shadows.” Krishan is at present a part of a show on the male nude in New York City.

‘More diverse, more direct’

This history matters if only to show that the current spurt of rainbow hues in culture is hard-won. Sharif Rangnekar, founder of the Rainbow Lit Fest, says we are captivated by images of massive crowds at post-377 Pride Marches, but at his fest he had a session on the “first 15 folks who stepped up and out in Kolkata (for the first Freedom Walk) over two decades earlier”. What excites Rangnekar about the future is seeing the community find different forms of self-expression—traditional poetry, slam, open mic sessions, comedy, music. He says today it is “more diverse, more direct, with fewer filters”.

This spurt has led to a new visibility for queer artistes where their queerness goes beyond a coming-out story. Like Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar and Shalini Krishan of Edible Archives, a restaurant and a culinary heritage project, who can talk about indigenous rice from Cooch Behar with as much passion as about how they bonded as a couple over Naga food. Queerness becomes part of the biodiversity of their ecosystem.

Sudarshan Chakravorty in a scene from the 2017 ballet Alien Flower he choreographed. 
Sudarshan Chakravorty in a scene from the 2017 ballet Alien Flower he choreographed.  | Photo Credit: Samanwoy Bhattacharya

Alisha Batth, who has been part of Coke Studio, has been making waves in the indie folk-rock scene. “I don’t think that the queer label limits me in any way,” says Batth who came out at 16. “It expands my circle to meet and work with other talented queer folks.” Artistes like Ani diFranco and k.d. lang helped her own her own sexuality. diFranco’s In or Out and Swan Dive resonated on her queer register. Someday, Batth’s songs might do the same for a new generation of queers.

This cultural confidence means there is less angst about labels and audience. Artist Avijit Ghosh says his work is not just for the LGBTQIA+ community. “My main objective is to show love between humans without putting them into boxes or frameworks,” he says. Choreographer Chakravorty says his recent piece “Rasasutra” uses fluidity of dance forms to express sexual fluidity without worrying about labels, just acknowledging “masculinity and femininity in the same body”.

Of course, there is a danger that this cultural discovery of LGBTQ India will lead to commoditisation of the community. Arnab Biswas understands that challenge. His Instagram feed has make-up tips for men, dating advice, some beefcake. “I work out hard and post shirtless pictures,” he says. “Am I seeking validation? Indeed yes! Who is not?” But he has also turned his thousands-strong following, drawn by the eye candy, into a parallel career as an influencer plugging everything from plant protein to sunblock. Coca-Cola London approached him before the Tokyo Olympics. There are bigger influencers, he says, but “as a gay Asian influencer I tick a lot of boxes for them”.

Biswas has no qualms about using this new-found “pink capitalism”. “There is pink washing, of course, a surge during Pride month,” says Biswas, “but I just use the opportunity.” He refuses to espouse any cause for free. “You want to empower us? Pay us,” he says.

Parmesh Shahani also believes that instead of hand-wringing about pink capitalism, one should take advantage of this rainbow moment and ensure the attention translates into jobs. “Government is the largest employer,” says Shahani. “If they take hiring queer people seriously, it will be a game changer and a true win-win.”

Otherwise all the cultural visibility could amount to little more than rainbow tokenism. Living Smile Vidya, actor and trans activist, is sometimes asked to be a consultant on films with trans characters. But she remembers being rejected for a film “because I was not trans enough. They thought transgenders only walk a certain way.” Real change, she says, will happen when trans actors are hired for lead roles not just as “small side characters” for diversity brownie points. Recently, the Malayalam film Antharam won trans actor Negha the best debut actor award in Kerala.

Recently, the Malayalam film Antharam won trans actor Negha (right) the best debut actor award in Kerala.
Recently, the Malayalam film Antharam won trans actor Negha (right) the best debut actor award in Kerala. | Photo Credit: Sivagaminathan S@Kochi

That is why queer people need to not just be depicted in culture but to produce it as well. BeUnic is one such venture, a portal for queer entrepreneurs selling everything from T-shirts to “subculture” blindfolds “handcrafted with high-grade genuine leather and non-corrosive hardware in a small village of Jaipur, Rajasthan”. It started because many queer entrepreneurs did not have the wherewithal to create an e-commerce site. BeUnic has an international licence so it can ship abroad and run ads. The focus is on the queerness of the creator, not the rainbow quotient of the product although there are rainbow keychains. “We try to put out the message that clothes have no gender and anyone can buy the stuff on our platform,” says Vishesh Chopra, co-founder with brother Ashish. You do not need to be gay to wear the cool unisex suede leather rainbow shoes despite its promise of “pride with every stride”. “But our creators, models, photographers, being queer, the queer sensibility definitely permeates across our brand as well,” says Vishesh. Starting with three or four creators, BeUnic now has 25+.

Other queer ventures are less rosy about the future. Shobhna Kumar of Queer Ink says the pandemic hit hard. She saw people return to “spaces that were once unsafe” and some even got into heterosexual marriages. “Sexuality and gender didn’t play the most important part in our survival,” she says. “I did not sell a single print copy in the two years of the pandemic. Now, paper and ink costs have skyrocketed, by approximately 45 per cent.”

Sharif Rangnekar also agrees that the growing visibility has not translated into money, pink or otherwise, for gay people. He says it is a reminder that despite rainbow memes, the LGBTQ community stands low in the pecking order for a corporation’s attention. Chakravorty of Sapphire once raised Rs.75,000 from a private company in 1996. He says it would be very hard to raise its equivalent now in a country where “films, food, fashion and sports (but not art) take centre stage”.

But the important message to get out is that there cannot be just one kind of queerness that’s cool, as Rangnekar says. “We aren’t alternatives, even if people think we are. We just are.” And queerness exists beyond the metros and beyond June. Balbir Krishan’s family lives in a village where khap panchayats still hold sway. “After I got engaged to a man in 2013, I lost my family and my job, and escaped the village fearing my safety,” says Krishan. He lives in upstate New York with his husband now. His weekly phone calls home avoid all mention of his lifestyle or his partner. “The idea that I’ll someday be able to bring him home to the village is a long shot,” says Krishan.

Queer visibility in cultural spaces might be very high right now, but it always comes with a reminder that the rainbow is still broken in many places in India.