Young men and women— aged around 30 or under—have posed for a series of portraits taken in public places by the photographer Sunil Gupta. The series—part of the show Face Up organised by Tasveer in Bangalore—is titled Mr Malhotra’s Party, which sounds evocative but odd until Gupta explains why.
Look at me: (clockwise from top) Anokhi from Mr Malhotra’s Party, photographer Sunil Gupta; Bikram and Raju from the series. Photographs by Sunil Gupta
Since homosexual acts are illegal in India—the recent Delhi high court ruling against Article 377, which criminalizes homosexual activity, could change this—when the well-off members of Delhi’s gay community want to organize a get-together, they often put up a sign outside the venue saying that it is a private party, say, “Mr Singh’s party” or “Mr Sharma’s party”.
Gupta—who is gay, grew up in Delhi and after extended stints overseas now lives here again— attended one such gathering which had been billed as “Mr Malhotra’s party”. He found it quite apposite. “Malhotra is the typical post-Partition refugee who came from across the border and helped make Delhi what it is today,” he says. And hence, a typical Delhi name for this portrait series of young gay men and women who live in the Capital.
Looking straight into the camera and at the viewer, these confident youngsters are making a statement—“I am gay and I don’t have a problem with that”—and, implicitly, asking a question, “Do you?”
At his residence, Gupta pulls out another set of photographs of gay men in public places in Delhi that he took in the early 1980s—they either have their back to the camera or are looking away or their faces are in the shadows. “Earlier, I had to persuade people (to pose), now people are asking me (if they can pose),” says Gupta. Back then, he says, feminists wrote on feminist issues, and blacks wrote or drew art about blacks. So, as an adult gay man, he photographed other adult gay men. These 12 portraits, by contrast, are a picture of diversity—there are women who posed willingly, and, he points out, the subjects happen to be ethnically diverse, hailing from different parts of India.
But do the photos “work” if we are not told that the subjects are gay? They do, because they are still studies of members belonging to a minority group—albeit a larger, privileged minority that would also include the viewers of the photos. The subjects’ attire and even their names (Anokhi, Pavitr, Kaushiki, Akshara, Chapal) mark them out as members of the upper-middle class. (Gupta mentions the places in Delhi where he took the pictures: India Gate, Malviya Nagar, Savitri cinema in Greater Kailash II, Lodhi Garden, near the IIT crossing—south Delhi locales all.)
We are looking at people like us—by their sexual orientation, they could be the Other; but socially they are us. Which is Gupta’s point: “The idea is to reinforce the ordinariness of it,” he says. “I am trying to say that these are normal people.”
And they know that they are posing for their social peers. We can appreciate the wide-legged trousers, the right cut of their jeans and the Fabindia kurtas; and we know that they are gay—but not the aam aadmi milling about at the public places where they are posing. Gupta mentions that one of the 12 subjects is of a working-class origin. As it happens, he is the only one looking away from the camera. This conversation among the subject, the photographer and the viewer is a conversation among the privileged—like all art hung in galleries and museums, perhaps—and there is an exclusive, clubby feel to it. This awareness, besides the fact that the subjects are gay, lends an additional dimension to the photos.
Along with Gupta’s photos, there are three series of portraits by the British photographer Anna Fox, who studied photography with Gupta and now, along with him, is helping set up a postgraduate photography course for the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. The best known, perhaps, is the Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) series of portraits of white Dutch women and children, with their faces blackened as part of a traditional celebration. Racism is very much a live issue in the West, but there is hardly anything unsettling about these placid faces— which itself could be seen as an inadequate and therefore an unsettling response.
Face Up by Tasveer will be showing at Sua House, Bangalore, till 10 August