A glimpse into the lives and existential woes of the youth of Delhi's LGBT community through Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh's photo book 'Delhi: Communities of Belonging'
There is something unflinching about Jatin when he looks into the camera. Reedy with a head full of dark hair casually parted in the middle, he is unsmiling. Even as he is photographed with one of his casual sex partners who, on the other hand, is grinning widely, Jatin wears a sombre expression. Except when he is photographed dancing, pinching his denim with his fingers as if he is ready to twirl. Then, he is grinning. Though identified as a kothi (a term for effeminate men), Jatin has been married to a woman, forcibly by his family, and has three children.
Known only by his first name, Jatin is among the many subjects of Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh’s photo book—Delhi: Communities of Belonging. Published by a New York-based independent publisher called New Press, Gupta and Singh’s book is part of an LGBT-themed photo book series. The books chronicle the lives of queer people across the spectrum living in Russia, Japan, Australia, Mexico, New York City and Delhi.
Although these books provide a glimpse into the lives of a cross-section of LGBT youth from varied societies, on a larger level, the attempt is to revisit the notion of a conventional family. “Taking into account the sweeping societal changes of the past sixty years, and arguing for a more diverse and inclusive sense of who we are in the twenty-first century, the books foreground a range of often hidden communities who live with varying degrees of acceptance and have challenged commonly held definitions of family," reads a statement at Diverse Humanity, a website dedicated to this book project.
“The idea is to raise awareness and generate funds to fight legal cases against queer lives in intolerant societies across the globe. In a way, you can say this is long-winded activism," says Sunil Gupta.
Hate crimes and bias against the LGBT community are on the rise around the world. The UK and the US reported 7,194 and 1,219 such cases, respectively, in 2015. There has been a spurt of anti-gay violence in the Netherlands recently, and disturbing reports from Chechnya about horrifying abuse meted out to gay men made headlines. In India, after the Supreme Court decision in 2013 that effectively reinstated Section 377, stifling the voices of an entire community and thrusting many back into the closet, arrests have spiked. A total of 1,491 arrests were made in 2015 under Section 377, according to a National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report.
The book is seen as an attempt to help overcome the taboo of homosexual life throughout the modern world. In its introduction, historian and gay studies scholar, Saleem Kidwai, writes that “a visible queer community has emerged in Delhi over the past two decades. What was silent and private has emerged into the public sphere. Gupta’s and Singh’s work bears testimony to this."
Under duress, since homosexual acts are still punishable by law, queer people navigate in trickier social landscapes in India, living beneath the shadow of stigma and criminalization. Gupta’s book attempts to chronicle these lives. Ranjan says “even though people are more out today, there is that thing in the back of the mind saying this is still illegal in this country." The subjects, like Ranjan and Jatin, are from all walks of life in Delhi. The unifying factor is that they are from the sexual minorities, identified anywhere within the LGBTQ spectrum.
“I come here to Connaught Place to seek out sexual partners on my way home. I work nearby so it’s easy for me to visit. I don’t want to disclose my identity in my neighbourhood, which is a bit unsafe and rough. So in Connaught Place I can meet people like me and share my feelings, my happiness and sorrows with them. I can find boyfriends here to have sex with, and sometimes they take me to their homes," Jatin says in the book.
Indisputably among the best of India’s photographers, Sunil Gupta has, in his works, explored narratives of contemporary gay life in India and other parts of the world, tackling issues of gender and sexuality. From documenting his own experiences of living with HIV to providing groundbreaking portraits of queer people, struggling against homophobic laws and culture, his work has touched upon various important issues. It is also often referred to as subversive, whimsical, personal, political, and Delhi: Communities of Belonging is perhaps his landmark documentation work that provides a peek into the hidden lives of queer people in Delhi.
The decision to peg the book in Delhi was an obvious choice when the project was offered to Gupta and Singh. “Over and above the obvious reasons that we are both from Delhi and speak the language, we believed Delhi is a good microcosm of modern India. It has a wide range of people from all around the country," Gupta says.
They sourced contacts from friends and acquaintances and whittled down the subjects. They varied from HIV activists to queer feminists to professors to even a graphic designer. Since most of the subjects were out already out with their identities, it wasn’t a matter of concern. “But people weren’t sure how public this would become," he Gupta says.
With conservative families, societal pressures and unfavourable laws, being outed or coming out in the public sphere involves numerous complications for queer people in India. Another subject Rituparna says in the book, “It took me one year of activism to talk about my queerness. At the 2008 Pride (March), I was carrying a banner and planning to hide my face, but my parents saw me on TV. Slowly, I began talking to my parents, too. Being seen on TV was a big thing. Some friends left me. My mother called up and said she saw something on TV and ‘the whole colony is talking about it’."
Things have however changed since the 1980s when Gupta started photographing gay men in Delhi. He received a commission from The Photographers’ Gallery (London) for a photography project that “visualized the experience of gay men in Delhi".
The project, titled Exiles, features his subject facing away from the camera, often unrecognizable in their private spaces or in front of Delhi’s various monuments and architectural landscapes. The subjects in Exiles are not identified with their names but only by the locations they are photographed at, creating a deeply moving sense of anonymity.
“Nobody talked about homosexuality or being gay, and it was very invisible," Gupta says.
It wasn’t until 2004 that Exiles was shown at an exhibition in Delhi.
In 2009 when Gupta embarked on another photography project Mr Malhotra’s Party, he found people more willing to face the camera. About the title of the project, Gupta says, “Mr Malhotra is the ubiquitous Punjabi refugee who arrived (in India) post-partition and contributed to the development of the city." By 2009, Internet has reigned in a social change and upwardly mobile queer people had started meeting on the net and private parties, abandoning cruising joints.
“Boundaries have also changed overtime," he says.
Gupta feels strongly about the lack of public queer spaces in India. “Living in London, we have other means to see the gay side of the city—there are galleries, art shows and movie screenings. In India, it’s isolating. With the advent of the car, physical encounters are few and far between," he says.
The advent of Internet has also changed the way queer people interact with each other, according to him. “There are a lot of public spaces for queer people to meet in the west, but India doesn’t have any of them. Globally, gay bars are shutting down. Now in India we are never going to have them. We seemed to have skipped that part of the evolution with Internet," he says.
Gupta believes the younger generation of queer people is losing their sense of physical community without social encounters, and that it is pertinent to create a social atmosphere. With its multitude of gay dating apps, the Internet fosters loneliness and isolation with the sole possibility of sex and not meaningful relationships.
“I see young queer people are deprived of friends. They a have no real connections with the world, the connection one finds on the Internet is unsustainable." His book attempts at emphasizing that queer people need a social network that fosters the sense of friendship and family. Subjects in the book are often photographed with their friends, partners and sometimes even families.
Even though an increasing number of cities are joining in to celebrate the queer pride march each year in India (Lucknow had one last month), acceptance of sexual minorities with the general public is still a far cry. In 2011, one of Gupta’s exhibitions Sun City & Other Stories was shut down by protestors who took offence at its content—an Indian man in a gay bath house in Paris surrounded by naked white men. “It was provocative but no genitals were visible," Gupta says.
The Indian man in the series is pictured looking at the patrons of the bath house. Gupta feels the act of looking was a problem. “It is strange because we are a country of lookers. In places like Delhi, you will constantly be stared down by men."
The cover of ‘Delhi: Communities of Belonging’
When asked if he fears Delhi: Communities of Belonging might also incite similar repercussions when launched in India later this year, Gupta exudes confidence. “The book is by an American publication and it’s globally available already. I doubt censorship would be a problem, because it’s only going to be available online and not on bookstores." The pictures from the book are part of an ongoing exhibition in New York City, after which they will be exhibited at the Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham UK. “The idea is to have an exhibition in India as well," he hopes.
Despite crushing sodomy laws in 77 countries around the world where homosexuality is illegal, queer lives are shaping up in interesting ways and documenting them is equivalent to providing them with faces and identities. In Jatin’s words, “Bringing back 377 is wrong. If we are over 18 years old and we can make our own decisions, then we should also have the right to choose our own partner."
The prologue of Delhi: Communities of Belonging, then, perhaps best captures this need for identity. “Queer people survive and build communities across all levels of society despite discrimination, and through this book, we would like to share these lives as best as we can."
The photographs carried with this story are part of the photo book Delhi: Communities of Belonging by photographers Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh.