These days, Shaunak Mahbubani—who prefers to be described as a nomadic curator—is busy curating a unique event. At a time when the queer community is living through an unsettling period—with the introduction of the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, described by queer rights activists as “regressive and half-hearted", and The Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2019, which completely excludes same-sex couples—Mahbubani, 29, wanted to think of ways for it to come together, register a protest and informally pose critical questions.

So, together with curator Vidisha Saini, theycame up with the idea of a “Queer Futures Potluck Party", an open call to “performers, artists...acrobats, unicorns and all others", across genres and disciplines, to present work about rich histories of queerness in South Asia and dreams for a queer future. “We were attracted to the idea of the party as a space. So many times, new connections are forged and political solidarities are expressed at house parties. Why not bring this format into a cultural space?" asks Mahbubani, who will host this “party" at the Goethe-Institut, Delhi, on 7 September, which is open to all.

Raqs-e-Bender, an evening of fluid movement by Eshan Hilal at the recently-concluded Gender Bender; ‘The New Pre-Raphaelites’
Raqs-e-Bender, an evening of fluid movement by Eshan Hilal at the recently-concluded Gender Bender; ‘The New Pre-Raphaelites’

One year after the Supreme Court decriminalized consensual sex between adults of the same sex, Mahbubani says: “We wanted to take this moment to celebrate the long struggle together. And alongside that, also contemplate the future. Do we want to continue on the path of what has been laid down by Western queer movements or forge a future based on our ground realities?"

In the past year or so, the discourse on queer identities in the Indian arts and culture space has become more visible. There is a renewed celebration of older artists such as Bhupen Khakhar and Sunil Gupta, who have been at the forefront of the gay rights movement in India, as well as younger LGBTQ+ voices such as Tejal Shah, Aryakrishnan R., Sandip Kuriakose and Renuka Rajiv dealing with the subject of sexuality. Curators and artists from the community are trying to add nuances to the discourse: looking at gender fluidity, for instance, or looking at diversity within queer identities, instead of bunching them together under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, or moving beyond sexual identity to discuss intersections of queer art with feminism, caste, class and religion.

Ashok Vish (left) and Joshua Muyiwa, grant recipients at Gender Bender
Ashok Vish (left) and Joshua Muyiwa, grant recipients at Gender Bender

According to Mahbubani, it was in the early 2000s that the term “intersectionality" seeped into the global discourse about gender and identity. One of the biggest advocates of this was American civil rights lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw, who came up with the theory of overlapping social identities. In India, the idea was taken up by artists and culture theorists. “As artists and as a people, we need to answer this difficult but necessary question: How do you hold multiplicities within yourself? How does one look at the expanded idea of gender through one’s work, and of not putting people in boxes?" says Mahbubani, who has explored this notion in shows such as Fondle, at the Mumbai Art Room in 2018, which created a playground setting and questioned the multiple factors that dominated social interactions within it. “I don’t see myself fitting into either a male or female box. I don’t want to transition completely into the opposite gender. But I don’t want to be boxed into the specificities. The question is what is this other space, and how can we better understand it?"

AN INCLUSIVE PLATFORM

In 1986, Bhupen Khakhar unveiled a large painting, Two Men In Benares, at Chemould Gallery, Mumbai. The work, depicting two male nudes in a close embrace, was considered extremely bold for its time, and its showcase met with violent protests, with dire threats to gallerist Kekoo Gandhy. It’s another matter that Khakhar’s “confessional painting", which made him one of the first Indian artists to disclose his sexual orientation, fetched 22.39 crore at a recent Sotheby’s auction titled Coups de Coeur: The Guy And Helen Barbier Family Collection, setting a new record for the artist. The 1986 show, however, was an example of just how vehement the opposition to queer identities was in India.

One might think attitudes would have changed since. Cut to 2012, when queer artist Balbir Krishan organized a solo show of paintings, Out Here And Now, at the Lalit Kala Akademi, Delhi, featuring a set of male nudes. “When I was installing my works, artists working in other galleries, and some of my friends, came by to rebuke me: ‘Families with children will come to see the show. What will they say!’" recounts Krishan, 45, who is now based in Albany, New York state, and lives with his husband, Michael.

Balbir Krishan’s ‘All The Flowers Have Turned Red’, acrylic, collage and pen on paper, 2017.
Balbir Krishan’s ‘All The Flowers Have Turned Red’, acrylic, collage and pen on paper, 2017.

In spite of all the naysayers, the show had a successful opening, but disaster struck a few days later—it was vandalized by a masked assailant. “He destroyed my work. Not just that, he pushed me to the floor and kicked me. When I was young, I lost both legs above the knees during an accident, because of which I wear prosthetics. During the attack, those came off and I could do nothing but watch helplessly," he recalls over a phone call.

Sunil Gupta, 65, whose work got shown for the second time in India only in 2004, some two decades into his practice (the Visual Arts Gallery, Delhi, put up an exhibition curated by Radhika Singh), feels that even in 2003-04, the commercial gallery space was extremely conservative—the idea of both photography and queerness was new to them. The only visible face in this space was Khakhar, who died in 2003 at the age of 69, and even his work on male nudes was not exhibited widely.

There are too many such instances, making both the artists and galleries wary of exhibiting in a white cube space. This is why queer art has been showcased away from the mainstream, in subaltern and alternate spaces, for years. Or why artists such as Gupta and Balbir Krishan have chosen to show at international galleries such as Frieze London and Hales Gallery, New York and London, where they can exhibit their works in a secure environment.

“However, the 2018 edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) was a seminal point for queer artists, who had never exhibited in a white cube space or a mainstream art event of this scale in India," says Mario D’Souza, 27, an independent curator-writer who has worked with queer themes for shows. One of the reasons for this was that the event was helmed by Anita Dube, who was not just the first woman curator in the biennale's four-edition-long history but is openly queer as well.

In a first, the biennale celebrated the community with a series of sensitively curated exhibitions such as Dissent And Desire, in which Gupta and Charan Singh brought together 20 hidden histories of people from all walks of life who usually do not get a platform to narrate their experiences. “The 2018 KMB offered a public manifestation of a body of artworks that were evolving, not yet finished, and were ongoing conversations. It brought together multiple voices towards an understanding of queerness as an evolving sense of self and moved beyond blanket assumptions," says D’Souza.

‘The Rainbow Book’ by Sanika Dhakephalkar is an exploration of the relationship that trans and non-binary people share with their clothes
‘The Rainbow Book’ by Sanika Dhakephalkar is an exploration of the relationship that trans and non-binary people share with their clothes

Today, more institutions and festivals are trying to be inclusive, providing a platform for new and diverse voices. Jagdip Jagpal, director, India Art Fair, says the team has showcased works by several gender non-conforming artists in the past, such as Khakhar, Gupta, Chitra Ganesh and Salman Toor, and is working on an expanded performing arts programme. “Today, we see the way discourse around gender is changing. In India, we are in the early stages of this movement. Slowly but surely, people are expressing their identity, whether in classrooms, protest rallies or through art."

She cites the example of Renuka Rajiv’s show The Future Is Not My Gender, presented at the Vadehra Art Gallery, Delhi, by The Foundation for Indian Contemporary Arts in June 2018, which was a single person’s expression of trans/ non-binary existence and invisibility. Or the murals on public buildings in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi created by the Bengaluru-based Aravani Art Project, a collective of transwomen artists.

SUNIL GUPTA: THE ACTIVIST-ARTIST

There are several contemporary artists who have lent a strong voice to the discourse on queer art, such as Tejal Shah, who created the impactful Hijra Fantasy series, with trans people enacting their desires and dressed up as Cleopatra and Yashoda. Some of these voices don’t necessarily always hail from the community—Dayanita Singh, for instance, had her friend Mona Ahmed, a transgender, at the heart of her 2001 photo book.

However, the most consistent living voice in the Indian queer art space is been Sunil Gupta. “(His) photographic work over the last 30 years is an autobiographical documentation of a life’s debate with issues of gender, sexuality and displacement, and, since the diagnosis in 1995, HIV/AIDS," writes author-curator Radhika Singh in the essay Pre-Raphaelites Re-Visited : Narratives Of A Gay Life.

Gupta, who was born in Delhi and whose father hails from Mundia Parmar in Uttar Pradesh, moved to Montreal in the late 1960s for his bachelor’s degree and then to New York, before going to England. In 1989, he co-founded Autograph as an association of black photographers and then helped set up the Organisation for Visual Arts to create an understanding of culturally diverse practices. Since then, he has participated in 90 international solo and group exhibitions, such as Where Three Dreams Cross at Whitechapel Gallery, London. Crossing Lines, Constructing Home is coming up at the Harvard Art Museum from 6 September-5 January.

“My initial work was about gay identities that I had discovered in the West as a teenager, and the complete lack of it in art history either in the West or in India. No one wanted to talk about sex in India at all," he says, in a phone conversation from London. Usually, in the making of any kind of art, you research and build on something that exists. Gupta, however, could find nothing that fit the bill. “And then, in the West, AIDS came along as a gay plague. Though in India it wasn’t associated with homosexuality, it forced the government to talk about sex and sex workers," he says.

The initial reactions to his show at the Visual Arts Gallery in 2004 prompted Gupta to move back to India and explore questions of identity here. In the process, art and activism became intertwined in his practice. “Everyone thinks they are the only queer people in the world. Similarly, when I arrived in the Indian art world, I thought it can’t just be me making these pictures about the subject. So, I joined Nigah, an activist group dealing with queer rights, to use culture as a medium to activate discussions," says Gupta.

For some time, Gupta even had a column in a Delhi publication about life as a gay man, right next to a food page. “There were recipes and then there was me. I quite liked it," he laughs. But the publisher’s wife saw the column and it was discontinued. He feels the media has often failed the community, as it doesn’t allow for free discussion.

“Over the years, the nature of my work might have changed. But the core questions haven’t changed much. People misunderstand that artwork is an answer to a question. It is not. It is simply putting forward a question in a different way, updated with a larger context," says Gupta.

NO SINGLE QUEER IDENTITY

Practices such as Gupta’s have resulted in an ongoing effort to change current definitions and go beyond the binaries that exclude artists from art discourse and history. For instance, the Godrej Culture Lab in Mumbai, an experimental space which started nine years ago, has been showcasing multiple narratives around the queer theme as part of an ongoing conversation about the changing face of Indian art and culture. “Intersectionality is crucial to everything we do. So, in January this year, as part of Pride Month Mumbai we held a series of interconnected LGBTQ+ events— our first queer programming after the reading down of Section 377. The idea was to look at conversations that were not taking place in this space," says Parmesh Shahani, who heads the lab.

One of the events Queeristan: Caste and Queerness looked at the issue of caste, which has often been brushed aside by the queer movement for two decades. The other event was centred around “many queer Indias", which looked beyond the metros of Mumbai and Delhi and reached out to a cross-section of people from tier 2 towns. “Or when we did the Migration Museum (in Mumbai in June) recently, Sagolsem Pavel Metei of the Chinky Homo Project (an anthology of the queer of North-East) talked about the intersection of queerness and migration," says Shahani.

Festivals such as Gender Bender, organized by Bengaluru-based artists’ group Sandbox Collective, have witnessed participation, through their grants, from beyond the metros as well. For instance, in the 2018 edition held in August, Imphal-based Meitei trans artist Santa Khurai presented a documentary on indigenous trans children from Manipur’s Meitei community, their lived experiences, and the challenges they face.

Gender Bender was started five years ago by the Sandbox Collective to focus on gender through new perspectives in art. Over the years, however, the graph has changed dramatically, with visual artists from across the country making their presence felt. For the 2019 edition, which concluded recently, the team even got applications from Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. “The fact that there are 200 applicants from across the country working on various aspects of gender, including queer identities, itself is incredible," she says.

Sandbox also produces a contemporary performance called Queensize with Mandeep Raikhy, which was created as a response to Section 377. Played out on a charpoy, this choreographic exploration took the form of a detailed study between two men. “We have taken that to the North-East, Bhopal, Kanpur and Ahmedabad to start a dialogue around Section 377 before it was read down," says Pathak.

There are several important festivals organised by the LGBTQ+ community itself that address queer identities such as the Queer Arts Movement India (QAMI) Habba, the KASHISH Mumbai International Queer Film Festival and the BLR Queer Film Fest.

A public art mural by the Aravani Art Project
A public art mural by the Aravani Art Project

FIERCELY PERSONAL PRACTICES

In March, Delhi’s Lodhi Colony was witness to a unique sight. A group of trans-women artists from the Aravani Art Project could be seen creating a vibrant mural on a wall next to a primary school as part of the St+art India Festival 2019. While the work was evocative in itself, it is the process that played out like a performance of sorts. At first, the members of the neighbourhood watched from afar, wary of the presence of trans artists. It was the children who broke the ice, posing questions to the group and playing with them whenever the artists rested on mats. Gradually, people started bringing them tea and engaging in light banter. The final work was not just the culmination of an idea but also represented these small moments of victory and change.

The project was started by muralist Poornima Sukumar eight years ago to see how people would react if trans people hung out in public spaces doing meaningful activities rather than those they are stereotyped for. One of the trans artists, Shanthi Munisamy, also a poet, has been blogging about her journey with Aravani and talks extensively about the first project she participated in—painting a mural on the wall of a government school around Kanakpura Road, Bengaluru—and the initial fear of being humiliated in the presence of children.

“(But when) I had cast my brush stroke on to the wall a whole gush of emotions flowered," she writes on the Aravani blog. And when the students gathered around, calling her “Ma’am" and asking her questions, her joy was boundless.

Today, 35 trans women are associated with the project and have painted murals at Facebook’s and Levi’s’ India headquarters in Bengaluru as well. “We first worked with them in 2016 during the St+art India Festival. Over eight years, their practice has evolved and become extremely significant to the art discourse in India. There is a sense of empowerment as they are now understanding their own role as a relevant part of society and not hiding behind a curtain. Some of them have taken this up as a career as well," says Giulia Ambrogi, co-founder and curator, St+art India Foundation.

In 2012, the murder of a young transgender activist, Maria, who was born as Anil Sadanandan, in the harbour quarters of Tangasseri in Kollam city, Kerala, left a deep impact on 37-year-old artist Aryakrishnan R. Besides suspending a 16ft-long skirt from the roof of Aspinwall House, one of the venues at the Kochi Biennale, the artist also created a living safe space for an LGBTQ+ person, with a bed, books, paintings and more, called Sweet Maria Monument, inflecting it with the lived history of the activist. Multiple people from different walks of life occupied this space, adding their stories and conversations. “This became a space for solidarity, care and for shared histories. It became a space where erasure of histories could be prevented," says D’Souza.

He calls Aryakrishnan’s practice a rare one, as it is action-based and looks at a way forward: at the possibilities and logistics of a sustainable safe space for the community. And now, as a hat tip to the significance of their practice, Khoj Studios has announced Aryakrishnan as one of the awardees for the new socially engaged art project grant in peri-urban spaces.

While Aryakrishnan’s practice is collaborative, there are others who are fiercely personal, or those who base their work on close observations of interpersonal relationships. Take Krishan, for instance. His artistic evolution mirrors the journey of self-discovery. Krishan’s early works are marked by the use of black and white drawings, often blown up to huge prints, to express anguish and anger. Sexually abused as a child and jilted in relationships as a young adult by men who straddled dual lives as gay men and married householders, Krishan poured this darkness into his works. While he refined his technique over time and took to rainbow colours in his large new media work, a certain loneliness began to creep into his creations.

Khakhar’s story had a deep impact on Krishan’s practice—he felt that if the artist could have created male nudes way back in the 1980s, why couldn’t he in 2011-12? Why was his work was attacked in 2012? “I was broken. But that moment was life-changing. People like photographers Ram Rahman and Sunil Gupta stood by me. More and more members of the LGBTQ+ community reached out to me and I realized I was not alone," says Krishan.

Soon after, he did his first group show in the US with Myna Mukherjee’s newly-opened gallery Engendered—and there was no looking back. He found love with his partner, Michael Giangrasso, a teacher, and it wrought a transformation in his art. “I had spent all my anger. I was calmer, more sure of myself. I moved beyond sexuality and my art became more political and social," he says.

Then there are visual artists like Kuriakose, whose practice examines power structures—both legal and social—in conjunction with ideas of masculinity, gender, and sexual identity. In a May 2019-conversation with multi-disciplinary artist, Lodoe Laura, he talked about his 2009 work, Woh Bhi Line Ka Tha. For that he embedded himself within cruising spaces, which become sites for gay sexual and intimate encounters. The series included digital prints and a book with transcripts of conversations in these spaces.

THINKING BEYOND ‘HE’ OR ‘SHE’

Gupta and Mahbubani say things have changed gradually since the Pride months started being celebrated first in Kolkata in 1999. In fact, it has now become fashionable, at least in certain elite quarters, to talk about queer identities. According to Mahbubani, this has led to a certain section of queerness becoming more easily understood, digestible and even commodified—with every brand wanting to put a rainbow sticker on their products during Pride month, with ice-cream wrappers sporting the rainbow colours, food aggregators launching special campaigns or company logos sporting the Pride hues.

Popular culture has helped too, with independent Indian films centred around sexuality bringing the subject into people’s homes. “Made In Heaven is a great example of this," says Gupta. Mahbubani concurs, and believes that with elders and parents watching films such as Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Moonlight (2016), Kapoor & Sons (2016) there is a certain openness to the idea of gay love.

Within the art world, few people in positions of power and agency are now attempting to better acknowledge sexual variations. According to Rajiv, real change is evident in real life, the way someone is introduced to another person, or in a public setting, or how someone is written with pronouns of their choice—in order to make a central aspect of their reality visible.

Rajiv, 33, feels that the Indian art world could speed up its interest in addressing these needs, but people are trying to be more sensitive about how they represent and treat people outside the cis female/cis male bubble, so perhaps there is hope. “However, what is still very uncomfortable for people is the idea of trans and non-binary people like us. If, as artists and practitioners, we cross gender boundaries in a meaningful way, that makes people uncomfortable," says Mahbubani. “Let’s hope that changes too."

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