In 2019, I attended an exhibition- Red Wall Project- organised by the Alliance Francaise, Trivandrum and the Sahodari Foundation. The walls of the exhibition area were covered with sheets of paper filled with miniscule handwriting. On each page, there was a palm print. Some looked like they were calling for help, some looked like slaps, like accusations. There were palm prints in black and red. For those who succumbed to violence and those who lived to tell their stories. The select gathering had among others, Manvendra Singh Gohil, the very vocal LGBTQIA+ activist, Sreekutty Namitha, the director of Oasis Cultural Society, one of the first organisations to work for Kerala’s transpeople and Shyama S. Prabha, member of the Transgender Justice Board, Kerala. Listening to them narrate their experiences and having Kalki talk about how she translated her life into dance so as to be able to truly express herself got me thinking about just how inadequate words can be at times. Also, how incomprehensible. Or lost in translation.
The androgyne in Renaissance art, has rather interesting connotations. Paintings such as Saint Matthew and The Angel, the Cupids (Caravaggio), Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, Appolo-David, the twenty or so young men lounging on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, works by Donatello and Parmigianino are but few examples of how the body was perceived. The templates of sexualities and the performative spaces they occupied in art makes for a fascinating study. The body, its positioning, the colouring of the skin, musculature, while documenting important advances in the anatomical studies in art, also revealed the shadowy spaces that desire and proclivities nestled in. The ambiguity served to heighten the sexual tension that prevailed in the works.
The visual interest in the body for purposes of pleasure is by no means new. In fact, the combination of the body and art that translated into visual and sexual pleasure became so rampant during the 19thcentury that it became an entire industry. Yes, it is still an industry. London was at the heart of a rather healthy trade and pornographic (there, I said it!) material flowed to London from the colonies and vice-versa. London became the smut capital of the world and sale in these postcards flourished all over the Continent and could be bought even in family run shops. There were exotic images, some had people posing with fruit (kink is certainly not a 20th century invention). But of course, the problem of too much of a good thing cropped up and Europe was aghast at this form of commerce. This denigration of the Empire by its neighbours and the colonies themselves led to some of the most stringent laws passed by the British Government at that time.
The Cantonment Act (1864), Contagious Diseases Act (1868), were all attempts to apparently stamp out venereal diseases in the Armed Forces and by extension in the general British public. For example, in the Boer War, 6 percent of the soldiers were hospitalized due to Venereal Disease.These Acts were essential as they were basically the means to control the sexualities of the rulers by imposing regulations on the natives. The Acts served to help the colonisers hold on to their image as culturally and morally superior beings. This image was essential for maintaining their slipping hold on the colonies. Modernity had given enough ammunition to the colonies to point out the irony of denying even self-governance to Indians when the British were themselves incapable of asserting at least a moral control on their own sexual engagements. The British had to ensure a lasting impression of their cultural validity.
Art was employed to propagate this power equation. It reflected the might of the Empire on which the sun never set. George Stubbs, Edward Armitage, George Sant, M V Dhurandhar to name a few were pressed into service. An array of colonial painters set out to paint forts, boatmen, animals, native women in languorous poses, memsahibs staring out at nothing. What people did in these paintings depended on the colour of their skin. A lot was painted over. Literally.
Post-independence Indian art- not just painting- witnessed a revolution with artists such as those associated with the Progressive Artists’ Group and the Delhi Silpi Chakra. In a retrospective held by the Delhi National Gallery of Modern Art, the works of painters of the Raj were displayed with those by Indian artists such as M. F Hussain, F.N Souza, Tyeb Mehta, Jamini Roy, Nandalal Bose and Amrita Sher-Gil to name a few. I even saw a Ravi Varma up close!
In the paintings by the modern Indian artists, I felt that the body had been used as a metacanvas. The narrative of the painting was placed on the body. The B.C Sanyal piece titled Old Man and Bird comes to mind. So does Hussain’s Cyclonic Silence. Now what does all this have to do with Queer Art, which is what we started the post with? The Body. Queer Art, be it painting, sculpture, installation or any other form, incorporates the body as the central subject. Even when the corporeal is not absent, it is present. Conspicuously. Queer performativity employs the body to express desire, the spaces that are off limits, within limits, claimed, discarded or left unclaimed. Queer art in India is associated with artists such as Sunil Gupta, Balbir Krishan and Bhupen Khakhar who blazed a trail through various media such as paintings and photographs. Sunil Gupta along with Tejal Shah and Naveen Kishore exhibited the Sun City series of photographs that became hugely controversial.
The intersectionality of social identities- that is- a number of aspects of a person’s personality can overlap- a person can be an artist, a parent, a civil servant and queer became pronounced with the debates surrounding the repeal of the Article 377. This recognition and acceptance of intersectionality found a presence in the Anita Dube curated 2018 edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. Segments such as Dissent and Desire and the Sweet Maria Monument served to bring queer issues to performative and interactive spaces. This is very vital for ensuring affirmative avenues for gender non-confirming individuals to talk about the issues of violence, equal opportunities, love, inclusion and acceptance.
This makes queer art very political, even when it is not, or did not intend to be. Many queer artists whose works sell for high prices are not very well known as people refuse to exhibit their purchases because then they are scrutinized as procurers of queer art. Among the current crop of artists, Debasmita Das, Aryakrishnan (Sweet Maria Monument), Priya Dali, Charan, Amir Rabbani are noteworthy, among a host of others. The vast possibilities of the Internet, particularly, Instagram has helped these artists gain great visibility and voice. The support of active networks such as Gaysi, Point of View and the Godrej India Culture Lab has enabled these artists to expand their reach and highlight the disruptive and transformative quality of their work. The body occupies centre stage in their works. Sensuality is not sanitized through ambiguity, rather, the nooks and cranies of the body through light and shadows narrate stories one can only guess at. There are spaces that by the absence of the protagonist, make one conduct conscious searches. Like the Sweet Maria Monument that uses the metaphor of a ginormous underskirt as a safe space for people to converse. Maria however is absent. She was murdered by unknown persons. That it is her memory that gives people this safe space to love, laugh or talk is a lesson in the beauty of benevolence. The nuanced revelation this installation yields coupled with the stories of sexual minorities who go through life in fear of remaining unheard by society and law is staggering and cathartic. Do look these artists up on Instagram. Those pictures will be worth the thousand words (literally) that I have written.
Talking of the disruptive and the transformative brings me to our poet Saachi Gupta. All of 19 years, she has been published in several international publications such as Psych2Go, Reclamation Magazine and the December 2019 issue of Write The World’s Review, which includes their best entries. She works with platforms like the Gaysi Family and Luna Collective. Saachi has been awarded the United Nations-affiliated Karmaveer Chakra Award for her writing, and has self-published a collection of poetry ‘With Love, Or Something Like That.’
The language of the experiences goes way beyond the physical and stain the soul. While much of the world prefers Blank Verse, Gupta’s use of rhyme gives her poems a certain lilting quality that helps them leap fences with ease and elegance. They also add a certain charm to the wisdom the words contain. She can be found at #saachisassified.
This edition has been illustrated by Ms. Ruchi Sinha, an undergrad student of French at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. More of her work can be found on #not_a_pangloss.