In India, homosexuality or alternate sexualities have always existed and have been celebrated within the cultural, religious and ritualistic traditions. Sufism traditions and medieval bhakti poetics not only celebrated and allowed expression of pluralistic sexualities and fluid gender identities through performances, but also developed a whole literature of vernacular poetics across regions. For example, the development of Rekhti Urdu poetry in North India not only celebrated homoerotic relationships among females but also adopted non-judgmental literary conventions from non-Persianate and Hindu sources¹. The defining moment in India came when in 1860, the Section 377 of the Indian penal code (authored by Lord Macaulay, the president of Indian Law commission), outlawed the homosexual practices and traditions, as part of Britain’s efforts to impose Victorian values on its colonies. This law, coupled with the denouncement of the Indian marital, familial and sexual practices by the British educators and missionaries, went a long way to influence the social reform movements of the pre and post-Independence eras which continued to face repercussions of homophobia, anti-pleasure biases and stigmatised perspectives against homosexual subjects. Marginalised, discriminated and violently outlawed by the society, lesbians and gays relationships within India were criminal acts with ten years of imprisonment until recently when in July 2009 Delhi High Court, after eight years of NGO’s and mass media campaigns, ruled out the provisions of section 377 and legalised consensual sexual relationship between same-sex adults.
Such complex issues of marginalisation of gays and lesbians, questions of fixed identities, politics of body, sexuality and visibility within the discourses and practices of representation in India, are explored by the works of artist-photographer Sunil Gupta. His journey as a gay South Asian photographer began in London in the post 80s era with his involvement and exposure to the Black Art Movement. In post-imperial Britain, Thatcher’s era contended with contestations from the discriminated and marginalised communities because homophobic laws such as clause 29², forms of racism and censorship existed within the dominant regime. This was the era when AIDS was reported with homophobic and racist subtext in the British press³. During this time, within the discourses of photography, documentary’s realist claims of absolute truth and knowledge, making of an essentialised subject and classic realist narratives were re-positioned by the works of Black photographer-artists. Their works brought to center of debates, the questions of access and the empowered position to represent and reflect on their lived experiences.
Informed by the development of post-structuralist theories, Sunil Gupta’s first staged-documentary series, Exiles (1986), documented the multi-layered experiences and invisibility of gay men within the public sphere in Delhi. It also looked at the unfixed meanings of pluralistic gay identities rooted in caste, class and gender privilege. Maintaining the secrecy of his subjects when sodomy was still criminalised, he created a documentary like series with his accomplices in Delhi’s well known public spaces. By combining the image-text technique within his staged images, he brought forth the contradictory and situational nature of identities, by using ‘text’ as a fictional commentary to represent the invisible social reality. For example in one of his photographs, The Wedding, his subject identifies with being gay and at another time identifies himself as a ‘heterosexual male’ when it comes to getting married for the sake of family honour, morality and respect. Set in post 80s India, the Exile series produces a critique of both normative masculinity maintained within Indian Status quo and libertarian gay politics rooted in the privileges of White middle class. It yearns for the freedom of cultural expression of desires and sexualities, still a distant reality for the displaced coloured subject.
– Sameena Siddiqui
- Ruth Vanita, “Married Among Their Companions”: Female Homoerotic Relations in Nineteenth-Century Urdu Rekhti Poetry in India, Journal of Women’s history, Volume 16, No1, Spring 2004.
- In United Kingdom, Clause 28, enacted in the 1980s, ensures that same-sex relationships are denied equivalent homosexual status.
- Sunil Gupta, “Culture wars: Race and Queer Art” in Peter Horne and Reina Levis (Eds). Outlooks: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities and Visual Culture (New York: Routledge, 2002)