20 May 2011

When What’s Queer Is Not

For nearly 30 years now, photographer Sunil Gupta has been searching for an Indian gay image

Towards the beginning of Sunil Gupta’s recently published book of photographs, Queer, are four black-and-white images entitled ‘Towards an Indian Gay Image, 1980-1983’. The first shows two men lying on a grassy knoll near Delhi’s Jamali-Kamali complex, one’s head half-buried in the other’s chest, their faces invisible. The next image, too, features a Delhi monument: Humayun’s Tomb. The man in front stands as if he owns the space—legs akimbo, jhola slung across shoulder, cigarette—but is cut off at the neck. The third has a man in shorts looking out over a courtyard. The fourth is of two men by a lake, two stones’ ripples beginning to form on its surface.

When I ask Gupta about the title, he laughs. They’re random images, he says. “We needed a name to give the section in the book,” he adds. Yet, as we turn the pages, he tells me the courtyard is of the Oberoi coffee shop in Delhi (“It was a spot, you know”) and the lake is Udaipur’s (“Those two didn’t know I was there.”). Humayun’s Tomb, it turns out, was a favourite hangout—“playground”, Gupta has called it—for the boy who grew up in Nizamuddin East. The Jamali Kamali image is the most carefully constructed: the tomb itself of a 16th century Sufi poet and his lover, the two men, and far away at the back (strategically arising from one man’s hip), is Delhi’s most obviously phallic monument—the Qutb Minar. It is a remarkable image, simultaneously iconic and playful, intimate and anonymous.

As the conversation comes to a close, it seems to me there’s nothing random about these pictures. They may not have been commissioned as such, but Gupta is doing in them just what the title says: searching for an Indian gay image. In fact, searching for that ever-elusive thing is what he’s been doing, unconsciously and consciously, for nearly 30 years.

Sunil Gupta was 16 when he left Delhi for Montreal. His parents—a UP Baniya father who’d served in the Army, a Tibetan mother educated in Indian boarding schools by her British foster-mother—had decided to emigrate to Canada. So in 1969, Gupta left a charmed Delhi childhood—wandering the city streets after school, watching countless films in Connaught Place, acting as his elder sister’s chaperone at the Cellar, the city’s first disco —for a new life in a cold city that his parents hadn’t quite registered was French-speaking.

By the time he entered Concordia University in 1972, Gupta had come out to his parents. Now he became active in gay groups on campus, campaigning against cruising as a capitalist form of sexuality that encouraged competing with buddies. “When you’re 18-19, you have these radical ideas,” Gupta smiles a half-mischievous smile. “We proposed picking up people collectively instead.”

He also began to take pictures.

Photography as a hobby had emerged earlier in Delhi, where he and his school friend Amit Jayaram used to get their respective sisters (Gupta had one, Jayaram three, including activist Aruna Roy) to pose, later developing the pictures in a bathroom. Now he and a literary gay friend collaborated on a photo narrative: Gupta took a series of pictures of five people they knew from Montreal’s gay bar scene, each accompanied by his friend’s text. Though he was studying accountancy, Gupta’s interest in photography and in documenting gay life had already started to come together. His Christopher Street photographs, taken over the summer of 1976, were influenced by the realist documentary work of Philippe Halsman and Lisette Model, with whom he took a photography class at the New School. It was seven years after the Stonewall riots of 1969: the gay scene in New York was at its performative peak. “I had never seen so many gay men in the middle of the day,” says Gupta. The confident strides and almost belligerent poses feel like a public declaration. The contrast is stark with the 1980-83 Delhi images, where backs are invariably turned to the camera, heads cut off, gestures tentative.

With ‘Exiles’ (1986), Gupta returned to gayness in Delhi, hoping to fill a gap in both Indian gay imagery and the (Western) art historical world. These remarkable colour images of gay men in iconic Delhi locations like India Gate, Jama Masjid, Lodi Garden, where they may in fact have met, were mostly anonymous. Some showed their faces, on condition that the work would not be shown in India. What added another layer were the captions: quotes from real conversations that Gupta recorded with gay men in Connaught Place. ‘Everyone is married. Mother wants me to get married. I probably will, there is the family name, and respect to consider,’ said one. ‘Even if you have a lover, you should get married and have children. Who would look after you in old age?’ said another.

“What struck me was the surety,” says Gupta. “Between puberty and 24, sexuality was play; women weren’t available, so you played with men. At 24, there was the certainty of marriage, then children.” He remembers the impossibility of talking about gayness in the 80s India. “It was a conversation stopper,” he grins. “Like saying ‘I just had sex five minutes ago’. People would say, ‘Really?’ and freeze.” To someone who knew of other possibilities, the atmosphere was repressive. Gupta returned to London, where he had moved, and gradually became involved in the emerging alternative arts scene.

His association with the Black Arts Movement, which challenged the UK art world’s exclusion of marginalised/diasporic communities, is barely discussed in the Indian media that has focused exclusively on his role at India’s ‘queer vanguard’. Since the early 2000s, Gupta has become one of India’s most public queer faces. But his association with Delhi’s queer community, not to mention its art scene—plagued as both are by socio-economic privilege and class exclusion (though also increasingly conscious of it)—has meant that his work is often seen as rarefied. One frequent talking point is the degree of nudity in Gupta’s images: some see it as gratuitous, intended-to-shock. Often, people respond to that aspect of a picture rather than to anything else. Why does he do it? Why, when asked for a self-portrait by Khoj, for example, does he send an image in which he sits thoughtfully in the foreground with two naked men kissing behind him? Gupta’s response is so matter-of-fact as to be non-explanatory. “I like to see how far I can go with images. So I sent them this.” Khoj took it. “It is apparently not acceptable here to show genitalia and/or breasts. Rest is okay,” he continues, deadpan.

If one listens carefully, though, Gupta’s conversation is littered with clues to his views on nudity and the body, especially his own. He reminisces about arriving in Montreal as a boy and being inducted into “this terrible thing called gym”: “I couldn’t get my clothes off, but finally I had to. And it was more boisterous and communal than I’d imagined.” He tells you about submitting his first fully nude self-portrait for a show called From Here to Eternity, in London in 1999. “I was quite anxious. Then I said to myself, it’s not me, it’s just a picture.” (From Here to Eternity was a landmark attempt to engage with his HIV+ status, with the potential decay of the body brought on by illness.) Then he segues animatedly into the present: “I happily wander around the house naked when it’s hot. But I forget that Indian people never get naked. The guy I’m living with now, he’s never seen himself naked…”

It’s not judgmental, but there is a proselytising undertone: nakedness is something he’s okay with, and other people should be, too.

The more serious charge against Gupta, levelled especially by those who have only seen his most recent Indian work, is that he is only interested in the celebratory documentation of a minuscule sub-section of the population, who’ve apparently achieved liberation in the classic Western sense. And the movement from an older series like ‘Exiles’ to the recent highly performative ‘The New Pre-Raphaelites’ or the more sentimental ‘Love, Undetectable’ does seem to create a teleological narrative—one in which queer sexuality in India has emerged from the darkness and anonymity of the 1980s into the warm radiant light of the 2000s.

Undeniably, there’s much to celebrate: most obviously the Delhi High Court’s landmark judgment in 2009 striking down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalised consensual sexual acts between adults of the same sex. But surely things are more complex? Barring a single tragic image of Dr SR Siras (the Aligarh Muslim University professor who died in 2010 after being suspended and publicly humiliated by AMU for a homosexual act), Queer’s narrative of queerness in India does feel like it’s inside a bubble. This seems especially surprising coming from a man who speaks wistfully of drag entertainment in working class pubs in England and the lack of sharp, political performance among kothis and hijras here; who, as early as 1986, captioned a Delhi picture of one man looking up at another with the unforgettable line: ‘The difficulty of organising a gay group is whether one should include the riffraff’. Gupta seems to have pre-empted the question, though. He is hard at work on his next project: documenting kothis in low-income Delhi neighbourhoods. And what he says about them makes it clear that things haven’t changed that much for the majority of Indian queer folk: “They get married; they know when they’re 45 they can’t stand on a street corner any more.”

Published in Open magazine, 21 May 2011

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