Friday, April 23, 2010

My Interview by Ashley Tellis, in New Indian Express, 10th April, 2010

a) Would you like to tell us about how you came out to yourself and the world?

Accepting the truth of ones’ self and disclosing to the world is a continuous process. Each time one speaks, or does something else to that effect – painting or writing a story or an article or giving an interview like this surely are enabling acts. However, I was made acutely aware of the need for maintaining secrecy all through my growing-up years. There was fear, guilt and shame associated with the feelings I had towards men, and relationships I shared with them. In the 1970s through the larger part of 1980s there was a great sense bewilderment, dishonesty and confusion. Groping through all those one also committed blunders and irreversibly wronged ones’ self and others. As late as through the late 1990s I believed that I was a bisexual. My coming out was partly circumstantial (like the break-up of the marriage), partly through confessions in intimate friendships and partly self willed. But, mostly and throughout I tried to maintain discretion, considering the appropriateness and the feelings of concerned others. It is only in the past ten years or so that I am able to be truly realizing and accepting what I am.

b) Your recent work is on Bhupen Khakhar. Would you tell us a little about it?

Bhupen Khakhar’s paintings of mid 1980s at that point in time was shocking and at the same time liberating. Since then I followed his works closely, with great interest and spoke in the class rooms and outside with much enthusiasm, although I hardly published much then. The fact is that I had serious disagreements with the way he easily lent himself to the elite art circuits and establishments. It is after his passing away in 2003 that I have developed deeper interest in queer studies and I was very keen to understand the interrelation between activism and art. And, Khakhar was a good case to do so. Further, I also studied Khakhar’s art in depth to understand the affect of his disclosure upon his artistic expression; thematically and in terms of formal shifts. My concern grew in the direction of understanding how writers and artists have represented him, and certain aspects of these brought me to critique the structurally ingrained homophobia in framing and interpreting the life and works of Khakhar.


c) Is it difficult being an out gay academic in India?

Deep rooted homophobia is a fact of life, which one encounters on a day to day basis in almost all the situations one is located. Queerness of different kinds are associated with shame and one is all the time prompted to put it aside, or push it under the carpet. In the academic field the phobia works mostly in very subtle, subliminal ways. Mostly treated as inconsequential, the general perception is that queerness is something avoidable. Like the civil society academic world too hardly lent any empathy and as a result suffers from lack of knowledge, and prefers to maintain hypocrisy in the name of tradition, morality or whatever. I don’t allow myself suffer difficulties, but it had been tough to be oppressed by closet, which is a symptom arising from systemic phobia.

d) Would you like to talk about how it has been these years being suspended because of rightwing fascism in Baroda?

Life had been very tough since the suspension, that is to say the least. In actual terms I and several colleagues who supported the cause lost the platform of our work place; work had been the centre of my life all these past years. I lost access to the archive, library and the students, these are most essential to an academician. My research work got totally disrupted and lost, and still remains inaccessible. Large sums of hard earned funds for developmental activities of the institution got lost. All the time I am still confined to my home with no permission to enter the University premises and this had been absolutely absurd and demoralizing. The pain had been also of having been surveyed all the time, and having been dragged to the court rooms and police stations. Attempts at physical assault too had been traumatic. Personal humiliation and deprivation apart, it is terrible that the future of a well established and reputed institution has been jeopardized. At the end of it the only solace that remains is that one stood by ones’ principles and convictions and resisted the reactionary forces.

http://epaper.expressbuzz.com/NE/NE/2010/04/10/index.shtml

e) Would you tell us about your new project of queer archiving?

In the past one year I had been deliberating on the possibility of building an institution for preserving and promoting queer culture. The proposed national center - ARQ: Archive, Research and Queer Cultural Practice has three main aims in its purview; firstly it will document and archive histories of the Indian queer culture and practice, secondly it will enable queer creative person’s professional practices, and thirdly it would promote critical thinking and creative skills among the Indian queer community. In the past few months I had been able to put together a concept note with the help of many prominent persons in the community and I had several consultations in this regard. Everyone I have talked to feels strongly for the need of such an institution and so I am waiting for the appropriate time to register the institution and kick start the necessary work.

Monday, March 1, 2010

What Purpose can Rediscovering the Pre-Modern Queer Culture Serve? Methodological Issues - Shivaji K Panikkar

(Working Paper for Current Work on Sexuality in Visual Culture, Led by Professor Natalie Kampen, The Visual Studies Department at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 1st February 2010)

The presentation intends to address general methodological questions with regard to researches on queer within India’s past culture. These research publications relate to areas of religion, philosophy, myths, and use frameworks of psychology, anthropology, social history, literary criticism and art histories of pre-modern India. The primary purpose of such an enquiry would be to explain what research on queer culture can mean to queer community, to artists and cultural historians and to the civil and political society at large. I would like to map the different thematic that have attracted researcher’s interest about India’s ancient past, and like to engage in a critique and possibly suggest new directions for research. The analytical/interpretative frameworks, methodology and limits would be one of the focuses.

Sexuality, Identity and Power
It is in 1892 that heterosexuality and homosexuality entered into English language; from the book, Psychopathia Sexualis, by the Austrian sex researcher, Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-19020). Sexuality as a critical category can be traced back from this point to the European and American scientific studies of human eroticism. The term splinters into complexity when marked by prefixes – homo, hetero and bi, embodying particular desires, and lending possibilities for identity formation. These terms lent the possibility to assert where one stood on the sexual map, and granting a coherent place within the cultural order. While locating identities, it is clearly understood that we are talking about subjects; their agency and instrumentality. So that, what we define as sexualities is regarding the historical construction. Only by 1890s had the term sexuality and its prefixed forms – homo, and hetero -became associated with types of sexual person and kinds of sexual attraction. While there could still be discontent among many for assuming an identity among those who practice non-heterosexual practices, and what such historical construction entails, the queer activism however is a world phenomena today.

Joseph Bristow (Sexuality, Routledge, 1997) points out that today one of the most difficult terms to analyze precisely is sexuality. This is so since the term sexuality is obviously connected to sex, which refers to sexual act, but, it also refers to the biological distinction of male and female. The referred term ‘sexualities’ for the workshop is implicated in these distinct frameworks of understandings. Further, what do sexualities refer to; possibly to varied sexual desires and varied sexed beings?

The contemporary world had been in an era where unprecedented diversification of sexual behaviors and identities, has occurred. What is the impulse for the contemporary fascination for diverse and distinct forms of sexual behavior? From this premise, what theoretical model we should set up to understand pre-modern/pre-colonel sexualities? It is a historical fact that since late 1960, there has been an increasing number of vocal sexual minorities struggling for public recognition and political legitimacy. Especially significant in the recent past is the queer minority discourses. These apart from having helped dismantle conventional categories used in interpreting sexualities, such as homo, hetero binary; the dissident sexualities have subverted the basic categories of sex and gender.

Implicated within the late Victorian sexology to queer theory, is it possible to view pre-modern sexuality pristinely within their historical context, without the encumbering of the identity politics, so as to put an end to the curiosity as to how sexualities might have been lived in any of the past times, without the burden of the contemporary? Is there any way that the researcher can be unbiased, and stand away from Civil Rights movements? Can the available fragmentary sources of literature and art available to us enable us to give insights into how sexualities were lived-out, perceived, permitted and controlled? What are the assumptions that we have to make to make sense of the often confusing myths, and textual descriptions and art objects or ideas that are far removed from our own time?

Dana Y. Takagi, invoking class, race and generation says “underlying much contemporary talk about difference is the assumption that differences are comparable things.” Differences are not analogues or interchangeable, but an uncritical notion of diversity can give the impression that they are.

It is a well accepted fact that the ongoing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LBGT) activism in India is over two decades old. The earliest mobilization of community action began in Bombay in 1989-90 with the publication of the newsletter Bombay Dost. In the 1990s and through the present decade, significant formal or informal LGBT groups and at instances of political formations or/and reach-out-publications had emerged in the major Indian cities and several small towns. Significant also are similar developments from other Asian, and South-Asian Diaspora in the West. Of these, some of which are still functional and some either disbanded or dormant, have pursued several lines of action - in the areas of mental and physical health, jurisprudence, and community identity; running help lines to creating common platforms for queer people to discuss common problems. At the top of their agendas, most organizations also sought to actively define the political, social and legal issue of queer rights, particularly the battle against IPC 377.

In India as elsewhere, reclaiming the historical antecedents had been one of the focuses, and several research publications have been noticed:

Bertram Schaffner, M.D, Androgyny in Indian Art and Culture: Psychoanalytic Implications, Journal of The American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 29(1), 113–125, 2001.

Anya Gurholt, The Androgyny of Enlightenment: Questioning Women’s Status in Ancient Indian Religions, Westminster College, McNair Scholars Program, 2004 Summer Research Project.
Slide: Text
Rosalind O'Hanlon, Manliness and Imperial Service in Mughal North India, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 42, No. 1 (1999), pp. 47 -93 Published by: BRILL

Geeta Patel, Home, Homo, Hybrid: Translating Gender, College Literature, Vol. 24, No. 1, Queer Utilities: Textual Studies, Theory, Pedagogy, Praxis (Feb., 1997), Published by: College Literature.

Robert P. Goldman, Transsexualism, Gender, and Anxiety in Traditional India, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 113, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1993), pp. 374- 401 Published by: American Oriental Society.
Slide: Text
Maithreyi Krishnaraj, Androgyny: An Alternative to Gender Polarity? Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 31, No. 16/17 (Apr. 20-27, 1996).

Vinay Lal, Not This, Not That: The Hijras of India and the Cultural Politics of Sexuality, Social Text, No. 61, Out Front: Lesbians, Gays, and the Struggle for Workplace Rights (Winter, 1999), pp. 119-140 Published by: Duke University Press.

Aloka Parasher-Sen, Images of Feminine Identity in Hindu Mythology and Art: The Case of Visnu-Mohini, Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 1999; 6; 43.

Michael J. Sweet and Leonard Zwilling, The First Medicalization: The Taxonomy and Etiology of Queerness in Classical Indian Medicine, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Apr., 1993), pp. 590-607 Published by: University of Texas Press

Possibly, these emerge from the field of activism; or at least inspired by activism, and in any case these have provided certain fillip to the queer movement as such. In this context, the primary question that of such an enquiry would be also to explain what research on queer culture can mean to queer community, to artists and cultural historians and to the civil and political society at large.

Imagining Queer into Ancient Indian History
Apart from the above publications, a book such as Same Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai had been one of the most significant.

Among other purposes, the book, definitively enable confronting the queer-phobic myth that various forms of queerness was imported to India from foreigners – Muslim invaders, European conquerors, and American capitalists. Through introducing, annotating and interpreting wide ranging queer thematic from literary data; Vedic, Buddhist, Puranic, medical treatises to book on eroticism the author preeminently establish categories and practices related to the multiple, historical antecedents of currently known queer identities; gay, lesbian and bisexual orientations, transgender, intersexual and genderqueer, or/and of other non-heterosexual sexuality, sexual anatomy, or gender identity. However, it is significant to note that the book primarily deals with homoeroticism, or what has been designated as same sex love. It is also made clear that the authors are talking about a period prior to the formation of categories and identities of homo or hetero. The term queer too is avoided, because non-heterosexual behavior is not only not represented as strange or deviant, for they are upheld by the texts as valid differences. Second reason is that the term’s scope is too wide, which are outside the scope of the book. The book also avoids categories of transgender, trans-sexuality, or inter-sexuality, and the focus remains within homoeroticism.

The book is also not about how woman loved women or how men loved men, but is rather about how such love was viewed and represented. The book is also not about sex, but is about love –because there is no way to know if the attachment or love was sexual.

The book is addressed to combat phobia among queer people, their self-hatred, shame, family’s disgust, secrecy, and attempts in curing themselves, compulsory heterosexuality, suicide and such. It hopes to feed into self-esteem while dealing with labels such as abnormal, unnatural, and unhealthy.

The book hopes that the Indian homoerotic persons will profit from it, “by learning to acknowledge that some of their ancestors were so inclined, that their writings and writings about them constitute an important part of our common Indian heritage as well as world heritage, and that such acknowledgement is crucial to building a more tolerant, better informed, les conflict-ridden society… “

The rough thematic categories from the ancient period that is dealt with the book are:
(1) Romantic, erotic and sexual interactions between same sex people.
This is rather rare. Often quoted example is from Valmiki Ramayana of Hanuman seeing semi-clad Rakshasi (or the evil women) in each others arms in Ravana’s palace. There are references to oral sex as performed by male servants on their masters in Kamasutra. In Rajatarangini, king Kshemagupta indulge in anal sex. Silappadikaram too records boy prostitutes. All these are represented in descriptive, nonjudgmental manner, “As normally present in court and in daily life, evidence of the affluence and splendor of Urban Culture.” Ruth Vanita.

(2) Texts/myths of exceptional same-sex friendships and same sex pairing. The example is of Krishna and Arjuna, and of Nara Narayana.
(3) Traditional categories of non-heterosexual behavior, inclinations and acts identified in ancient Indian books on sexology, law and medicine.
Kamasutra, Manusmriti, Charaka Samhita and Shushruta Samhita.
Kamasutra – Tritiya prakriti – of the third nature.
Arthashastra – ayoni or non-vaginal sex. As punishable with lowest fine.
Manusmriti – prescribes mild punishments, but states that, “sexual union with a man is traditionally said to cause loss of caste.”
Charaka Samhita and Shushruta Samhita – taks of kliba, pandaka and napunsaka – all verities of neutered gender.

(4) Texts/myths representing sex change or undoing of gender - transgender, trans-sexuality, or inter-sexuality. (Arjuna and Narada becoming women).

(5) Body hating asceticism, refusing marriage and misogyny.
(6) Textual and visual representations androgyny – Ardhanarishwara:
Combination of male and female qualities
Gupta period Buddha and later Hindu sculptures, the traditional Indian perspective, and psychoanalytic implications/ Hermaphroditism.
(7) Philosophical and theological questioning of gender as non-reality, illusion and non-duality (Brahman), and justification of the socially acceptable/unacceptable in terms of rebirth.

(8) Divine children of same sex unions(Ayyappa, Bhagiratha).

(9) Composite forms of gods: Harihara, Ardhanarishwara.

(10) Unnatural birth: Kartikeya (more than one male god as parent) and Ganesha (all female origin).

(11) Bhakti – the mystical loving devotion to a chosen god by ritual transformation into opposite sex – sakhibhava- self exceeding gender.
It is to be kept in view that Bhakti was a cohesive Brahmanical social discourse a process of subsumption through inclusion, and that feminization has to be thought in the context of the through sexualization of female body, and in the process reified, exaggerated, accentuated and commodified. It is also significant to note that the divine feminine sphere had been a largely a patriarchal construct. In this context it will be worth also to see that male body in Indian art, at least from 5th century AD was a spiritualized entity, having the bearing upon the Brahmanic idealistic philosophy.

(12) Bhakti and friendship with god - sakha bhava

(13) Popular contemporary religious transgender and transsexual festivals: Aravani,

(14) Intimacy in Male teacher-student (guru-sishya) relationship.

(15) Homoerotic religious communities:

(16) God’s inseparable same-sex companion: Ayyappa and Vavar,

(17) Hindu male mystics: Shri Chaitanya, Sri Ramakrishna
Writing queer histories is a matter of feeding into the legitimacy to queer existences, and as a matter that strengthen the political conviction and faith in queer activism. Although my intention here is not to dwell deeply into the on going historical research, it has generally accepted that there had been no evidence of extended history of persecution of queer practices in the pre-British or pre-modern India. On the other hand we have inclusion and subsumption of the queer practices as minor, inconsequential or irrelevant aspect of life, or the "benign neglect" as Sudhir Kakar calls it. “In ancient India, homosexual activity itself was ignored or stigmatized as inferior, but never actively persecuted. In the dharmashastras, male homoerotic activity is punished, albeit mildly: a ritual bath or the payment of a small fine was often sufficient atonement.” Sudhir Kakar , Homosexuality And The Indian - India has a tradition of benign neglect of alternate sexualities, (http://www.littleindia.com/news/145/ARTICLE/1835/2007-08-17.html).

Ruth Vanita’s approach like all other researchers is still primary, taxonomical and basic.
It is very common assumption that ancient India had celebrative attitude to sexuality and that it was flexible and tolerant to sexual minorities. Yet, we can’t ignore the fact that heterosexuality was the norm, and as Foucault would call it as, “tactical polyvalence of discourse”. Most, or all the writers have been using extractive method, and they have a naturalizing affect, and have not as yet concerned about minor sexualities from the larger reality of class and caste, or the general aspects of power relations, as to how power circulates through discourse. Queer studies on ancient India needs to work with methodological models of domination, subordination and resistance and has to focus on institutional strategies, discursive formations and structures of power/knowledge that maintain the dominance of heterosexuality.

Recovering and Reclaiming Our Cultural Heritage:
In the Introduction of The Queer Encyclopedia of the Visual Arts edited by Calaude J. Summers, (Cleis Press Inc., California, 2004) the editor states that, “Recovering our cultural heritage is a crucially important endeavor for everyone, but it is especially significant for gay men, lesbians and others who have grown up in families and societies in which their sexual identities have been ignored, canceled, or condemned. They often come to a realization of their difference with little or no understanding of alternative sexualities beyond the negative stereotypes that pervade contemporary society, and they usually feel isolated and frightened at the very time they most need reassurance and encouragement.”

The study of queer sexualities in cultural history must face base questions of definitions and identity. What constitutes sexual identity and how do minor sexualities figure-in within the larger socio-political structures? What instrumentality or agency the minor sexuality had within the lager heterosexual world? Did India, possibly among other Asian counties; had a more inclusive approach to minor sexual identities and practices? Did the dichotomies as it exists today between hetero-normative and queer practices existed in different historical periods or was in the case of India or South East Asia different? What kinds of social control operated in the ancient of medieval Indian societies? How much of it was institutionalized and how and what were the practices outside the institutions? These are some questions that need to be attended by researchers urgently.

Inter-Subjectivity/Intervisuality - Bhupen Khakhar among Friends and Foes: An Inquiry into Homophobia - Shivaji K Panikkar

(Presentation for the Visual Culture Conference ‘See-Saw: Context of Spectatorship’, Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communication, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad, 25th -27th Feb. 2010.)


The question I ask is about the importance of Khakhar’s sexuality in the very structuring of his art. The answer to this is not merely in understanding the experiential realm of the gay painter and its reflection in the art, but it is in understanding the larger political meaning of his art. The question, in other words is whether his sexuality was merely one of the aspects of his life that could be thought of separately from other facets of his life, or was it a crucially determining factor that controlled most or all other aspects of his life.

Secondly, I address the issue of how writers have represented him. And, further it interests me to look at how his contemporaries in the art world have represented him through memorializing and paying homage to him. Why I want to do these is to check out my contention, which is regarding the structurally ingrained homophobia; of embarrassment, of shame, of prejudice, of misrepresentation, of passing misplaced humor at him, or in other words of privatizing Khakhar and his art. My basic assumption is that it is the structural heterosexist prejudice that rejects the sexual identity politics (not sexual experience) as the basic source, rationale and motivation of Khakhar’s art. My presentation is a working paper, and is to test out and validate these above contentions.

The Outburst of Bizarre in Bhupen Khakhar:
The first question I address is to ask as to what difference his gay disclosure made to his painterly language. It is significant that Khakhar came out of the closet some time in his mid career, after mid-1980s, and vital shift takes off in the paintings; thematically, and in the delineation of pictorial spaces.

Possibly in 1987, beginning around the time he did Yayati (1987) or a little later, but definitively through early 90s with Pink City (1991) and Ghost City Night (1991) this shift over is real, and engaged the artists through 1990s, until his death.

Till mid/late 1980s he had painted pictures, what he described as ‘ribbon-ed packages’, visualized with great detailing; itemized and finished to the extent possible where he aspired for an absolute fidelity with the world out there. It is evident that he self-consciously and systematically worked away from this mode. Importantly, this shift-over coincided with his gay identity disclosure.

By mid 80s most of the artistic influences were absorbed by Khakhar. Within what were brewing on the Baroda scene; the figurative-narrative, culturalist discourses (in the 1970s and till early or mid 80s) and the exhibition Place for People (1981) symptomatically assert itself as avant-garde, and also closes its project for the artists involved; Nalini Malani, Vivan Sundaram, and Khakhar significantly move away from the narrative project quickly, harping-on to undertake a much larger subjective and expressive linguistic search and with different political concerns. Epistemically, this is an important shift and my attempt is to ask as to why and how the elements of fantasy, myth and hearsay are resorted by Khkhar for a radically new affect.

I would like to think through the possibly that the bizarre in Khakhar’s art derives from his unresolved perceptions of being a gay subject – moment of wonderment and un-believability about ones own sexuality in disclosure. Khakhar’s radical speech-act is from the premises of marginality, one from a gay identitarian politics, and that of playing out a thorny subjectivity.

The bizarre is also to be seen in terms of the deliberateness in attempting to destabilize the established conventions, the very unease and corruption of the ‘normal’ sensibilities that his art could throw-up. Overt subversive-ness is one of the characteristics, and non-conformism and questioning itself and the world coincides.

It is clear that Khakhar was making an ontological argument while creating a larger epistemic shift – figuring out a possibility of an engagement with a new kind of realism, quite unlike the ones one is used to; the nationalist, classical realism of various kinds.

This shift-over is primarily related to the imaginative renegotiations he had to make in picture making having ‘come out of closet’. Subjectivity of Khakhar thus is different in the 80s and since; beginning of a tremendous freedom marks with the title and thematic of the painting You Can’t Please All (1881). However, in any case the newly acquired freedom had not been a comfortable zone of finality.
The un-decidability of the experience – of belonging or not belonging totally to the available homosexual life, confusions in the moments of belief in the loved one and the disbelief in ones own reality, the decision to fight or to ignore ones companionship, to take ones own desires and the gay experiences seriously or otherwise; or in short the very fluidity of being gay, its unsystematic and non-institutionalized practices are some of the elements that are present both in his fictional narrations, and as experienced from the lives of other homosexual people around him – including his life companions. In paintings these are translated as spatial disjunctions and irrelations - through unfinished conjunction of spaces. He used various collage techniques too, like framing small pictures into a large image collection.

Framing Devices: Art Historian’s Strategies & A Critique
It is not difficult to locate structural, but generally innocuous homophobia in the very frameworks used in locating the significance of Khakhar. Among the writers, foremost is Geeta Kapur, followed by Ranjit Hoskote.

Khakhar is written about within the decisive break his work undertook in the 1960s; in breaking the modernist western internationalist hegemony, where Khakhar is pictured as one of the major figures of dissent. His significance is also the fact that he was the first Indian artist to make use of the much undervalued, hybrid visual culture of the popular art language as against the aesthetic attitude of the formalist avant-garde. This enabled him to subvert the dominant purist vales in art, particularly abstraction, through masquerade and mockery and it helped him to pictorially translate his relationship and concern with the people of common class. From this position he became the foremost Indian artist to represent, or more accurately to narrate the life of the common milieu through painting.

Importantly, in these historicizing, his sexuality and politics do not figure-in. I would argue that above all these, what deserves special attention from the point of view of minoritarian political movement is the fact that he became the first Indian artist to have disclosed his identity as a homosexual and this is crucially absent in framing the significance of Khakhar both by Kapur and Hoskote, although both the writers engage with his sexuality in terms of description and interpretation of his paintings. I see this as an anomaly. Framing him within the ‘crisis’ of modernism, from the premise of third world cultural politics and for up-fronting popular, narrative, locale and the middleclass although is not incorrect; however these do not take into consideration the significance of his art within the politics of gay liberation movement.

Referring to modes of writing art history of Khakhar, Ranjit Hoskote considers that it is limiting that Khakhar be framed “within the generic confines of gay politics…” and argues that critics who claim him exclusively for gay politics cage him in a limiting position.”

However, for the gay political activism, the primary significance of Khakhar’s life and art undoubtedly is linked to the moment of his ‘coming out of closet’ and thereafter. Historically it is significant that the development of queer identity politics in India is contemporary to that of Khakhar’s disclosure and his art practices. Today it is able to make its presence felt legally, socially and politically. The central activist pre-condition is the fact that gays are a true minority, and crucial to this is based on the choice of ones sexual preference. To ‘come out of closet’ and to engage with it, is a major step in assuming this identity. What is often overlooked by the homophobic, as in the case of Khakhar’s biographers is the accompanying trauma, pain and embarrassment, particularly considering the event within the constraints of the Indian polity; particularly the patriarchal family system. Moreover, the gay liberational politics is hinged itself precariously upon the very restrictive conditions of the government and the legal injunctions. The legal limitations apart, the fear of social ostracism, stigma and discrimination combined with homophobia, heterosexism, heterocentrism and compulsory heterosexuality are real issues faced by homosexuals.

It is a well known fact that Khakhar ‘came out of the closet’ by gathering his strength from the international gay liberation movement, especially its manifestations in the field of art in the 1980s. What Hoskote assigns as “gay politics cage him in a limiting position”, is in fact the primary condition that helped Khakhar to take his first major step towards asserting freedom from the constrains imposed by the heterosexist norms. It is the implied embarrassment originating from queerphobia that should see an artist like Khakhar within gay politics as a limiting position. As such homophobia refers to the irrational fear and often unsuspected aversion or intolerance of non-heterosexual orientations and practices or behavior. For varied reasons, the subconscious assumption is that heterosexuality is the only acceptable sexual orientation. In day to day life queerphobia is experienced in ways ranging from cracking jokes directed against non-hetero normative sexual identity and activity – which has a direct bearing on shows like Shri Khakhar Prasanna by Atul Dodiya - to harassment and physical violence.
Privatizing a Public Value: Bhupen Khakhar, Spectatorship and the Politics of Representing
“Homophobia is usually the last oppression to be mentioned, last to be taken seriously, last to go. But it is extremely serious, sometimes to the point of fatal… Homophobia is in and of itself a verifiable oppression and in a heterosexist system, all non- heterosexuals are viewed as “deviants” and are oppressed.”

(Barbara Smith, Homophobia: Why Bring It Up?, The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, Ed. Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barle, David M. Halperin, Routledge, New York, 1993, p. 99, 101.)

Pointing to the simultaneity and interlocking of race/caste, class and sex oppressions, Barbara Smith points out that there seem a reluctantence to grasp the active resistance to homophobia in everyday life. She argues that homophobia and abuse is a tacit attitude, and seems somewhat socially sanctioned. One of the attitudes of the homophobe is not to see gay man’s life and art as a political matter, but as a private concern, which is important to the critique that I would like to think in relation to the projects of memorializing Khakhar.

Undoubtedly, Khakhar meant differently to different artists. Mostly anecdotal, or drawing attention to a detail in his painting (e.g. erect penis of the donkey in the painting You can’t Please All), his jokes and pranks, his influences on others, as a satirist, a connoisseur of popular culture, painter of common man, pop and kitsch, homosexuality, writer, traveler, his elusiveness, his shyness and flamboyance, his ingeniousness and shrewdness, as the first artist of Indian homoerotic life, Khakhar is represented in many more avatars.

The earliest such shows is A Tribute to Bhupen Khakhar, presented by Tao Art Gallery, Mumbai, 8th to 28th August 2004 with 41 artists, coordinated by Kalpana Shah and Birendra Pani. It is interesting to me that some of the artists do gesture at Khakhar’s sexuality and trivialize it in the processes, as in the case of Jitish Kallat in the work titled A Tree with Five Penises. Such misreading through displacing, become putting the irony back at Khakhar, as in the case of the work of Altaf titled Man with Five Cigarettes. It is not difficult to read the intervisuality in these works, and with his gay imaginations, Khakhar seem successful in destabilizing the normal hetero-normative expectations that men must have only one penis each. Most of these are reductive, but humorous take on homosexuality.

A year later, in August 2005 Gallery Chemould mounted a more narrowly selected show titled, Bhupen among Friends: a Tribute to Bhupen Khakhar by Friends with 14 artists, who specially created works for this occasion. Consider two artists; Vivan Sundaram and Atul Dodia who also made large bodies of works based on Khakhar for independent shows.

Vivan Sundaram’s show Bad Drawing for Dost recast, redrafts, re-craft and transcribe from some of the well known works of Khakhar. In an attempt to penetrate into the mysteries and secrecies of Khakhar’s imageries he dissembles, veils, fragment, repeat, blur and pierce them with needle and thread and layer them making the images more ambiguous and mysterious, and the viewer is left perplexed over Sundaram’s engagement with Khakhar.

The inter-textual play, their interpolation takes into view the multilayered personality of Khakhar. Reflecting Khakhar religious and mundane intermingle, which is considered as a shrewd act of Khakhar, giving a notion that homosexuality as part of a normal life and not as deviancy. Almost all the images revisited thus are Khakhar’s homoerotic of phallic imagery.

Despite Sundaram’s elaborate approach to representing Khakhar, his basic framework is writing the artist into characterizing Indian homosexual man and in the process naturalizes him. Far from contextualizing the subject’s life and work within the socio-political struggle of the queer community, the formalist engagement of Sundaram is hardly productive of meaning beyond the private realm of mystifying the minor’s struggle for survival. Sundaram stresses on the experiential realm of homosexual traits of Khakhar and in turn misses the political implication of the radical speech-act which Khakhar engages from the premise of gay politics.

Atul Dodiya’s Shri Khakhar Prasanna, an ambitious project – “a series of parodies and exaggerations, paradoxes and private jokes, fantasias and extravagances… that reflects on Bhupen’s own aesthetic of overflow, of ludic excess and abundant wackiness.” (Ranjit Hoskote). Invoked as a private family deity Khakhar, according to Hoskote, “‘Shri Khakhar Prasanna’ is as much an autobiography as it is a memorial...”, and the installation resembling a miniature city, “with each district modeled either as a fictive interior or an exterior folded back into the inside of a building” and “presses both encomium and embarrassment into service.”

The show alludes to almost all that fascinated Khakhar; shop and street signs, objects referring to middleclass men, Khakhar’s interest in folk and na├»ve art, quotations of thoughts, letters, SMS’s between Dodiya and Khakhar, etc the subject that is actually being remembered here is not Khakhar considered in the light of history, but it is the relationship between the two artist. Among other things is the allusion to Khakhar’s homosexuality. Among the Shri Khakhar Relics is Shri Khakhar Sock that pays homage to artist’s bold rendering of penis in his paintings.

There are a group of works titled Painting B Company – a suite of signboard paintings, where Dodiya paints these fictitious advertisements depicting the intimate, personal non-artistic friends of Khakhar; in an attempt to put out into public the private world of the artist.

What should all these privatizing of Khakhar and his art mean from the liberational political premise? My basic proposal is that it is the structural heterosexist prejudice that rejects the sexual identity politics (not sexual experience) as the basic source, rationale and motivation of Khakhar’s art. These acts of memorializing display the basic inability to align with political upsurge of the queer community, and reduce the speech act of the artist as a private matter. This overlooking of the political, I would argue is a reflection of structurally ingrained homophobia, and indicates heterosexual bias, and indicates how very acceptable are the public expression of it. Despite the fact that the queer activism has certainly made inroads, these undertakings prove that it has not made enough impact to question such deeply entrenched attitude and bias.

Gay Disclosure and ‘Queer Realism’: A Critique and a Re-reading of Bhupen Khakhar - Shivaji K Panikkar

(Presentation for the Seminar Intervisuality: imitations/ innovations, 14th, 15th and 16th of January2010, RLV College of Music and Fine Arts, Thripunitura, Kochi, Kerala.)
What I am going to present is the first part of a two part presentation: it is a working paper and a tentative proposal for consideration. The term ‘queer realism’ in the title is used with a twin purpose. Firstly it point towards the elements of bizarre, strange, outlandish, incongruous or the unusual in Khakhar’s paintings, and also because they still has a potential to shock, and secondly, ‘queer’ also indicates the traditional derogatory connotations for being homosexual, and the activist context where the term assumes a positive assertion against such usages.

One of the questions that have deeply concerned me with regard to the art of Bhupen Khakhar is to understand the importance of his sexuality in the very structuring of his art. Further, I am not concerned merely about the experiential realm of a gay painter and its reflection in the art, but my intention is to elicit larger political meaning of his art. The question, in other words is whether his sexuality was merely one of the aspects of his life that could be thought of separately from other facets of his life, or was it a crucially determining factor that controlled most or all other aspects of his life. Specifically, the question I address is to ask as to what difference his gay disclosure made to his painterly language, and what meanings can that lent us. Thinking through these, I am also concerned as to how writers on his art have represented his art. It also interests me to look at how his contemporaries in the art world have represented him through memorializing and paying homage to him. Why I want to do this is to check out my contention, which is regarding the structurally ingrained homophobia; of embarrassment, of shame, of prejudice, of misrepresentation, of passing misplaced humor at him that determines much of the responses to his art. My basic assumption is that it is the structural heterosexist prejudice that rejects the sexual identity politics (not sexual experience) as the basic source, rationale and motivation of Khakhar’s art. My presentation is to test out and validate these contentions.

Framing Devices/Strategies
It is not difficult to locate structural, but generally innocuous or unselfconscious homophobia in the very frameworks used in locating the significance of Khakhar. Among the writers, foremost is Geeta Kapur, whose essay titled Bhupen Khakhar (exhibition catalogue Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, September, 2002), which was re-published as Saint Bhupen (in exhibition catalogue Bhupen Among Friends: A Tribute to Bhupen Khakhar by Friends, Gallery Chemould, Mumbai, 2005). Another essay that concerns my query is written by Ranjit Hoskote (titled The Comic Mausoleum: Atul Dodiya’s ‘Shri Khakhar Prasanna’, Chemould Presscott Road, Mumbai, exhibition catalogue, 2007). Khakhar is written about within the decisive break his work undertook in the 1960s; in breaking the modernist western internationalist hegemony, where Khakhar is pictured as one of the major figures of dissent. His significance is also the fact that he was the first Indian artist to make use of the much undervalued, hybrid visual culture of the popular art language as against the aesthetic attitude of the formalist avant-garde. This enabled him to subvert the dominant purist vales in art, particularly abstraction, through masquerade and mockery and it helped him to pictorially translate his relationship and concern with the people of common class. From this position he became the foremost Indian artist to represent, or more accurately to narrate the life of the common milieu through painting. Geeta Kapur makes a very significant observation in the context of the second phase of his work of 1972 where he developed a definite representational project, she point out that “Khakhar’s emphasis now shifted from an interest in the language of popular culture to the subject appropriate to that language and, slowly, to the subjectivity that can be elicited from the depiction of that subject in the language appropriate to it.”

Importantly, in these historicizing, his sexuality and politics do not figure-in. I would argue that above all these, what deserves special attention from the point of view of minoritarian political movement is the fact that he became the first Indian artist to have disclosed his identity as a homosexual and this is crucially absent in framing the significance of Khakhar both by Kapur and Hoskote, although both the writers engage with his sexuality in terms of description and interpretation of his paintings. I see this as an anomaly. Framing him within the ‘crisis’ of modernism, from the premise of third world cultural politics and for up-fronting popular, narrative, locale and the middleclass although is not incorrect; however these do not take into consideration the significance of his art within the politics of gay liberation movement.

Referring to modes of writing art history of Khakhar, Ranjit Hoskote refers to three dominant schools of Bhupeneutics; first focuses on the artist’s persona, the second stresses on the artist’s genius and astute negotiations and firm rooted-ness of the local/Gujarati popular culture and the visualities and the third position is that which focuses upon his gay disclosure as India’s first artist of homoerotic life. Hoskote considers that it is limiting that Khakhar be framed “within the generic confines of gay politics…” and argues that “Critics who claim Bhupen exclusively for either pop culture or gay politics cage him in a limiting position.”

However, for the gay political activism, the primary significance of Khakhar’s life and art undoubtedly is linked to the moment of his ‘coming out of closet’ and thereafter. Historically it is significant that the development of queer identity politics in India is contemporary to that of Khakhar’s disclosure and his art practices. Today it is able to make its presence felt legally, socially and politically. The central activist pre-condition is the fact that gays are a true minority, and crucial to this is based on the choice of ones sexual preference. While other minority positions such as that of the caste is largely conferred to a person at birth and passed through family, and thus socially visible, they do not necessarily have to go through the complexity of experience specific to gays; of ‘coming-out’, or to declare ones sexual identity to the world - the yardstick of the ability of the person to ‘come out of closet’ and to engage with it, which by itself a matter considered as a major step in assuming this identity. What is often overlooked by the homophobic, as in the case of Khakhar’s biographers is the accompanying trauma, pain and embarrassment, particularly considering the event within the constraints of the Indian polity; particularly the patriarchal family system. Moreover, the gay liberational politics is hinged itself precariously upon the very restrictive conditions of the government and the legal injunctions. The legal limitations apart, the fear of social ostracism, stigma and discrimination combined with homophobia, heterosexism, heterocentrism and compulsory heterosexuality are real issues faced by homosexuals.

It is a well known fact that Khakhar ‘came out of the closet’ by gathering his strength from the international gay liberation movement, especially its manifestations in the field of art in the 1980s. His stable friendship with Vallavdas Shah helped him to do so, and simultaneously his mother’s death also freed him from familial restrictions. Khakhar’s 1979 visit to England had been significant for him where he saw homosexual men living together, and also, gay exposure in art. It is evident that Khakhar was acutely aware that he was living a homosexual’s life surrounded by heterosexual values, including his companions and artist friends.

What Hoskote assigns as “gay politics cage him in a limiting position”, is in fact the primary condition that helped Khakhar to take his first major step towards asserting freedom from the constrains imposed by the heterosexist norms. It is the implied embarrassment originating from queerphobia that should see an artist like Khakhar within gay politics as a limiting position. As such queerphobia refers to the irrational or subliminal fear and often unsuspected aversion or intolerance of non-heterosexual orientations and practices or behavior. For varied reasons, the subconscious assumption is that heterosexuality is the only acceptable sexual orientation. In day to day life queerphobia is experienced in ways ranging from cracking jokes directed against non-hetero normative sexual identity and activity – which has a direct bearing on shows like Shri Khakhar Prasanna by Atul Dodiya - to harassment and physical violence. These are thus the interfaces; intervisuality and intertextuality, the very dynamics between queer cultural practices, queerphobia and queer activism.

Further, it is within the context of religion or more generally Indian culture that Kapur and Hoskote contextualizes Khakhar’s sexuality. This in turn is related to the way Kapur reads the ‘Indian homosexual man’. To quote Kapur, “Indeed Khakhar, like other members of the gay community today, reclaims his place in the material and spiritual universe on his own terms as an ‘outsider’. This may also be something of an Indian contribution to the gay discourse: where permissiveness flourishes in the default mode, where rights are never won, yet perhaps granted, or bestowed, by custom and a seemingly libertarian tradition. Homosexuality in India is part of the ubiquitous system of lies and deprivation, part of religious performance, part of married life, part of popular culture – especially of mass film culture where same-sex love is intricately encoded.” Drawing immediate comparison with heterosexual relations, and despite taking note of the potential transgressive shift, Kapur characterizes the gay man as degenerate, pervert, and as abject, but she never pictures them with the political power of asserting the rights. One of the major tropes Kapur uses is of religious context to understand Khakhar’s homosexuality where she says religion is a cover-up of suppressed promiscuity. Kapur asks as to why Khakhar stage sexuality in the religious setting, and provides a reading that is literal; that is as a reflection of his frequenting in such places which offer chances of touch and caress which Khakhar called “unabashedly” as ‘pick-up’ spots. She marks the paintings in religious setting as “have this shuddering ambiguity between means and ends, between piety and prostitution” Kapur links “holiness and degeneracy, sin and salvation, adoration and iconoclasm” – where god’s devotee is pictured as a ‘pervert’ and asks: is it that he hopes for redemption through openly confessing a ‘sinful’ truth? It is clear that Kapur is stressing the experiential realm of an average middleclass man’s homosexual traits and in turn misses the political implication of the radical speech-act which Khakhar engages from the premise of gay politics.

Hoskote pictures a homosexual “not as deviant or antagonistic to Indic society” but as “arising from sources within its heartland of sacred culture.” Referring to the guru-shishya relationship, emotionalism of sakhibhava, puja and such, asserts that “Bhupen doubles the sacred and the erotic as mutual tropes.” Touching up on the practice of camouflaging the pleasures of androgyny asserts that “… the central question that animates his later work is this: What, really, is normality?” In an attempt skirt and mystify Khakhar’s identity assertions Hoskote says, I quote, “… he rebutted the efforts of critics and historians to define him… He adopted and reveled in a multiplicity of personae…”

With Kapur as well as in the writings of Hoskote there is an approach to naturalize Khakhar’s minoritarian political gestures and its affect within in the Indian cultural traditions while overlooking the implication of these within the gay political activism. On the other hand I would argue as follows: Starting with Celebration of Guru Jajanti, Two Men in Banaras and paintings such Sakhibhav (1995), religion and sexuality indeed is a theme Khakhar explores centrally. One of the aspects of queer activism is searching into history for evidences and legitimacy for ones identity and its reflections in ones surroundings, and Khakhar surely locates it along with other spaces, within the popular congregational religious traditions and practices, which inherently offer certain mediated permissibility and anonymity in practicing the erotic. However, to reduce paintings merely as originating in the erotic encounters in religious or any other setting would be a reductive reading. Three points are significant here. Firstly, trying to find legitimacy for his personal experiences, Khakhar simultaneously moves away significantly from the autobiographical to such nebulous public domains as religious practices. Secondly, autobiographically, through the internalized interpersonal tensions in relation to the desire and conflicts, perhaps as indicating power relation between the himself and his sexual partners, sometimes emphasizing the superior power and sometimes the weakness of the subordinated self – he uses religion and myths metaphorically. This is significant in a work such as Two Men in Benaras (1981), How Many Hands do I Need to Declare My Love to You? (1994), and Picture Taken on Their 30th Wedding Anniversary (1998). Thirdly, Khakhar resolves to show that the caring and obedient lover can poke fun at the macho man, and in all these religious references and motifs or settings are employed, as in An Old Man from Vasad Who had Five Penises Suffered from Runny Nose, (1995). Rather than narrating or describing, what I would argue is that the intertwining of these matrices makes his art a very complex play of power positions in relation to the public/religious and private domain.

The Outburst of Bizarre in Bhupen Khakhar:
A significant difference take off in the paintings of Khakhar after mid-1980s; thematically, and particularly in the delineation of pictorial spaces. Possibly in 1987, beginning around the time he did Yayati (1987) or a little later, but definitively through early 90s with Pink City (1991) and Ghost City Night (1991) this shift over is real, and engaged the artists through 1990s, until his death. Till mid/late 1980s he had painted pictures, what he described as ‘ribbon-ed packages’, visualized with great detailing; itemized and finished to the extent possible where he aspired for an absolute fidelity with the world out there. It is evident that he self-consciously and systematically worked away from this mode. Importantly, this shift-over coincided with his gay identity disclosure. Myth disrupted the time space conjunction as in Yayati, or the specificity of the locale is problematized, and the pictorial continuity in terms of time was disrupted, so also the there-ness in narration. What was in store was an unfurling of bizarre and the fantastic, which took his art to unexpected areas of expression – significantly these had also been a pertinent aspect of his fiction writing.

It is significant to note that Kapur ignores this linguistic shift of the artist. She does takes note of the fact that the artist took a leap from representing the social class to the existential reality of the gay man where a re-classification of subjectivity is marked. However she skips to take note of the simultaneous shift the artist makes in his approach to pictorial language, and comes to 90s and reads aspects related to medium and format – from oil to watercolor on paper, drawings to graphics, which she says changed the visage and shape of image, while she links the transparency of watercolor to sexual fancy and painterly transcendence. It is significant that Kapur observers that after sexuality is included in the painting that the “modest, industriously garnered grace within and around his painting began to quiver in a disturbing way.”

It is necessary to look at the subjective break the artist makes with a critical insight in relation to his gay identity disclosure. By mid 80s most of the artistic influences were absorbed by Khakhar. Within what were brewing on the Baroda scene; the figurative-narrative, culturalist discourses (in the 1970s and till early or mid 80s) and the exhibition Place for People (1981) symptomatically assert itself as avant-garde, and also closes its project for the artists involved; Nalini Malani, Vivan Sundaram, and Khakhar significantly move away from the narrative project quickly, harping-on to undertake a much larger subjective and expressive linguistic search and with different political concerns. Epistemically, this is an important shift and my attempt is to ask as to why and how the elements of fantasy, myth and hearsay are resorted by Khkhar for a radically new affect.

I would like to think through the possibly that the bizarre in Khakhar’s art derives from his unresolved perceptions of being a gay subject – moment of wonderment and un-believability about ones own sexuality in disclosure. Khakhar’s radical speech-act is from the premises of marginality, one from a gay identitarian politics, and that of playing out a thorny subjectivity. The bizarre is also to be seen in terms of the deliberateness in attempting to destabilize the established conventions, the very unease and corruption of the ‘normal’ sensibilities that his art could throw-up. Overt subversive-ness is one of the characteristics, and non-conformism and questioning itself and the world coincides. It is clear that Khakhar was making an ontological argument while creating a larger epistemic shift – figuring out a possibility of an engagement with a new kind of realism, quite unlike the ones one is used to; the nationalist, classical realism of various kinds.

Although the artist definitively maintained his interest in real life scenes till the end of his career, once the bizarre and the fantastic begins to enter into paintings, the works are allowed to become eccentric, obscure, idiosyncratic, bizarre and even anachronistic. My proposition is that this shift-over is primarily related to the imaginative renegotiations he had to make in picture making having ‘come out of closet’. Subjectivity of Khakhar thus is different in the 80s and since; beginning of a tremendous freedom marks with the title and thematic of the painting You Can’t Please All (1881). However, in any case the newly acquired freedom had not been a comfortable zone of finality. The un-decidability of the experience – of belonging or not belonging totally to the available homosexual life, confusions in the moments of belief in the loved one and the disbelief in ones own reality, the decision to fight or to ignore ones companionship, to take ones own desires and the gay experiences seriously or otherwise; or in short the very fluidity of being gay, its unsystematic and non-institutionalized practices are some of the elements that are present both in his fictional narrations, and as experienced from the lives of other homosexual people around him – including his life companions. In paintings these are translated as spatial disjunctions and irrelations - through unfinished conjunction of spaces. He used various collage techniques too, like framing small pictures into a large image collection. However, it is the definite fantasy and the bizarre such as in the paintings; How Many Hands do I Need to Declare My Love to You? (1994), Picture Taken on Their 30th Wedding Anniversary (1998) Yagnya-Marriage (1999), Next Morning (1999) or “They loved each other so much that they wore the suit of the same design” that are exceptional.

Michel Foucault’s quote makes my overall contention clearer: “Sexuality is a part of our behavior. It is part of our world freedom… It is our own creation, and much more than the discovery of a secret side of our desire… Sex is not a fatality; it is a possibility for creative life.” (Quoted from Altered States: Creativity Under the Influence, James Huges, the Ivy Press limited, 1999, p. 147.). It is to Khakhar’s credit that he pictured the experiential realms of gay men with freedom and irony, while his art refrained from becoming overtly political in terms slogan mongering. But, Khakhar surely imagined a language; a language of indeterminate ambivalence and this language surely is born out of meekness, the very indeterminacy and marginality and its repressed cavernous secret practices. Although his various artistic engagements allowed him to relentlessly engage with multilayered potential of persona in play with the unacceptable self in the world, and through his various works filtered and re-configured the life he and friends lived mundanely – to that extent his queer realism is an authentic testimony of a gay man in our times.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

BHUPEN KHAKHAR (1934-2003)

(Text for Lalit Kala Akademy's Portfolio on the artist: a bit scrapy, but can't help that: Pl. do send Comments)


The significance of Bhupen Khakhar within the history of modern Indian art is manifold. Foremost is the fact that he was the first Indian artist to make use of the much undervalued, hybrid visual culture of the popular art language. Firstly, this enabled him to subvert the dominant purist vales in art, particularly abstraction. Secondly, it helped him to pictorially translate his peculiar relationship and concern with the people of common class. From this position he became the foremost Indian artist to represent, or more accurately to narrate the life of the common milieu through painting. Art historically, Khakhar’s involvement with common people and their culture has generated an artist who is perhaps the first Indian painter who reckoned with hybridity of Indian culture, and this defined the quest for Indian identity in art from a totally unexplored premise. Above all these, what deserves special attention is the fact that he became the first Indian artist to have disclosed his homosexual orientation through paintings. He deeply explored this aspect of life which indeed determined the aesthetic and thematic of his entire oeuvre.[1](1)

Through out his career Khakar assumed strategies that could flaunt the established mainstream through playful, often surprising and unusual, if not odd, pictorial delineations and narrative incidents. Undoubtedly, he remained one of the most meaningfully outspoken artists of our times. This is so since his disarming honesty, sensitivity and directness in life and artistic expressions constantly threatened the limits set by different established canons. Doing so much – from writing short stories and dramas to painting, printmaking, installations and sculpture, he lived a life of an ordinary person among common milieu, constantly undermining aura and greatness. The major difference here is that as an artist he was utmost honest and careful in representing the nuances of his experiences that lent a transparency to all his expressions. Khakhar’s art enabled him to play between the irreconcilability of the lived and the impossible. Mundane activities, ordinary way of life and the imagined worked hand in hand and lend a totality of experience that covers almost all aspects of life. But, indeed, in all these it is the irreverence, and the transgressive potential of being a gay man that became his central strategy and the strength, and his extraordinary ability to be different among his contemporaries.

In all these, Khakhar’s artistic persona is closest to the 19th century company/bazaar painter and his art; hybrid, inadequate or even funny and odd at times. At the beginning, this enabled him to effectively overcome the technical limitations and inadequacies of an untrained painter, which however came to be canonized as the strength of his language and aesthetic. Here, two pointers offer entry into his artistic world. First is his marked difference from his contemporaries that began manifesting from the time of Group 1890 where J. Swaminathan along with other younger artists from Baroda and elsewhere came together in dealing with questions primarily related to Indian cultural identity. Significantly, these had overlooked Khakhar’s anxiety and search in the direction of a distinct self and subjectivity, and it’s lived historical reality. On the contrary, he had been keenly interested in the Pop movement in Europe and USA at least partly due to his predilection and interest in the category of popular, and for the so called debased taste. With hind sight it is possible to say that Khakhar was one of the most western oriented artists in the mid-1960s. Secondly, although he was taking cues from it, it was nevertheless his search towards a true modern Indian expression and an acute sense of middleclass Indian historical reflexivity and uncanny sensitivity, with which he painted pictures that brought to the fore the long discredited popular visual culture into use. It’s meek voices from the margins of history, filtered and re-configured through the mundane realities of the day-to-day in his paintings, indeed did have the strength to overturn the puritanical cultural postures of the established bastions of art making. He was the one who asserted this aspect of the cultural history as the most valuable historical experience, to be reckoned, to be politically worked with, and to be used against dominance within the contemporary cultural politics. Through these engagements he also made his technical limitations of an untrained artist a force and strength.

Significantly, in 1961 Bhupen Khakhar migrated to Baroda from Bombay at the suggestion of his painter colleague Gulammuhammed Sheikh. This was after he began practicing a full-fledged Chattered Accountant’s career, which he continued simultaneously along with making art till late in his life. It is in Baroda that he began doing art with historical reflexivity, which he did along with a course in Art Criticism (1962-‘64) in the Dept of Art History of the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University of Baroda. Using ‘god pictures’ in calendar and posters, and deploying graffiti, his earliest set of works in the mid-1960s were in paper collage mode combined with enamel paint, which gained him the reputation of India’s first ‘Pop artist’. His contact with the young English artist, Jim Donavan, who lived in Baroda at that point in time, enabled him to take serious interest in Pop art movement. As a result, J. Swaminathan who led the Group 1890 excluded Khakhar from its 1963 exhibition on the grounds that he indulged in outlandish kitsch. However, by the time he participated in the group exhibition Place for People in 1981 with his celebrated paintings You Can’t Please All (1981) and Celebration of Guru Jayanti (1980), he was already an established painter, if not canonized, and was recognized as an avant-garde painter attributed with great historical significance.[2](2)

Since the late 1960s, linking to the nineteen and early twentieth century hybrid style of Indian painting which demonstrate hybrid mixtures of ‘native’ and European pictorial elements, Khakhar began working out a combination of popular realism and dramatic, romantic, picturesque way of painting pictures. It is through the genre pictorial themes Khakhar systematically began portraying the world of common man. Themes and titles such as Parsi Family (1968) and Barber’s Shop (1972), and using oil on canvas, these developed a definitive and elaborate representational strategy by the later part of 1970s. In painting such as Janata Watch Repairing (1972), Factory Strike (1972) and Man with Bouquet of Plastic Flowers (1975), the totally un-academic treatment of the figures, particularly the large heads and the stiff, thin, yet heavily clothed limbs however infuse an iconic presence to the protagonists. Sharp, dramatic contrasts of bright and dark colors inspired by the popular art, and the stiff, sharp tonal gradations and the smoothened floating shiny surface of these paintings still look empty and vacant, and a somber and sad mood too is obvious in these. Further, paintings such as Portrait of Shankarbhai V. Patel Near Red Fort (1971) offer the viewer various possibilities for interpreting the artist’s subjective persona through allegorical and metaphorical readings.

Khakhar eventually ‘came out of the closet’ by gathering his strength for a gradual disclosure from the international gay liberation movement, especially its manifestations in the field of art in the 1980s. His stable friendship with Vallabhdas Shah helped him to do so, and simultaneously his mother’s death also freed him from familial restrictions. Khakhar’s 1979 visit to England had been significant for him where he saw homosexual men living together, and also, gay exposure in art particularly that of David Hockney’s life and works had been instrumental in his ‘coming out’. While it actually happened frontally, at this time, one can not ignore a certain earlier modes of disclosures and expression through which he communicated his insuppressible desires. The unique portrayal of closeted gay desires in the 1970s takes expression in a painting such as Portrait of Shri. Shankarbhai Patel Near Red Fort. Painted rather flatly in the Indian miniaturist style within the norms of indigenist turn of the period, in this work the stern profile of the old man, the object of artist’s desire, is juxtaposed with an inviting still-life of fruits that are laid-out over a carpet in front of a garden. Perhaps, it is the confidence that is derived from the coded messages of such works which gave him the language to represent a gay man’s desires and sad loneliness more overtly in his other paintings of those early years. Bolder are the paintings such as Man Eating Jalebee (1974) and Man with Bouquet of Plastic Flowers. Certain experiences of loneliness, anxiety and alienation are manifest also in an oblige way in works such as the Factory Strike and in the Man Wearing Red Scarf (1981). In most other paintings of the 1970s where men are alone, or when the central character is presented within a context, what looms large is the silent and tensed uneasiness – which he suggests through the peculiarities of figurative disposition, such as the facial or gesturel delineation. However, the yearning for the loving companionship of the young for the older mates is treated more obviously in Ranchodbhai Relaxing in Bed, (1975). Yet, concealed gay desires are revealed only in hindsight. At the same time, as he was representing hidden gay desires, Khakhar also deflected them by painting ‘serious’ themes such as Factory Strike, Assistant Accountant – Mr. I.M. Patel (1972) and Mukti Bahini Soldier (1972). The gay orientation of such works is much more subtle and can go unrecognized. But it is important because the desire and the absence of the object of desire are suggested only gesturing them. Apart from the overt signs of homosexuality - gestures suggesting holding of genitals, and protagonist’s gaze that indicate uneasiness, murky sadness and confusion is surely of a gay persona who resist disclosure.

Truly ambitious and outspoken are Two Men in Banaras (1982) and Yayati (1987) which he painted with exuberant, subversive sexual strength and confidence while frontally disclosing his sexual identity. Here, the virile male in relation to the passive partner was a major theme, and Khakhar continuously represented himself as the effeminate, desiring and submissive lover. His painting You Can’t Please All (1981) already asserted his power as a gay man in public disclosure. But, the illustration of the power relation is seen first in the painting Two Men in Banaras where he represents himself with a certain shame (note the hidden face) as the older lover (the persona of the artist is marked without doubt), subordinated by the young, macho and aggressive partner. Soon enough, with Yayati he celebrates this mode of subordination through a mythical allegory of the resurrection of the old man by his youthful and angelic, younger lover.

Starting with his early collages (1965) through Celebration of Guru Jajanti, Two Men in Banaras and paintings such Sakhibhav (1995), religion and sexuality is a theme Khakhar explores centrally. Searching into history for evidences and legitimacy for ones identity and its reflections in ones surroundings, he locates it within the popular congregational Hindu religious traditions and practices, which allows certain mediated permissibility and anonymity in practicing erotic play. Three points are significant here. Firstly, trying to find legitimacy for his personal experiences within the spaces offered by his religious background, Khakhar simultaneously also moves away significantly from the private/autobiographical to such nebulous public domains as religious practices. Secondly, through the internalized clashes in relation to the desire and conflicts, and subversions that manifest in paintings as a consequence, perhaps as a desired transgression of power relation, these sometimes emphasize the superior power and sometimes the weakness of the subordinated self. Thirdly, and more definitively, Khakhar resolves to show that the caring and obedient lover can poke fun at the macho man, yet they sooner short-circuit into the ambivalence of the thematic of his paintings and in linguistic terms of their visualization. The intertwining of these matrices makes his art a very complex play of power positions in relation to the public domain and the contemporary religious politics. Although his imagery is neutered of specificity in terms of above, indeed they are associated with the broader nebulous category of religion and myth, but it was not religion per se that excited his imagination. It is the specific play of sexuality that underlay the Hindu myths, stories and icons that he constantly explored.

And from the mid-1980s onwards, Khakhar at times celebrates or at times speaks of the tragic fate of both partners. The power of disclosure in such works are in stark contrast to his early works of 1970s which have certain timid finality because they pretend the detachment of an observer-voyeur, and inhabit a space between the observer and observed, and surely feared to be a participant. From the very first painting of definitive disclosure, You Can’t Please All, all the paintings Khakhar painted until the late-1980s, he showed some ambivalence in specifying the flow of power within in narrative. Instead, he deployed the symbolic, metaphoric and allegorical modes, to heighten this ambivalence and these works become multi-edged.

By the late 1980s and early 90s, his works begin to become open-ended and enigmatic. He devised new pictorial ways, often to subvert and ridicule the stronger companion by exposing the tragedy of his much desired and sexualized partner through a language that objectifies the ambivalence and the bizarreness in such encounters found in paintings such as Ghost City (1992) and An Old Man from Vasad Who had Five Penises Suffered from Runny Nose, (1995). In these works, he moved away self-consciously from the question of power relations, a theme with which he had been working earlier. The enigma of real life experiences, the moments of belief and disbelief, decisions about fighting or ignoring a hostile world, whether to take the encounters with the partner seriously or otherwise are also elements that are present both in his literary narration[3](3) of this time as well as in his paintings. In paintings these, questions are translated into painterly disjunctions, unfinished conjunctions of pictorial spaces or through various modes of collage. Towards the end of his career he painted human bodies that were violated by disease, war and violence, interspersed with the experiences of tender, fearless calm. Paintings such as Beauty is Skin Deep Only (2001), Bullet Short in the Stomach (2001) and paintings such as Gray Buddha (2001), and Golden Curtain (2001) points to such an oscillation between violation of body and meditative calmness.

Khakhar’s untutored, candid best as an artist is preeminently are also exemplified in his sketches; a practice he maintained throughout his career as a matter of discipline. These, on one end functioned as a ready pool of visual notations, which he sometimes used discreetly in instances while visualizing his more ambitious creative endeavors. However, often sketched out in total abandon in the spirit of a stranger-traveler-voyeur in sightseeing; peopled or not, these sketches served the immediate purpose of sheer pleasure and visual experience to the painter. This, in fact, is physically manifest in the way he candidly and casually drew, arranged, or shaded the scenery. And significantly, such sketched-in locales often functioned as fertile site-memories in their reuse, or in their role in devising metaphoric scenarios that often background his largely figurative oil and watercolor painting and print output.

Real to life figuration, the very tangible aspect of the personas and distinct “characters”, does occupy a central iconic presence throughout his oeuvre. Sketching primarily served the function of recording his keen observations. His susceptibility to the life of people at large lent an authenticity to these; at times a few of them reveal the playful imaginations of indulgent sexual self seeing reveries, often they seem too real to be in reality. Drawn while day-dreaming sitting in his studio/home, or while in his many travels, particularly to small pilgrimage towns and country sides, it is in sketches that Khakhar’s vulnerabilities are best exposed. With their disarming simplicity and directness, they are the closest to his watercolors and prints. While oil paintings are passionately labored and are even anxiety ridden, worked-over for long periods of time, the occasional travel and sketching, and watercolors eased him, often lending them an uninhibited disarming wit, spontaneity, even an uncanny quirkiness and bizarre realness.

Khakhar surely imagined a language of ambivalence and lived an open-ended life; a language of life and art that were born from meekness and unsure commitments and its repressed cavernous secret practices. An adventurous thinker, Khakhar the radical, who remained one of the most challenging artists of our times in a global context, his art in fact enabled him maintaining certain continuity and consistency; a thread that linked his various other endowers. In this sense his art, particularly the pages of his sketchbooks could be also seen in the light of a compensation of a special kind; the lack of a dearest friend, for it is in the absence of a beloved companion, he recorded, commented, and humored himself. In that sense, only a very few other artists in our time have drawn resources from one’s self as effectively, and melodramatically, and as intriguingly as Khakhar. To that extent, his art is a true testimony to his self and his life.


Shivaji K Panikkar


[1] For a detailed reading of life and works of the artist see, (1) Gulammohammed Sheikh (ed.), Contemporary Art in Baroda, Tulika, New Delhi, 1997, pp. 166 to 170, (2) Timothy Hyman, Bhupen Khakhar, Chemould Publications and Arts, Mumbai, 1998, (3) retrospective exhibition catalogue essay by Geeta Kapur, Bhupen Khakhar, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, September, 2002, pp. 26-48.

[2] See the chapter titled, ‘View from the Teashop: Bhupen Khakhar’, Geeta Kapur, Contemporary Indian Artists, Vikas Publications, New Delhi, 1978.

[3] Seen across in all Khakhar’s short stories/play (as in ‘Pages From a Diary’, Ref: Yarana: Gay Writing from India, (ed), Hoshang Merchant, Penguin Books India (P) Ltd., New Delhi, 1999, pp. 34-36), the aspect of bizarre in his fiction writing helps to read his paintings; where the painterly disjunctions and discontinuities he narrates in paintings in his fiction becomes a parallel to the middle classes irrationality, passion and craziness he narrates. Khakhar’s short stories/play are also published as an anthology in English, Bhupen Khakhar, Katha, 2001, and in Ruth Vanita Saleem Kidwai (ed) Same-Sex Love in India, Macmillan India Ltd., Delhi, 2001, (first published in 2000, St. Martin’s Press, Palgrave), A Story, pp. 294-297.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

From Structural Queerphobia to Queer Political Assertions: Indian Cultural Practices -

(The paper Presented by Shivaji K Panikkar at SEXUALITY AND FAITH: A FAITH-BASED PERSPECTIVE, CONSULTATION, Chennai, India, (Asha Niwas,9 Rutland Gate 5th street,Chennai-600006), November 12-13, 2009, Sponsored by: Concern for AIDS Research and Education Foundation, India, In association with: Center For the Church and Global AIDS, USA)

Definitions: The term ‘queer’ traditionally referred to effeminate men, and implied derogatory connotations such as ‘strange’, ‘unusual’, or ‘out of alignment’. In the contemporary international activist context the term assumes an unprecedented positive assertion against such derogatory usages. Used as a synonym for LGBT (persons of gay, lesbian and bisexual sexual orientations and transgender anatomy and sexual preferences) ‘queer’ is an inclusive, unifying sociopolitical umbrella designation for people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, transgender, transsexual, intersexual and genderqueer, or of any other non-heterosexual sexuality, sexual anatomy, or gender identity. Within it, queer also includes asexual and autosexual people and gender normative heterosexuals whose sexual orientations or activities place them outside the heterosexual mainstream such as BDSM practitioners (compound acronym derived from the terms bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism) or polyamorous persons.
Text Image: queer definition
Queer is a preferred terminology used by activists belonging to any of the above designations and ‘queer culture and practices’ refer to the commonly shared cultural production done by or/and shared by all or one of the above categories.
Text Image: Queerphobia
Queerphobia can be defined as the irrational fear and aversion or intolerance of non-heterosexual orientations and practices or behavior, and to queer people, which is perceived to fall out side the traditional gender role expectations. For varied reasons, the assumption is that heterosexuality is the only acceptable sexual orientation. Queerphobia is based on prejudice, similar to racism, xenophobia, anti-semitism and structural patriarchy and sexism. In day to day life queerphobia is experienced in ways ranging from cracking jokes directed against non-hetero normative sexual identity and activity, to harassment and physical violence.
Introduction:
My recent research had concerned with understanding the interface and the dynamics between queer activism and queer cultural practices.
Image: Early Issues of Bombay Dost.
Ashok Row Kavi captures the significance of the moment of origin of gay activism in India thus: “By then, in April 1990, the first copy of Bombay Dost had hit the city like a ton of bricks… The first issue was historic in more than one… Bombay Dost was not just a news letter but a movement by now. It was nearly an year since we had started off as an underground sheet for the gay and lesbian community but it represented something much more. Bombay Dost was a life boat for many people who thought they had no one to turn to… the torrent had started! Those first letters were like winged messengers from my huge new family spread over the subcontinent…. India’s gays were like swans swimming in a dream waiting for that magic touch to wake them up…”[1]

It is only in the past over four decades that identifiable queer activism and its expressions in various field of art are publicly visible anywhere in the world.
Image: Bhupen Bhupen Two Men in Banaras, 1982, &You can’t Please All,
Image: Fire
Image: My Brother Nikhil
Image: Dostana
Image: Same Sex Love in India
Yet another area that came into existence in the recent past is writing queer histories, as a matter of feeding into the legitimacy to queer existences and as a matter that strengthen the political conviction and faith in queer activism.
Image: Khajuraho
Image: Khajuraho
Although I don’t intent to dwell deeply into the on going historical research, it has generally accepted that there had been no evidence of extended history of persecution of queer practices in the pre-British or pre-modern India. On the other hand we have inclusion and subsumption of the queer practices as minor, inconsequential or irrelevant aspect of life, or the "benign neglect" as Sudhir Kakar Calls it. [2]
Image: Same Sex Love In India & Yarana
While on one hand reclaiming a past has been significant with publications such as Same Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History,[3] assertions of its contemporary manifestations in Yarana: Gay Writing from India,[4] has provided major fillip to the movement, these apart from asserting the claims of the past crucially also contest the commonly prevalent myth that gay experiences and expressions are vices that developed in the western societies and imported to India.
The modern queerphobia in education, law, and polity can be traced back to the British colonial rule.
Image: IPC 377
Western educated modern Indians inherited the Judeo-Christian ideals of the British times and disowned indigenous traditions that contradicted these ideals. In keeping with the pre-modern traditions of shame, there are adequate evidences of these originating in the general queerphobia and in relation to being identified as queer, but not in relation to sexual acts or queer erotic experiences.
Image: Yarana Quote
To quote Hoshang Merchant, “India’s Hindu culture which is a shame culture rather than a guilt culture, treats homosexual practice with secrecy but not with malice. Many educated Indians confuse ‘homosexual’ with ‘eunuch’. They think homosexuals lack sexual organs or cannot sustain erections. Many homosexuals are forced to live with eunuchs if not become eunuchs through castration.”[5]
From the above address point that is informed by contemporary queer cultural field, queer history and queer activism, I propose on one hand to address the aspects of the structurally ingrained queerphobia, and on the other the negotiations and strategies adopted in the contemporary Indian queer cultural and art critical practices, and in relation to religions. Focusing on the range of strategies in the creation of queer culture, the presentation attempts to throw light upon the different shades of queerphobia from various quarters of society.
The presentation invokes queerphobia, or let us say from the mild practices of ‘denials’ and ‘cover-ups’ or ‘closeted-ness’, ‘deflections’ as some might call it, to outright hostility and violence. These are often seen as facilitated by contemporary Indian cultural field too.
Text Image: Articulating Innocence as Against Activism
Articulating Innocence as Against Activism:
Image: Ramesh Pithiya, Is Anal Sex Legal?
Image: Ramesh Pithiya, Is Anal Sex Legal?
Image: Ramesh Pithiya, Is Anal Sex Legal? (Detail)
Image: Ramesh Pithiya, Is Anal Sex Legal? (Detail)
Image: Ramesh Pithiya, Is Anal Sex Legal? (Detail)

The verbal poster by Ramesh Pithiya is fairly simple and stark, as it reads thus “Question - 1: Is Anal Sex Legal?” The floral decorations twists and turns as it imitate and mock the sacred scriptural forms. The adjacent work with the same title is an illustration and the celebration of the very act, which ironically and irreverently and as a matter of fact, illustrates that which is verbalized. Is there is a childlike innocence as Pithiya imitates the title, “is anal sex legal? It surely is innocent, playful and blasphemous simultaneously, but is it a self questioning in the process of ingrained experience of queerphobia? It possibly is.

What intrigues and delights or pleasures me, while its theme is carnal, it is also its lyricism and austerity, if not the near spiritual experience that Ramesh’s work tries to invoke… its images of loving care while making love, like those seen in the medieval miniature illustrations mixed with contemporary pornographic images – is filled with a religiosity that the love making theme suggests… that it resonates belief and resounds love.
Text Image: Michel Foucault
What Michel Foucault has said becomes handy here to think further: “One of the concessions one makes to others is not to present homosexuality as anything but a kind of immediate pleasure, of two young men meeting in the street, seducing each other with a look, grabbing each other with a look, grabbing each others’ asses and getting each other off in a quarter of an hour. There you have a kind of neat image of homosexuality without any possibility of generating unease, and for two reasons: it responds to a reassuring canon of beauty, and it cancels everything that can be troubling in affection, tenderness, friendship, fidelity, camaraderie, and companionship, things that our rather sanitized society can’t allow a place for without fearing the formation of new alliances and tying together of unforeseen lines of force.”[6]
Thus, in an innocuous manner, and with all its mock seriousness Ramesh celebrates the forbidden pleasure, while poking playfully at the IPC 377. I also would like to suggest that there is a subtle twist in the way the category of religion and spiritual is used in these works, and when put across in public space becomes a political statement.
Image: Family
While talking about pleasure and the political purpose, let me make my presentation further personalized, by stating that Ramesh Pitjhiya is my lover, and we had been sharing a roof and our resources, and we jointly parent a teenage young man who lives with us. We, three live a happy and fulfilling life indeed.
Image: Ramesh Pithiya, Is Anal Sex Legal?
Now, the innocence, lack of guilt, and avoidance and unawareness of legal and political implication is an essential aspect of living homosexual pleasures in India and the artist is able to objectify this. On the other end, the central activist pre-condition is the belief that ‘queer’ are a true minority, and crucial to this is based on the fact of choice of ones sexual preference, which inevitably is a personal right to begin with, but do not however remain there since sexual fulfillment often has to be achieved through social contract. While other minority positions which are largely conferred to a person at birth and passed through family, and thus socially visible, they do not necessarily have to go through the ordeal specific to gays; of ‘coming-out’, or to declare ones sexual identity. The gay identity politics thus functions mainly within the yardstick of the ability of the person to ‘come out of closet’ which by itself is a matter considered as a major accomplishment, which is often accompanied by pain and embarrassment considering the strict constraints that the Indian convention bound, religion dominated patriarchal family system. Moreover, the Indian gay minoritarian liberational politics is hinged itself precariously upon the very restrictive conditions of the Government and the legal injunctions. The legal limitations apart, the fear of social ostracism, stigma and discrimination combined with homophobia, heterosexism, heterocentrism and compulsory heterosexuality, queer identity politics indeed is a fragile field compared to that of other minoritarian struggles. However, despite all these limitations it is quite heartening and inspiring that the queer identity politics in the country is in place today and it is able to make its presence felt legally, socially and politically.

Text Image: Strategies: Confrontation, Subversion, Shock to Careful Negotiations

Range of Strategies: Confrontation, Subversion, Shock to Careful Negotiations
It is within the above context of phobia, discrimination and oppression we have to view the queer cultural production. In this regard modern queer artists work with certain limited options; they can either choose to shock through subversive and transgressive images, or can undertake careful negotiations in order to generate empathy and support. Both these are options within cultural activism.
Image: Bhupen Two Men in Banaras
Image: Tejal, Hijra Fantasy Series
Image: Fire
Image: Ramesh Pithiya, What is your Perversion?

Or, artist may choose to do careful negotiation.
Image: My Brother Nikhil
Image: Jehangir Jani Pink Sun
Text Image: Queer and Religions

Queer and Religions:
As people living in modern societies, queer people also relate to religions on the basis of their individuality and purpose.
Image: Bhupen Khakhar, From the River Yamuna

As a maker of art the gay persona of Bhupen Khakhar related to Hinduism in a very special way.

Image: Bhupen Two Men in Banaras

Through Two Men in Banaras, religion and gay sexuality is a major theme Khakhar explored. Searching into the history of ones identity and its reflections in ones life and around, he locates it in the popular Hindu religious traditions, practices and congregations. With this three directions are achieved by Khakhar: firstly, trying to find legitimacy for one’s gay desire within the spaces offered by the religion, he simultaneously also significantly moved away from the private/autobiographical to public domain. Secondly, the internalized conflict due to the shift in his sexuality in relation to the desired virile man, it manifested in paintings, perhaps, as a subverted power relation; sometimes emphasizing the power and sometimes the weakness of the subordinated self (Mark the hidden face of the artist persona). Thirdly, Khakhar finally resolves to show the caring and obedient lover – the Kothi to mock at the macho man. The intertwining of these private matrices makes his art a very complex play of positions in relation to the public domain of religion and being gay.

Image: Bhupen - Yayati

Although his imagery are neutered of specificity in terms pf above, indeed they are associated with the broader nebulous category of religion and myth, but it was not religion that excited his imagination. But it is the specific play of sexuality that underlay the Hindu myths, stories and icons, that he constantly explored.

Image: Jehangir Jani Iconography in Transient Times

Younger contemporary Jehangir Jani’s installation Iconography in Transient Times and Peer too deals with religious premises. He foregrounds the over-disputed terrain of religious faith as Jani speaks of healing power of faith by threading together fragments; of Koranic verses, a rosary, blood and surgical gauze. His conflicted relation with the religion into which he was born is resolved in several different ways as also the threat that is inherent in the politicization of religions and the experience of violence at home and elsewhere.

Through art making, Jani plays out a role similar to a Sufi/Peer by transgressing dogma as he lifts himself out of a burdensome authoritarian, rule of scriptures. These work has allowed Jani to engage with various stigmas and oppressive social hierarchies while allowing him to yearn and speak in a universal language about wide ranging concerns such as love, death, renewal and resurrection from his own specific local realities. The installation re-created a total sensorial environment with sounds and sights and the presence of body allusions – body casts, cast body parts, a cloth covered corpse, pink lamps flickering through simulated TV screens, sounds of ritual breast-beating and invocations written to God. These became signs of desire, betrayal, death and the hope of resurrection, all weaved together with the shade of gay-ish pink, an ironical marker of the maker’s sexual identity.

Image: Jehangir Jani, Peer
Image: Jehangir Jani, Peer
Image: Tejal Shah - Yasoda

The need for integrating oneself into religion and ones culture is exemplified by the work You too can touch the moon - Yashoda with Krishna by Tejal Shah. When a Hijda is asked to imagine herself in her ideal role she pictures herself as the mother of load Krishna.

Religion thus is very important for all, including to the queer. However, for any one who lives alterity, the nation state and religious institutions fail to create the crucial support. The obsolete Penal Code 377 considers such alternative practices unnatural, and the nation thus weighs heavily on people who do not live heterosexuality. The religious institutions turn their faces away. Thus, sexual minorities are compelled to question and reject religions, communities and systems and ask if there is any accommodative and empathetic space within for them. To “normal” families, they ask “will you consider us equal to yours”? To the parents, young people of such identity keep pleading to be exempted from conventional expectations. To history they ask where, when and how have we been, and to what all kinds of acceptance, discriminations, hostilities, annihilations and erasures have we been subjected to? This is a quintessential problem of the queer identity issues in relation to religion and culture, having to deal and exist within the mainstream/heterosexual life and the world of art. The crucial empathy towards differences is lacking every where and as a result the minor is compelled to display and protest on the streets their suppressed anger and frustrations.
[1] Ashok Row Kavi, ‘The Contract of Silence’, in Yarana, ed. H.Merchant, 1999, pp. 20-21.
[2] “In ancient India, homosexual activity itself was ignored or stigmatized as inferior, but never actively persecuted. In the dharmashastras, male homoerotic activity is punished, albeit mildly: a ritual bath or the payment of a small fine was often sufficient atonement. This did not change materially in spite of the advent of Islam, which unequivocally condemns homosexuality as a serious crime. Muslim theologians in India held that the Prophet advocated the severest punishment for sodomy. Islamic culture in India, though, also had a Persian cast wherein homoeroticism is celebrated in literature. In Sufi mystical poetry, both in Persian and later in Urdu, the relationship between the divine and humans was expressed in homoerotic metaphors.” Sudhir Kakar , Homosexuality And The Indian - India has a tradition of benign neglect of alternate sexualities, http://www.littleindia.com/news/145/ARTICLE/1835/2007-08-17.html

[3] As for the gay cultural initiatives in India has definitively been open to the influences from the West. Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai (ed), Same-Sex Love in India, Macmillan India Ltd., Delhi, 2001, pp. xx-xxi (first published in 2000, St. Martin’s Press, Palgrave).

[4] Hoshang Merchant, op.cit.

[5] Hoshang Merchant, Yarana: Gay Writing from India, Penguin Boks, 1999, p. xii.
[6] (Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth- part II, (the interview with Foucault tiled Friendhip as a Way of Life, by R.de Ceccaty, J. Danet and j. Le Bitoux, originally done for the French magazine Gai Pied, which appeared in April 1998) (ed.) Paul Rabinow, (trans. Robert Hurley and others), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997, pp. 136-137.)