Note: Through out the presentation the text and visuals I would be showing make parallel narratives, most of the times visuals are not illustrations but are reflective of multiple interrelated concerns.
I should confess that it was rather difficult to workout a presentation on the basis of the proposed title and on the basis of the brief concept note that accompanied. My presentation stands re-titled: now it reads as Art as the Domain of Cultural Conformity: Resistance, Subversion and the “Perversity” Trouble.
My rationale in doing so is: rather than contemporary Indian art is a domain of asserting real differences with any revolutionary consequences, given its mode of working within the limited elite territory, it is a domain of conformities. Within it, the possibilities of resistances and subversions do exist, but these system immanent practices do not ever allow the structure to be jeopardized, or completely subverted.
I also beg to differ with the interpretation of the word “perversity” in the circulated note which is thus: “Perversity reads as a deliberate resistance to guidance and order. The term ‘perversity’ denotes in one of its meanings a figure or image in which the right and the left directions of the original are reversed, such as an image seen in a mirror. Thus the central elements of an ideology or practice may be reversed and the rejected or the marginal brought to the centre.”
“Perversity” is a preposterous concept, a negative value used against sexual minorities, and it arises out of the common sense notions of “normal” and “natural”.
The formulation “Perversity reads as a deliberate resistance to guidance and order” derives from the heterosexist notion of subjective determinism of the individual against the superior guidance and order. The term in the proposed title pre-supposes and is expected that the speaker speaks from the perception and position of conforming to the dominant mainstream. The specific way the term is articulated in the proposed title reflects the painful and vicious injustice of naming non-hetero-normative practices as “perversity”; calling it abnormal, unnatural, deviation, queer and aberration or whatever, which reflects stigmatization.
It is another matter, and that in fact belongs to the field of political activism that this stigma is internalized and used against the oppressors as a subversive, transgressive strategy.
The presentation proposes to interrogate the normative binary categories: conformity vs. subversion, normal vs. perverse, and compliance vs. resistance in relation to commonplace perceptions and queer activism.
Simultaneously, I want to historically relate these to queer/gay activism and ‘high’ art practices drawing on specific examples. One of my intensions is to understand the indistinct-able and rather closeted interrelation between queer activism on the one hand and art on the other.
My conclusion would be a suggestion as to how the mainstream art world accommodates, tolerate or even make provision for the unacceptable through assuming certain strategies of subsumption through the process appropriation and inclusion. What emerges from certain specific minoritarian dynamics thus gets reduced to fit neatly into the nationally established canons. The presentation will argue that the need for a collusion of the subversive into the national mainstream, and tame the perverse is the need of the elite capital and its assertion of authority over the resistant and the subversive.
Image: MF Husain, Bharat Mata and Saraswati.
Cultural Practices and Subversion/Transgression: Sexuality is the embodiment of morality in our public discourses. In a country where there is a predominant correlation is expected to remain between morality, various religious values and beliefs and sexual practices, the secular freedom of expression enshrined in the constitution that is held together within the political economy and a politics of sexuality, the reality of accepting ‘queer’ (LGBT) as a real difference, and if that can even be tolerated in its own terms is a vexed question.
Image: Cinema Poster: Fire
How is its illegitimacy dealt within the field of “high Art” is a moot question that is addressed in the following.
Image: Savi Savarkar, Manu (being urinated upon)
Generally, through large part of 20th century, subversion/systematic inversion is taken to mean attempts at overthrowing structures of authority, and within art history of overthrowing established neo-classical cannons – thus the whole history of modern art anywhere would be the history of subversion. Perhaps, there was only a single genuine systemic subversion in modern art that is significant to be noted which is by Marcel Duchamp, who perversely undermined the difference between non-art and art. His intellectual “perversity”, so to say, turned art into a kind of perverse, nonsensical theory or conceptual glibness. Almost a hundred years since then the contemporary art often display “perversion” – a masquerade of philosophical puzzles - and a good deal of contemporary art is of no interest to anyone except its narcissistic practitioners and enthusiasts. We know that everyone else goes to the movies; where looking is openly sexy, often obscene, which unabashedly satisfy the perverse impulses.
Image: Tejal Shah, Dejeuner sur L'herbe
For the Indian contexts, all attempts in overthrowing western hegemonic artistic modes in 20th century in general could be convincingly described as resistance and subversion. More specifically, I consider subversion as a practice that entail activities of treason, sedition, sabotage and espionage, meaning surreptitious attempts at eroding the basis of belief systems of the contemporary status quo by the activist-artists in relation to the struggle of minors in the civil society. Taken in that spirit, the implication would be that there will have to be far too sparse claimants for the category of subversive.
Image:, Tejal Shah, Dream, Hijra Fantasy Series
In terms of paradigmatic shifts, and in a broader sense, subversion is applied to all or most post-modern and post-structuralist critical practices making the category rather broad based rather than specific. Owing greatly to Antonio Gramsci in theorizing cultural hegemony, the contemporary feminist, queer and other minorities - their political struggles and social practices, which is a response to discrimination and/or criminalization based on gender, caste, race, sexual preference in countering dominant cultural forces, or cultural hegemony such as patriarchy, brahmanism/castism/racism/ conservatism, which often use rebellious strategies in cultural practices, may be convincingly argued to be more appropriately called subversive.
Image: Tejal Shah - Waiting I & II.
Normal/Perverse in Relation to Conformity/Resistance: Culture specific normative conception of perversity or deviation is considered in opposition to the notions of orthodox and normal, and most often used to describe sexual behaviors, particularly homosexual that are seen as abnormal or excessive. All these terms of references seem to lead us to the social perceptions and notion about queer/LGBT communities and lives, and their political, legal and social resistance movement for equality, acceptance, inclusion and right to live with dignity.
I quote Nivedita Menon with regard to the notion of ‘normal’ in relation to ‘natural’, “The assumption is that "normal" sexual behaviour springs from nature, and that it has nothing to do with culture or history. But if we recognize that sexuality is located in culture, we have to deal with the uncomfortable idea that sexuality is a human construct and not something that happens "naturally."
It is possible that this shift from `natural' determinism to `cultural' determination with regard to construction of gender or sexuality or subject is based on simplistic `nature' vs. `culture' binary. And as activists would like us to believe that the subject, gender or sexuality is a product of nature and culture and all the politics based on either–or logic is futile.
Jack Derrida points out that "There is no nature, only the affects of nature: denaturalization or naturalization." (Donner le Temps). Derrida seems to argue that there is no “nature” that one can lay claims on as pristine truth or reality, but, what exists are only affects of nature. Following Michael Foucault, the term queer – a term that indicates degradation - has been turned into an affirmative set of meanings through the speech-act. What are the conditions and limits of such a reversal is one of the significant questions, which may be irrelevant to the present context. However, it is significant to note that Judith Butler calls this “radical re-signification” (Bodies that Matter, 1993) and what is produced of speech-act is discourse which carries the discursive power. Denaturalization and naturalization happens due to discursive practices. How they converge or confront as forces and as an accumulated effect at a historical point in time and work as restraining or as enabling practice is what is of relevance in the present context.
Image: Bhupen Khakar, From the River Yamuna
According to R. Raj Rao: “One of the implications of subversive or transgressive sexuality is that one is not looking for sexual compatibility and intellectual compatibility in the same partner… Hence, subversive or transgressive sexuality rejects the twin myths of monogamy and fidelity. It endorses the idea of multiple partners and celebrates promiscuity, which it does not view as infidelity…”
Image: Inder Salim, Yesterday Evening when I had Almost Nothing to do
Image: Inder Salim, This Ink for the White of my Eyes
“The mantra of subversive, transgressive sexuality may be said to be ‘more the merrier at whatever cost’, while its methods might include hooking, seduction, the roving eye and sexual favours. Subversive, transgressive sexuality also pits lust against love, only to abjure the latter… it approves flings, affairs and one-night stands… it recommends all forms of sexual activity…”
Image: Bhupen Khakhar, Orgy & From the River Yamuna
“…in queer theory, the anus is not an orifice in the body for the discharge of excrement. Like vagina in feminism, it is a political site, with all its implication of entry, exit, surrender and feminisation of the male body.”
For those who self-consciously, socially and visibly choose to practice transgressive or subversive sexual life, the support of nation state in terms of its laws is crucially absent – on the other hand it criminalizes such acts. The nations obsolete Penal Code 377 considers such practices “unnatural”, and as a consequence inevitably such pejoratives weighs heavily on people who do not live “natural” (hetero)-sexuality and thus discriminate those who practice modes that are outside the norms determined by heterosexuality.
Image: Dostana Poster
Given the intolerance, homosexuality however is a lived reality in contemporary life, as in the past, and responses of it are reflected in cultural field as well. It is encountered often in popular cinema, definitely tolerated and even enjoyed to a certain extent, but as part of entertainment often made a target of contempt and derogatory treatment, and definitively kept out at a safe distance from serious engagement. It is not allowed in anyway to jeopardize and corrupt the higher status of heterosexual, patriarchal social order, practices, norms and canons.
Image: Still from My Brother Nikhil
It is against this background, we have to see the presence of queer activism in India, which is more acute in the recent past.
Image: An Activist at Queer Pride March 2009, & Yuva Magazine, 2009
Image: Queer Pride March, 29th June, 2009, New Delhi
Image: Bombay Dost Magazine Early issues
Image: Bhupen Khakhar, Two Men in Banaras & You can’t Please All
It is only in the last little over four decades that the homosexual persons are able to form an ideological alignment and collectivity against particular legal injunctions, social taboos, cultural stereotypes, religious oppressions and matters of their health. As far as India is concerned, the act of coming together of those who practiced minor sexual life was signaled in Bombay in the year 1989-90 with the publication of the quarterly news letter Bombay Dost.
Image: Bombay Dost Magazine issues
Ashok Row Kavi captures the significance of that moment 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…”
Image: Hamsafar Trust Brochure
Significant in this context are the formation of South-Asian collectives and reach-out-publications from the USA and Europe from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s.
Image: Bhupen Khakhar, Two Men in Banaras & You Can’t Please All
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 matter to begin with, but do not however remain there since sexual gratification 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 patriarchal family system. Moreover, the Indian gay minoritarian liberational politics is hinged itself precariously upon the very restrictive conditions of 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, gay 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 a gay identity politics in the country is in place today and it is able to make its presence felt legally, socially and politically.
Images: Same Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History & Yarana: Gay Writing from India,
As for the gay cultural initiatives in India, particularly with regard to the visual and literary fields, it has been definitively been open to the influences from the West. While on one hand reclaiming a past had been significant with publications such as Same Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History, assertions of its contemporary manifestations in Yarana: Gay Writing from India, 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 west societies and imported to India.
The Invisible Made Visible: Art and Activism
Image : Sunil Gupta, After George Platt Lynes – Nudes with a Twist
Arguably, Bhupen Khakhar (1934-2003), Sunil Gupta (b. 1953) and Jehangir Jani (b.1955) had gathered their strength from the activist international gay liberation movement, especially its manifestations in the field of art in the early to mid 1980s. Khakhar’s 1979 visit to England had been significant for him where he saw homosexual men living together, and also, gay exposure in art; I presume that David Hockney’s life and works had been particularly instrumental in Khakhar’s ‘coming out’. Khakhar eventually “came out of the closet”: his stable friendship with Vallabhdas Shah helped him to do so, and simultaneously his mother’s death also freed him from familial restrictions. This actually happened frontally, and with aplomb.
Younger contemporaries of Khakhar, Gupta and Jani’s involvement with the high art coincides with the rise of more self-conscious gay activism internationally and within the country. In 1972 as a graduate student at McGill (Canada) Gupta joined the first gay students organisation, "Gay McGill", after he graduated from Royal College of Art London in 1983 started a Black/Asian photography group called Autograph which was followed by a gay group, after contacting HIV-AIDS in 1995 and joined a voluntary service, the Terence Higgins Trust as part of their "Buddy" programme and continued to have association with London LGBT Pride committee. From 2004, living in Delhi, he had been involved with two activist groups; Nigah and Naz and his work with Nigah is based on cultural activities, that has led to organizing Queer Festivals.
Image : Jehangir Jani, Sahmat Olympus,
Image : Jehangir Jani, Box of Pansies
While Jani throughout remained an active member of the Hamsafar Trust, the Mumbai-based community organization, he also seriously engaged in art making,
Image : Bhupen Khakhar, J. Jani and Sunil Gupta.
While Khakhar’s representations are based largely on his experiential realm and so autobiographical, Gupta and Jani position themselves deliberately away from the possibility of mere representation of gay experiential realms within the paradigm of ‘out of the closet’ and are based on identity politics. It is significant that on the one hand they stand comfortably within the layered discourses around the phenomenology of gay experiences, but on the other they crucially and critically engages with the socio-political structure(s) that under grid and discriminate the lives of the sexual minority. Thus their art is double-edged; while uninhibitedly representing the experiential realms of the sexual subculture they also assert their political resistance. These are particularly significant since minority sexual identities, the protest of the subterranean culture and the propaganda value have yet to be seriously registered in public view as significant positions of difference that make valid claims for equality and dignity.
Image : Sunil Gupta & Bombay Dost Page of HIV
Gupta’s and Jani’s simultaneous positioning as artists and activists enables them to assume a strategy with regard to political implication of representation. Right at the outset, displacing the habitual heterosexual expectations about human figuration they draws on a vehemently assertive self-image into the visual field – an oddly-displaced and a tortured image which is reclaimed from a humiliated hinterland’s margins that speak oral histories.
Image : J. Jani, Pink Sun
Image : J. Jani, Pink Sun
Manoeuvred to assert the frontal, iconic presence, Jani’s sculptures ironically objectify the minor within minority, namely the persona of kothi through their odd and obvious effeminate bodily shifts and inflections. Characteristic traits of the body in movement are transcribed onto their masculine/non-masculine body which spreads over un-idealized or even unattractive flesh.
How do we understand the nature of the indistinct-able interrelation between queer activism and art?
The formulation ‘the indistinct interrelation’ seems to capture the nuances of an almost not so obvious relationship between ‘high art’ and the queer movement which is as yet an under-theorized area within queer theory, but art and activism can be seen as deeply implicated to one another. The qualification ‘indistinct’ because any queer speech-act, arising within high art, seems to belong to activism, yet in actual practice high art is primarily functions within a small section of the elite class for various non-activist purposes, and the objects made as art does not prima-facie become socio-politico-activism. On the other hand, the category “the queer art” too does not seem to have come into existence. What I am implying here is that there is a particular way through which queer art is tamed to fit neatly with-in the high art realm, about which it may not be possible to elaborate presently.
However, it needs to be said that within the definitive terms of radicalism, it is to the credit of the artist to explore the personal, and become the voice for the community. The quest for a queer speech and as a radical practice what is thought through with definitive subversive tools are some of the quintessential problems and dynamics that control and direct gay identity issues in relation to high art – questions of doing art while having to deal with and exist within the mainstream/heterosexual world; to live an alternative life, to demand equal rights, and to live with art making as one’s vocation. In this regard gay artists can be seen as at crossroads today; on one hand making choices between one’s political concerns, creating meanings, choosing materials, forms, and aesthetics, and on the other, in conjunction, his minoritarian political identity. Though sexuality undoubtedly could be central to their works and thus become art’s operational symbolic capital; however these artists understandably reject or resist a reductive readings which see their art productions being merely operative within either the elite/high art sphere or in the field of activism. Simultaneously, an artist like Jani also wonders if his works will speak of anything significant even after the issues of identity politics get over in the course of time.
Image :Ramesh Pithiya, What is Your Perversion?
I would like to point out that an enormous significant per-formative act has been already accomplished by artist-activists, and for an young artist like Ramesh Pithiya, there is no need for being defensive anymore, but it is time to turn around and ask assertive question to the heterosexist world, What is your Perversion ? It could be anything.
 Ref. notes from Donald Kuspit, Perversion in Art,
 “Section 377: How Natural is Normal?”, in The Phobic and the Erotic, Edited by Brinda Bose and Subhabrata Bhattacharyya, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2007, pp. 339-340.
 Introduction, in Whistling in the Dark: Twenty-One Queer Interviews, ed. R. Raj Rao and Dibyajyoti Sarma, Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd, New Delhi, 2009, page XVI – XVII.
 Indian Penal Code, Section 377 reads thus: “whoever voluntarily has sex against the order of nature with man, woman or animal shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years.”
 It is significant that although the term gay was not coined until 1869, the use of the term to signify homosexual identity anywhere in the world is only in the last thirty five or forty five years.
 Ashok Row Kavi, ‘The Contract of Silence’, in Yarana, ed. H.Merchant, 1999, pp. 20-21.
 Prominent among such collectives are Trikone (USA), Khush Khayal (Canada), Shakti (UK), Samakami(USA), South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (USA) and Dost (UK). See Sherry Joseph and Pawan Dhall, ‘No Silence Please, We’re Indians! – Les-Bi-Gay Voices from India’ in Different Rainbows, (ed.) Peter Drunker, Gay Man’s Press, UK, 2000, pp. 157 to 178. Around the same time came-up Red Rose (New Delhi), Fun Club (Calcutta), Friends India (Lucknow) and Garden City Club (Bangalore). Through mid 1990s and early 2000s many more such initiatives and formations took place, and particularly significant are those which were formed in small towns. Today there are organizations such as Nigah and Naz in Delhi, and many more spread across the country. These agencies apart from running help lines and creating common platforms for gays to meet and discuss the commonly faced problems, had been also systematically working in the areas of mental and physical health. On the top of their agenda had been also defining the political identitarian issue of gay rights, particularly significant is the legal battle against IPC 377.
 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).
 Hoshang Merchant, op.cit.
 Termed as kothi in Indian gay parlance, an effeminate gay male’s identity is abusively referred to by various [contemptuous] names such as chhakka, fairy, sissy, queen, pansy etc.