Background: The ongoing queer 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. However, from the period prior to this, scattered textual references and oral narratives are found in connection with informal circles of friends of varied queer denominations. In the 1990s and through the present decade, significant formal or informal gay, lesbian and transgender 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, community identity and artistry; 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.
Concurrent with the above is the trajectory of queer cultural activity by visual artists, writers, theatre activists, performers and film makers. Some literary activity has reclaimed the histories of homosexuality and homoeroticism through publications, and certain other have focused on contemporary texts and thus have provided a major fillip to the movement. Arguably, prominent writers and artists gather their strength from the liberation movement, providing significant intervention in the cultural field. The central principle in all these is the belief that queer is a true minority and that the fact of gender and sexuality inevitably is a personal matter which has political implications since sexual fulfillment and gender disposition have to be often realized through social contract and acceptance. It is also to be conceded that the present queer culture is diverse and the scenario is of much incoherence and inchoateness.
Coinciding with the above is the expansion of queer theory and critical studies, which grew out of the broader area of Cultural Studies. This has been enabled by the writings of theoreticians such as Michael Foucault, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler. While this has developed as a specialized area of expertise in the West, in India too theoretical interventions have emerged though publications and a couple of university departments offer courses in queer studies, primarily in relation to literature. Arguably, Queer Cultural Studies was shaped in critical dialogue with existing disciplines such as philosophy (in France), sociology and film theory (in the UK), history, literature and political theory (in India), political theory and sociology (in Japan and Korea), jurisprudence and anthropology (in the USA). In India, these have found enthusiastic support across a number of disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences. These initiatives not only expanded the scope of Queer studies and activism but also had posed crucial challenges to the existing theoretical/conceptual paradigm of gender and sexuality. More than many ways these initiatives has also exposed the fact that most of the radical ideologies and theoretical apparatuses are constituted by and constitutive of the heterosexual norms.
Scope: Making an area for research and documentation by itself, the relevance and value of the above outlined history is to locate the appropriate context for proposed futuristic national nodal center – ARQ: Archive and Resources for Queer Culture and Practices.[*] The ARQ will be a concerted effort in archiving histories that includes varied queer practices, identities and categories; of gay, lesbian, kothi, bisexual, hijda, transgender, intersexes etc. This inclusive approach will under-grid archiving and inform research. The ARQ will also promote and instill critical thinking and creative skills among the queer communities.
It is a fairly apparent fact that currently there is no single organization or agency in the country that link queer culture, sexuality and health. The proposition for a nodal centre is however not to reduce the multiplicities of practices and modes of functioning of the communities under a singular privileged norm or agenda. The proposal for an integrated national center should be understood in terms of democratic principles. Since queer experiences are varied and specific in different subject locations and positions; the question of regional, religious, class and caste differences and identities would be a necessary framework that will underwrite the mode of documentation and interpretation. Such micro histories not only enable the Queer communities to challenge the grand history which exclude them from its ambit of enquiries but also enable ARQ to uphold the spirit of multiplicities and to establish a critical relationship with the local, regional, national and/or the international models. This will have to be so in a country like India, and in that sense the proposition for a nodal national centre is based on certain pragmatic concerns. The ARQ is primarily envisaged as having two major focuses as follows:
(1) To create an international level platform for historians, theoreticians and cultural practitioners to undertake the production of historical and critical knowledge with regard to queer communities and cultures and to present such works. (2) To promote creativity among the queer population in general as well as in relation to community health (mainly around the medical discourse on HIV, STI) and mental and physical wellbeing; in promoting artistic/creative involvement as a therapeutic means towards psychological integration and a measure of instilling the concept of beauty, self-esteem and self-worth.
In practice, focus one would concentrate on the work of academics and artists and there would be an extremely conscious effort to break down the barriers produced by the elitist nature of high art and also between vernacular, metropolitan and international academia. Focus two would draw people from diverse backgrounds and effectively work against class, caste and other boundaries which foreclose the possibilities of a communitarian consciousness and also prevent access and usage of resources and methods according to the hierarchical systems.
Aims: (1) The ARQ aims at archiving queer histories and build-up a visual and print archive in the form of books, journals, photographs, films, videos, private documents etc. The following will be the focuses of the Documentation Center:
Documenting and archiving queer biographies in India and elsewhere
Documenting and archiving the history of queer activism in India and elsewhere.
Documenting and archiving the visual and textual historical evidences and data (including oral histories) in relation to queer life and cultural expressions in different historical periods in India and elsewhere.
Building up a resource library equipped with books, journals and ephemeral documents like reviews, brochures etc.
(2) ARQ envisages making varied queer experiences as a source of institutionalizing debates on activism, to propel it into a mature arena of learning sharing and creating a culture of positive affirmation. It aims at undertaking cultural initiatives and interventions in the area of queer life, health and art. It will function as a platform for the queer community to view, interact and engage in cultural production, and will offer possibilities of critical engagement as following:
To hold workshops in artistic media like literary, visual and performance art, including video and film.
To hold regular seminars and conferences in the area of queer studies, health and creative expressions.
To conduct special therapeutic cultural, creative and recreational programs for the health affected queer population.
To hold exhibitions, exposures and festivals of art, performances and films.
Objectives: To enable understanding of specific conditions in which certain kinds of queer cultures are produced within specific internal dynamics and polemics.
To create resources and space for documentation and research of queer histories and practices in India and elsewhere.
To promote, frame and socially and publicly make available the cultural initiatives and creativity of queer persons/organizations.
To inculcate and nurture creative skills to enable queer self-expression.
To promote critical thinking among queer people.
To enable exchange of knowledge through international collaboration and exchanges in the fields of culture, sexuality and health.
Work Plan: At the outset, contacts will be made with various queer/LGBT organizations/individuals and creative organizations and persons so as to research on their work, past and present projects and to seek support and collaboration, and to seek thinking together in the direction pursued by ARQ. This and the rest of the plan will be subject to the availability of funds.
Prof. Shivaji K Panikkar
[*] Note: ARQ will be pronounced as Arc, which means (1) part of the circumference of a circle or the other curve (2) Electric, luminous discharge between two electrodes.