Thursday, October 15, 2009

Revised Concept Note: ARQ: Archive, Research and Queer Cultural Practice

The proposed national center - ARQ: Archive, Research and Queer Cultural Practice[1] will aim at: (1) archiving histories of the Indian queer culture and practice, (2) enable queer creative person’s professional practices, and (3) promote critical thinking and creative skills among the Indian queer community. It is a well accepted fact that the ongoing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LBGT) activism in India is over two decades old.[2] 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.[3] Significant also are similar developments from other Asian, and South-Asian Diaspora in the West.[4] 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.

Currently there is no single organization or agency in the country that link queer history, activism and culture. The proposal keeps in view these along with multiplicities of practices and modes of functioning of the communities. ARQ[5] will avoid a singular privileged queer category or norm, and the proposition for an integrated national queer center is based on 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 guide the mode of archiving and interpretation. This will have to be so in a country like India, and in that sense the proposition is based on certain pragmatic concerns, such as the extend of national level spread and micro level reach, diversity and detail. Such micro histories would enable the queer community to challenge the available histories which exclude them from the ambit.

The central principle in all these is the fact that queer population is a discriminated, disadvantaged and legally vulnerable minority in India. Although often argued erroneously as a matter of private choice, the sexual fulfillment of the queer are subject to socio-politico-legal sanction, which make the present queer culture diverse, inchoate and riddled with complexity. Concurrent with health and legal activism is the trajectory of LGBT cultural production by professionals; visual, literary and performative including film.[6] Activism and cultural production exist in tandem with each other and have proved to be most productive in the recent past. Importantly, prominent writers and artists gather their strength from the movement within and outside the country for LGBT rights,[7] and have definitively proved to be a significant intervention into the mainstream cultural field. Similarly, literary research has reclaimed the histories of homosexuality and homoeroticism through publications,[8] and certain interventional publications have focused on contemporary texts and thus have provided a major fillip to queer activism and aesthetic premise.[9]

Yet another premise that ARQ will be concerned is of queer theory and critical studies, which grew out of the broader area of Cultural Studies. Writings of theoreticians such as Michael Foucault, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler have shown that mainstream ideologies and theories are constituted by and constitutive of heterosexual norms, giving rise to Queer Studies 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.[10] 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.[11] These initiatives not only expanded the scope of queer studies and activism but also have posed crucial challenges to the existing theoretical/conceptual paradigms of gender and sexuality.

The ARQ is primarily envisaged as having two major focuses as follows. (1) To create a 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.

Objectives: (a) ARQ aims at archiving queer histories and to build-up a visual and print archive in the form of books, journals, photographs, films, videos, private documents etc. The focuses of the archive will be to document and archive (1) queer biographies in India (2) the history of queer activism in India (3) 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 (4) building up a resource library equipped with books, journals and ephemeral documents like reviews, brochures etc. (b) 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 by (1) holding workshops in artistic media like literary, visual and performance art, including video and film (2) holding regular seminars and conferences in the area of queer studies, health and creative expressions (3) conducting special therapeutic cultural, creative and recreational programs for the health affected queer population (4) holding exhibitions, exposures and festivals of art, performances and films.

The objectives of ARQ are to enable understanding of specific conditions in which certain kinds of queer cultures are produced within specific internal dynamics and polemics: (1) To create resources and space for archive and research of queer histories and practices in India and elsewhere. (2) To promote, frame and socially and publicly make available the cultural initiatives and creativity of queer persons/organizations. (3) To inculcate and nurture creative skills to enable queer self-expression. (4) To promote critical thinking among queer people. (5) 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 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

[1] 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. 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.
[2] The earliest mobilization of community action began in Bombay in 1989-90 with the publication of the newsletter Bombay Dost. 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.
[3] Some of these are Red Rose (New Delhi), Fun Club (Calcutta), Friends India (Lucknow) and Garden City Club (Bangalore) and through mid 1990s and early 2000s many more such initiatives were undertaken namely, Sneha Sangama, Good As You, Sabrang (all in Bangalore), Humsafar Trust, Udan, Khush Club (all in Mumbai) Council Club (Calcutta), Humrahi, NAZ Foundation (New Delhi) Gay Information Centre (Secunderabad), Men India Movement (Cochi), Expressions (Hyderabad), Sahayak Gay Group (Akola), Asara (Patna), Sathi (Cuttack), Lakshya, Parma and Vikalp (Vadodara) etc. 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,. p.161
[4] These are Trikone (USA), Khush Khayal (Canada), Shakti (UK), Samakami(USA), South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (USA) and Dost (UK). See Ibid.pp. 157 to 178.
[5] 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.
[6] Literary figures: Raj Rao, Hoshang Merchant, performers, theatre persons and film makers/directors: Astad Deboo, Mahesh Dattani, and Onir Ban, visual artists: Bhupen Khakhar, Sunil Gupta, Jehangir Jani, Tejal Shah among others.
[7] Arguably two organizations spearhead in this matter; InterPride coordinate and network gay pride events worldwide, and International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) addresses human rights violations against LGBT and HIV people.
[8] Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, (ed.), Same Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History, Macmillan India Ltd., Delhi, 2001, (first published in 2000, St. Martin’s Press, Palgrave).
[9] Yarana: Gay Writing from India, (ed), Hoshang Merchant, Yarana, Penguin Books India (P) Ltd., New Delhi, 1999.
[10] These are University of Pune, Pune (Maharashtra), Central University (Hyderabad) and Yadvpur University, Kolkata.
[11] For instance see The Phobic and the Erotic, (ed), Brinda Bose and Subhabrata Bhattacharyya, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 2007.

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