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.)

1 comment:

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