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Queer Artists of India Use Art to Exploring Gender and Sexuality

Queer folks in India have found limited and, often, demeaning representation in the mainstream. Some queer and genderfluid artists have used art to create better representation. 

By Mehk Chakraborty

In India, and South Asia in general, bias against women and other gender minorities remains prevalent across class, caste and social hierarchies. While there have historically been non-binary expressions of gender, such as with hijras, this community has only gained official recognition in the country in the past decade. History and the Hindu religion contained essential roles and functions for hijras, such as in courts during Mughal times as well as containing special powers in Hindu beliefs but they remain marginalised to this date. In this socialscape, artists, taking to the universal medium of visual communication, are creating a tiny, but significant space for bringing forth a radical change in the understanding of gender in India, by bringing conversation and awareness on the same, such as with genderfluidity.

Humhu, a model, creative director, stylist and theatre lover who uses mixed-media, such as thematic fashion shoots notes that “Unlike several western societies, where a conscious direction of both expressing and exploring gender-sexuality is pursued in the art practice, in India, there is still a lot of shame attached to work that has the slightest hint of gender expression.” One of Humhu’s most important “art inquiries” includes looking at queer culture and gender, particularly in societies where it is under represented. Even as representation is lacking, Humhu reminds us that “In small towns, for example, in India, where most assume the absence of queer culture so to speak, it is as much political as it is exciting- we just have to look at these movements with that lens.”

Queer folks in India have found limited and, often, demeaning representation in the mainstream. Hiten Noonwaal, a performance artist, fashion aficionado, visiting professor at several reputable fashion universities in India is recalls their own terrible experience of attempting to take part in the mainstream, in a very public platform no less. Hiten recalls, “When I auditioned for India’s Got Talent, a popular reality show, the song I sang was changed to Laila Mai Laila, an item number with raunchy themes- resulting in a vulgar and caricaturised representation of my performance. The queer community in India has always been represented this way, especially hijras and other non-binary identities, but it demoralized me quite a bit.”

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Platforms & Limitations

With lack of genuine space in the mainstream, it remains evident that it is the queer artists themselves who have had to both create and sustain platforms for themselves. For “queer artists in India, there are only a handful of dedicated spaces for performances.” However, Hiten notes they have attempted to consistently work on, exhibit and evolve with their art in spaces that aren’t traditionally considered “queer platforms”, such as in cosplay conventions and classrooms. 

Humhu, whose pseudonym directly translates to “me too”, but essentially means “what you have, I do too,” reflects on the use of social media as a platform. “My own experience has been largely affirmative, but I have limited reach. One can look at the experience of my friend and influence, queer Bahujan feminist art-activist Priyanka Paul. She has been trolled endlessly.” They note that while this kind of queerphobic, misogynistic, casteist abuse is unpleasant to put it mildly,  it brings out the realities of a society where monstrosity is so casually unleashed at young womxn and these behaviours are rooted in some kind of trauma, which has very largely remained unaddressed in the South Asian context.

Understandably, it is not only on social media where queer and genderfluid artists face abuse. Durga Gawde, a sculptor, activist, drag king and educator from India was cornered and assaulted while driving their bike in 2019. “I have been facing sexual abuse since I was a child and in so many ways but our judicial system is pitted against the inflicted, so is our culture,” they noted, in a social media statement after they made a formal complaint against the perpetrator. They added, “I AM AN OUT AND PROUD GENDERFLUID PERSON WHOSE IDENTITY IS DISMISSED AND CONSTANTLY DEEMED INVALID OVER AND OVER AGAIN BUT THIS IS NOT ABOUT THAT. THIS IS ABOUT HUMANITY..WHERE HAS IT GONE?“

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Beyond labels: art & impact

As artists who have been labelled by the media with gendered terms they don’t necessarily identify with, Hiten and Humhu express their desire to be seen beyond their genderfluidity. “If I had to identify as something, I would say my being is a bird,” jokes Hiten, raising the paradox of being labelled as fluid. Humhu says their understanding of genderfluidity in their personal life has come from shifting identities amongst varying queer friends. They add, as an afterthought, “I don’t mind being referred to with any pronouns, it’s just I didn’t consider identifying with they/them until I was referred to in these terms in public events.”

As artists thus navigate engagement with audiences vis a vis their work and identity, in the case of Hiten, it is their evolutionary method of teaching university students at design schools that stands out. Pushing the boundaries of creative self-expression, they are encouraging an entire generation of queer Indians to feel comfortable in their skin. Hiten turns up in costumes and characters to help deconstruct the issue at hand as per the themes of the lecture and starts with a performance, such as turning up as Cleopatra for a lesson on the history of costumes. 

Humhu, whose other art inquiries include metaphysics, generational and fast moving consumer goods, clear communication and the ability to send a message across is important. Recently, they had further explored the intersections of their interests during the COVID lockdown. “I randomly decided to do an Indianised series exploring Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot.’ On the one hand, I was afraid to be working on such an acclaimed author, on the other I wasn’t sure if the Hindi captions would work. But as per the feedback I received, it was using the mother tongue that felt like it brought this to a deep and original space.”

During Delhi Pride in 2019, in a white costume with a translucent veil and golden flowers, Hiten made a statement against the Trans Bill that had recently passed in India, a law that was supposedly meant to “empower” but was critiqued for several reasons, including its crucial lack of self-recognition of gender. Reflective of how their art has evolved, Hiten shares, “I didn’t realise it,  but spreading awareness has become a driving purpose for my art.” 

“As the age-old understanding goes, art exists to evoke reaction,” says Humhu, who leaves us with the reminder that it is important to spark conversations with their work, even if these reactions aren’t always pleasant. At present, India is witnessing a push for marriage equality, but for many queer folks, the larger battlefield remains in the social sphere. As art provides a medium to both express and educate, for queer folks full of hope, despair, joy and anguish alike, it can serve as a channel to make themselves heard.

Mehk is a freelance multimedia journalist and researcher who covers social movements, human rights, LGBTQ+ culture, travel and the arts. She has an MA in Political Analysis and her work has appeared on BBC, The Daily Beast, Roads & Kingdoms, Waging Nonviolence, The Blueprint, and several other international publications.

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