The London-based artists compare India’s recriminalisation of homosexuality to ‘post-Brexit, or post-Trump’
Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh say their eyes met across the room at a HIV conference in Delhi, which they used to call home before moving to London.
Sunil, in his sixties, has witnessed the shift in attitudes towards same-sex relationships in India – from a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach to a successful decriminalisation of homosexuality in 2009, to the reintroduction of the law in 2013.
The couple compare the recriminalisation of homosexuality in India to ‘post-Brexit here, or post-Trump in America’, and set about photographing Delhi’s LGBT community as a way of documenting the people affected.
The book of portraits, Delhi: Communities of Belonging, is two years in the making and aims to shed a light on the everyday life of LGBT people living in the capital.
Sunil told the Standard: “This subject matter of being gay and being Indian has been with me throughout. As an arts student I didn’t see any images of people like me, so I thought I should make some.”
Charan added: “It’s also about breaking the stereotype of people from India – we try to get away from those victim narratives and try to capture the ordinariness of these people.”
The change in law, which came back into force after many people had found the courage to come out and be visible in workplaces, has left Indian LGBT people feeling ‘deflated’.
Sunil said: “People are trying to keep their spirits up. It’s a very weird feeling, it’s very unusual.
“There’s no precedence around the world for this – people have either not changed or they have changed [their law], but no one has changed back.
“It’s kind of deflated everyone – there’s a funny atmosphere suddenly because until 2009, when I was living there, there was a feeling that a change was imminent.
“There’d been this court case that had been carrying on for years that was about to arrive to a decision so there was a kind of hopefulness about it.
“All that hopefulness has gone – it feels a bit like post-Brexit here, or post-Trump in America. There’s some real deflation happening.
“We’ve retreated back to London for now. I find with younger people here, they seem less politicised and I feel like telling them: ‘you know it’s just a right, they could take it away tomorrow’. I’d be a little more vigilant.”
Charan added: “I think people here forget that you can be beheaded for being gay in other countries – we have to understand the complexities of where LGBT people live and know that India is not just one culture.
“India has many cultures, so there are people who are out, married, and there are also people who are not out – just like in the UK.”
Charan also says that he was often inundated with requests from LGBT people wanting to appear in the book, but the pair felt strongly about ethics around photographing people who may be put at risk from the exposure.
He explained: “It’s a great way to tell stories and a lot of people got in touch with me. There was this woman who was in a marriage with a man and she wanted to participate.
“But I wasn’t sure that I would be happy about the consequences it might have for her marriage and her domestic situation because she was also living in a slum and she wasn’t literate. So that was a really big issue for both of us.”
Sunil explained: “Men always seem to be more able to be out in the public sense – you’ll see that in India, actually. Middle and upper class queer women are more visible than lower middle class and poorer women, although they tend to be more in the news.
“There’s a lot of media interest in so-called runaway lesbians – it’s a phenomenon in India. They’re running away from villages usually to escape marriages to men.
“It got quite serious so friends of ours created a handbook for young women on how to run away, what steps to take to stop the families coming after them.”
The couple explain that class is a huge deciding factor as to whether people can be openly LGBT in India.
Charan explained: “People who are more privileged can negotiate marriages and leave their parental house or have the means to rent a house, but people from the slums have no choice. Eventually some would commit suicide.”
Sunil hopes the book will highlight these issues: “I think what we want to allude to is that there has been a lot of loss in India – LGBT people actually losing lives or being forced to live in situations where they have no way out.
“I’m in my sixties so most of my generation of men have not rebelled – they’re living under the façade of respectable married granddads now and they’re not going to come out now, so there’s a lot of broken lives like that and there’s no monument to that.
“We also want to say that India has a very old, long-standing tradition around gender and sexuality which has become subverted by colonisation and the imposition of this law criminalising homosexuality.”
by Amy Ashenden
Source – The Evening Standard