Reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ movement in the late 1980s to ‘contain’ the spectrum of identities within it, queer is an umbrella term that allows fluidity to those who want to be part of a range of identities that fall outside hetero-normativity. Like most of the world, the position that India finds itself in with regard to queerness is one of marginalisation. Also regarded as deviating from heteronormativity, the queer individual is marginalized to point of invisibility. The problem is that popular culture and mainstream art practice does not acknowledge the role played by the act of queering, in making the presence of an identity felt. I wish to make a point that queering is essentially a powerful way of normalising what is seen as deviant or against the order of nature.
Queering art practice is an effective method of addressing the problems in heteronormativity. When a performance is queered, it challenges notions of gender roles, sexuality/sexual orientation, as well as the social constructs that make heteronormativity difficult to break free from. A simple way to ‘queer’ performance would be to switch gender roles. The performance of queer is both a cultivated and instinctive form.
‘Pop’ illustration of Allauddin Khilji and his slave Mallik Kafur. Source: Speakingtree.in, Shruti Srivastava, October 2017; Still from the film Razia Sultan, Source: Scroll.in, Nandini Ramnath
In my opinion, the visual has always had a larger impact than any text-based artist statement or manifesto. I begin with two images as they suggest the ways in which performance creates a visual in the minds of the viewer, thereby working towards a normalization of queer desires and lives. The first image is created in the graphic narrative style, and has been doing the rounds online for some time. It alludes to the Abyssinian slave who then went on to become a general in the army of Alauddin Khilji during the 13th century. Khilji is described as a sexual deviant in some historical texts and was known to have an affinity for effeminate men. The Abyssinian slave, Malik Kafur may have been more than a servant as is suggested in this image. The scene is more elaborate in Kamal Amrohi’s Razia Sultan. This film has Hema Malini, playing Queen Razia Sultana in a famous fantasy song sequence, “Khwab Bankar Koi Aayega”, which visually portrays Razia’s (Hema Malini) alluded sexual relationship with her female confidante, Khakun (Parveen Babi). This image also started doing the rounds a few years ago, and has been the subject of much debate.
Aravani Art Project. Source: aravaniartproject.com/start-bengaluru.
Apart from being subjects in works of art, queering can be art made by people identifying within the LGBTQ+ spectrum. The Aravani Art Project is a collective that has been working with street art since 2012. The work they do essentially brings the transgender community together in a creative pursuit. Beginning as a collective that works in neighbourhoods, connecting transgender people to other communities, The Aravani Art Project has become a signifier for street art in Bangalore, positioning itself as a space that provides skilled resources for street art projects. One of the aims of the collective is to reclaim the street and raise community awareness of public spaces. The public is where the transgender body performs its queerness This is symbolic space as the street is where the bodies of transgender identifying people are subjected to violence, harassment, social negligence and pressure.
Making art as a collaborative effort, specifically in the context of gender, can help unpack the politics of exclusion that the queer-identified body goes through.
Artists who work towards queering their work are essentially defying conventional ideas of ‘making’. One can see queering as resistance and therefore a leitmotif in the larger canvas of global contemporary art practice. That the queer body is problematic/disruptive/feared is something that artists should exploit. Queer activism in India has used performance and other art forms to locate the struggle of the South Asian queer body. But how does this differ from the global perception, or a Western perception of the queer body? Where does it actually begin to reflect an Indian experience of being queer? These are of course larger questions and may not be in the scope of this discussion, but we can begin by looking at art practice that has been queered to see how a narrative emerges.
Performing queerness is also about a desire for different possibilities of bodies; a desire to dress differently, a desire to not ‘fit in’. The mark of being queer is not just in the flamboyant expression of it, but in owning your self-identified gender and sexuality, and a deep belief in what has created this identity. The desire to be seen as these identities or to make people aware of these identities is what performance is trying to do. The most important point at this time is distinguishing between what is deemed criminal, and where the moral grounds for dismissing queer as a lifestyle comes from. The largest problem the queer community faces is the violence met with being queer and owning a sexual identity.
Sharanya Ramprakash, a Bangalore-based theatre actor and director who is one of the founders of the English language theatre troupe called Dramatist Anonymous (Dramanon), has developed a play that interrogates the way the Yakshagana is performed in her work Akshayambara. Yakshagana is a traditional theatre form that combines dance, music, dialogue, costume, make-up, and stage techniques with a unique style and form. This theatre style is mainly found in Tulunadu and the Malenadu region of Karnataka, India. Yakshagana is traditionally presented from dusk to dawn. I am of the opinion that this work is an important instance of gender performativity, both off and on stage. Female sexuality remains a subject that has yet to gain traction. This is where a play like Akshayambara becomes significant. While it does not deal directly with sexuality it does deal with the construct of gender performance. This play is an experimental work that premiered in 2015. It uses the form of Yakshagana as well as ‘Modern’ theatrical methods that interrogate the idea of representation of the female body and consequently the notion of ownership. This play has gone one to gain critical acclaim and awards for its quality and nuance when it comes to unpacking these complex ideas.
Stills from Akshayambara, Sharanya Ramprakash and Prakash Cherkady. Source: Dramanontheatre.com There are also more instances today, of artists making queer performance or queering performance – for example, Mandeep Raikhy’s Queen Size speaks of queer lives in great detail, addressing the issue of Article 377 and ideas of male desire. There is an attempt to normalise what has thus far been pushed to the realm of the forbidden. When performance is queered it challenges notions of gender roles, sexuality/sexual orientation as well as social constructs that make heteronormativity difficult to break free of. Also regarded as a deviance from heteronormativity, the queer individual is seen as something that needs to be removed.
Being queer in India, especially ‘coming out’ and being publicly queer is a dangerous position. The violence faced by queer people can be anything from non-acceptance, silence and denial, not acknowledging partners and alternative families; to micro aggressions, corrective rape, house arrest, aiding and abetting suicide or even murder. My observation is that a large number of Indian people are afraid of expressing themselves or speaking about their queerness, especially because they are subjected to violence that is legitimised by law and social standards.
When speaking about queering art practice in India, how the expression of queer identity is informed can play a significant role. The experience of the field so far is that artistic expression has remained restricted to being a parallel event alongside the various Pride marches or film festivals across the country. It has been art practice in queer spaces and not art practice that is queered. Queering is a method where the idea of heteronormativity is replaced by a queer framework. For instance the earlier example of Akshayambara has a women play a man’s role in a traditionally male dominated performance. In Queen Size, two men are seen being intimate as opposed to a man and a woman. Therefore, queering art practice is something that is a nascent genre in the art world as well.
By using performance and works of art, the idea of queerness can become normalised, which often leads to acceptance of these identities. A play that speaks of the lives of sex workers in a positive light where they are ‘people with flaws’ is a queering of performance. Where typical narratives would be of ‘removing’ oneself from the work of sex, here is a narrative that looks at their lives in a normal light and the troubles they may face. The largest problem the queer community faces is the violence met with being queer and owning a sexual identity. Added to that is the imprint of heteronormativity, subscribing to its binaries and practicing that within the community. Performance also has a significant if not central role in the Avant Garde art movements and has become a practice within the visual arts. In that respect, queering in art practice can be a great tool in the fight for rights of LGBTQ+ lives.
“To be queer is not who you are, it’s what you do, it’s your relation to dominant power, and your relation to marginality, as a place of empowerment”
– Jill Dolan
Sumitra Sunder is a Curator and Researcher, working out of Bangalore. Her PhD project locates the past 40 years of curating and resistance in art practice, focusing on collectives in Bangalore, Karnataka and the Students’ Biennale at Kochi, Kerala. As part of her curatorial work, she has co-curated the Neralu festival in Bangalore in 2014, dedicated to Bangalore’s ecology; She is part of the team curating ‘performing the periphery’ in Bangalore ad Kochi. She has worked with several organisations in the country in various capacities and helped set up the Urban Folk Projectwhich looks at folk performance and music. She has also written about art practice, gender and queer theory in various online and print platforms.
Editor’s Note: Both Queensize and Akshayambara will be showcased at Serendipity Arts Festival in Panaji Goa this December. For details, visit www.serendipityartsfestival.com