A Passage to Queer India

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Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh document LGBTQ  life in their homeland.

By Andrew Edmonson

Sunil Gupta is having his Texas moment.

Three decades after his first visit to the Lone Star State, the acclaimed Indian photographer, curator, and activist will dominate Houston’s spring cultural scene in 2018.

Dissent and Desire, the exhibition Gupta photographed with his partner in art and life, Charan Singh, is on display through April 29 at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH). Featuring 48 photographs with companion first-person texts, Dissent and Desire beautifully captures hidden moments of pain, struggle, and joy in the lives of 17 members of India’s LGBTQ community as they navigate a society that can be deeply homophobic.

Beginning March 10, Gupta will also serve as lead curator for Fotofest’s 2018 Biennial, INDIA – Contemporary Photography and New Media Art, a six-week showcase of 48 artists at venues including the Asia Society Texas Center; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and Fotofest’s home in three converted warehouses in the Washington Avenue Arts District. Gupta collaborated with Fotofest executive director Steven Evans in curating the festival.

Fotofest bills the Biennial as “one of the largest exhibitions of contemporary photography by artists of Indian origin to be presented in the United States.”

Gupta tells OutSmart that this will be the largest exhibition he has ever curated, and that he has been working on it for just over a year.

“It’s been a lifelong passion to make India more accessible and to bring it out in the world—especially in my field of photography,” Gupta says. “In the early years, India was [perceived by Westerners as] a very mysterious place. Very few people I met had any idea about it, other than it was where hippies went, it was where drugs came from, or possibly that it was in dire need of development funds.”

The 2018 Fotofest Biennial will feature works by artists who examine the tensions currently roiling India: gender and sexuality, land rights, the environment, human settlement and migration, and caste and class divisions.

“Indian society is very contradictory, like many others,” Gupta says. “Whilst it is aspirational on an international stage, there is still a hanging-on to age-old barriers to social advancement such as caste, gender, and sexuality.”

But this may be a year in which legal barriers based on sexuality fall in India. In January, the country’s supreme court ordered a review of Section 377, a colonial British law dating to 1861 that criminalizes sex between men, with a penalty of ten years in jail. The three judges who initially reviewed the case observed that Indians who are LGBTQ “should never remain in a state of fear” and that “societal morality also changes from age to age.”

The Supreme Court of India struck down Section 377 in 2009, but reversed itself in 2013 in a surging wave of homophobia. On August 24, 2017, the court gave the LGBTQ community some relief under a right-to-privacy law, but did not overturn Section 377.

“The earlier wording of the law, and its reference to ‘the right to privacy,’ is problematic in that it is a right that’s not available to a vast majority of Indians who live in joint families and don’t necessarily have a private bedroom,” Gupta says. “Furthermore, there is a lot of discussion and debate in India about the very definitions of LGBT people.”

Singh and Gupta have chronicled this era of transformation, according to Saleem Kidwai, an Indian historian and gay-studies scholar.

“A visible queer community has emerged in Delhi over the past two decades,” Kidwai says. “What was silent and private has emerged into the public sphere. Gupta and Singh’s work bears testimony to this.”

Gupta is one of India’s foremost living photographers, says Bill Arning, director of CAMH. As a social-documentary photographer capturing LGBTQ lives, Gutpa has few rivals in the scope and depth of his work, which spans four decades and three continents.

Born in New Delhi in 1953, Gupta spent the first 15 years of his life in India before his parents migrated to Canada. In 1976, he moved to New York City.

“I came to New York to be with a partner. To make it plausible to my parents, I enrolled in an MBA program at a local university,” he recalls. “But it was really boring, so I enrolled in photography classes at the New School with Lisette Model, Philippe Halsman, and George Tice.

“It was Lisette who said, ‘Darling, you should drop the finance and do photography.’ And I said, ‘But who is going to pay the rent?’”

While in Gotham, Gupta produced an iconic series of images, Christopher Street, New York 1976, which captured gay men strolling, cruising, and socializing on the streets of Manhattan in the heady early days of gay liberation. In addition to displaying Gupta’s natural aptitude for street photography, the work survives as an important documentation of gay-male life before the catastrophe of AIDS. It also established a key characteristic of much of Gupta’s work for the next five decades: capturing the LGBTQ community in their public spaces.

In the early 1980s, Gupta travelled back to Delhi to produce Exiles, which captured images of deeply closeted gay men who were almost invisible in India’s larger homophobic society. “At the time, they seemed particularly vulnerable as a group, and didn’t have a recognizable place in society,” Gupta recalls. “As a gay man, I felt I couldn’t live in such a repressive atmosphere. Now there is a claim for more visibility, but there is still a shortage of cultural production.”

In the United Kingdom in 1988, Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government unleashed Clause 28, an attack on Britain’s queer community that prohibited local authorities from “promoting” homosexuality or gay “pretended family relationships.” Supta struck back with a series of photos of same-sex couples called “Pretended” Family Relationships, featuring text by his then-partner, poet Stephen Dodd, juxtaposed with images taken at public protests against Clause 28 in London.

In 1995, Gupta was devastated to discover that he was HIV-positive. He spent many years coming to grips with the diagnosis. True to form, he turned to his art to help process his grief and fear, which ultimately led him to create a work called Love, Undetectable. “It was a turning point to think of using my own body as subject matter—to actually come to terms with its physical condition, to love it again,” he recalls.

“Over the years, my HIV status has become normalized,” he adds. “I’m very fortunate to live in the UK. I have access to free healthcare and free medication, and my hospital is a research center. For some time now, my test results have stabilized, and it has been a while since the virus manifested itself in any kind of debilitating way. I have been lucky to have had a chance to restart my career, as it is true there was a time in the late 1990s when I did feel defeated by HIV.”

Another turning point came in 2009 when Gupta met Singh at an AIDS conference.  Neither expected the encounter to blossom into a relationship.

“I never thought our meeting would have a future,” Singh remembers, “considering our backgrounds (both social and economic), nationalities, the illegalities of our desires and love, and the world we were occupying.”

Born in India in 1978, Singh is also an activist whose experiences have deeply impacted the artistic themes of his work. From 1998 to 2012, he facilitated groups for men who have sex with men, and he also served as an educator and program manager for India’s national AIDS prevention project.

“Being part of the local community gives my [work a relevance] that is far beyond that of art and academic discourse,” Singh says. “It provides me an understanding of the language that is being shared in these spaces—[a language that can] tell a nuanced version of a story that [usually dwells on] a largely victimized community.”

In 2012, Singh moved to London to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees in photography at the Royal College of Art.

Houston had its first glimpse of Singh’s work in 2015 when Fotofest presented his series Kothis, Hijras, Giriyas and Others as part of the larger exhibition I Am a Camera.

“Kothis (effeminate, underprivileged, homosexual men), Hijras (transgender people), and Giriyas (partners of kothis and hijras) are indigenous terms used by queer working-class and transgender men, in their own dialect, to define their different and particular sexual identities,” Singh wrote of the exhibit on Fotofest’s website. “I made these pictures because this subculture is rarely seen outside of its HIV/AIDS victim narratives.”

In Dissent and Desire, Singh dives deeper into the lives of Hijras by capturing them outside the portrait studios, in their homes, and going about their business in the streets of Delhi. In texts accompanying the photos, they share stories of alienation from family, physical abuse, harassment by police, and employment discrimination.

Singh’s works resonate deeply with Arning, who has been CAMH’s director since 2009.

“By being so intimate with the Hijra community,” Arning says, “Singh makes many of us who post ‘I support trans rights’ on Facebook admit the shallowness of our knowledge, and learn that this category is older and more complicated and more spiritual than we generally see in queer media.”

On March 3, Gupta and Singh will join Arning and CAMH’s assistant curator, Patricia Restrepo, for a conversation about Dissent and Desire, which is free and open to the public.

For more information on the exhibits, visit camh.org/event/dissent-and-desire or fotofest.org.



Andrew Edmonson

Andrew Edmonson has written about the arts for the Houston Chronicle, OutSmart, The Houston Voice, and Houston Ballet News. He won the Award of Special Merit from the Texas Chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.
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