Guest post by SHIVAJI K PANIKKAR, art historian and Dean, School of Culture & Creative Expressions, Ambedkar University, Delhi. This statement was written in the context of the teachers’ intervention in the Supreme Court in the appeal by religious groups against the Delhi High Court judgement on Section 377 . This statement does not form part of court documents.
You can read Ruth Vanita’s statement here.
I was born in a traditional, upper caste Hindu family and lived in Kerala till I was 22 years old, and since then shifted to study, work and live inBaroda,Gujarat. In 1975c I completed a B.A in Kerala with Economics and History as my subjects. InBarodathrough 1980s, at MS University I did another B.A. in Dance (Bharatanatyam), an M.A. and Ph. D in Art History as specialization. I was appointed as Professor in 1998. Till recently I was Head of Department of Art History & Aesthetics, Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. University of Baroda. I have an experience of teaching at the University of about 25 years.
Since childhood I knew I had homosexual inclinations, and lived it secretively till the age of about 43/45 years. Since then I lived an openly gay life; a fact that I couldn’t any more hide in my personal life as well as in my professional life. It was a matter of emotional and intellectual honesty and integrity that I accepted in public my sexual orientation, and no more live a life of fear and oppression.
I was acutely aware of the need for maintaining secrecy all through my growing-up years. There was fear, guilt and shame associated with the feelings I had towards men and relationships I shared with them. In the 1970s through the larger part of 1980s there was a great sense bewilderment, dishonesty and confusion. Groping through all those one also committed blunders and irreversibly wronged ones’ self and others. My coming out was partly circumstantial (like the break-up of the marriage), partly through confessions in intimate friendships and partly self willed. But, mostly and throughout I tried to maintain discretion, considering the appropriateness and the feelings of concerned others. It is only in the past twelve years or so that I am able to be truly realize and accept what I am. Accepting the truth of ones’ self and disclosing to the world is a continuous process. Each time one spoke on minor sexualities, or does something else to that effect – making a work of art or writing a story or an article or giving a presentation in a conference or as part of the regular teaching are enabling acts for a person who has otherwise lived through the fear and stigma.
In this context I should point out the positive effect of Bhupen Khakhar’s paintings of the mid 1980s which was liberating to someone like me who had been struggling to cover-up my sexual orientation from public notice. I followed his works closely, with great interest I spoke about it in the class rooms and outside with much enthusiasm, and I published essays and articles on them. In the recent past I have developed deeper interest in queer studies as an academic field and I was very keen to understand the interrelation between LGBT activism and art. And, Khakhar was a good case to do so. Further, I also studied Khakhar’s art in depth to understand the affect of his disclosure upon his artistic expression; thematically and in terms of formal shifts.
However, deep-rooted homophobia is a fact of life, which one encountered on a day to day basis in almost all the situations one is located. Queerness of different kinds is associated with shame and one is all the time prompted to put it aside, or push it under the carpet. In the academic field the phobia works mostly in a very subtle, subliminal ways. Mostly treated as inconsequential, the general perception is that queerness is something avoidable. Like the civil society academic world too hardly lent any empathy and as a result suffers from lack of knowledge, and prefers to maintain hypocrisy in the name of tradition, morality or whatever. I did not allow myself suffer because of such attitudes, but it had been tough to be negotiating the above situation, which arises from systemic phobia.
I believe that the spirit of activism should be translated in one’s workplace, in family and in social transactions. About issues related to sexuality I interacted with openness and honesty with students, colleagues or any one, within or outside the classrooms and engage and deal with various situations arising out of it with intellectual honesty and integrity. Within such a premise I have facilitated and wielded an interventional agency of being homosexual in the regular academic programmes. Two such cases I would like to note here as exemplars.
Chandni Bar in the December 2003 at the Fine Arts Fair was a mock-tail bar initiated by the postgraduate students, and it was styled like a popular art site with male performers dancing to popular Hindi music, which were interspersed with choreographed HIV-AIDS awareness performance. For this, under my guidance the students of Department of Art History and Aesthetics had collaborated with Lakshya – a community organization working in the area of health – volunteers. Performing to popular Hindi music was an intrinsic part of the project and female students kept off from performing, and so the decision was taken to put male performers instead. The result of this substitution led to various issues and crisis in actualizing and during the performance from the higher faculty authority, as Chandini Bar was something different from the usual performances in a Fine Arts Fair. Sanitizing became a necessity for the authority, and what kind of performance could be allowed itself was considered. The name Chandni Bar was changed to Chandni Bahar fearing a negative reaction from the public since ‘bar’ may suggest supply of alcoholic beverages and Chandini Bar was thought to be inappropriate in a dry state like Gujarat. Sexual identities of the performers from Lakshya Trust were specifically asked not to be mentioned which came from of a feeling that homosexuality and its mention had perverse undertones. The practice sessions were conducted in the Faculty and these sessions were constantly scrutinized. The choice of songs and the choreography of dances were initially left to Lakshya. However later they were told that certain movements would be objectionable and hence needed to be avoided. During the final few sessions of practice, when a dress rehearsal was underway, the students were told that the performers could not wear clothes suggestive of cross-dressing. They were asked to be clothed in neutral if not generally male attire. Female mannerisms and movements, which were replicated from the original choreography of the songs, were termed vulgar. Thus the whole project came under threat when there were just two days left for the show. The students were told that they had to abide by the rules laid down by higher authorities in this case the police, or the permission given for the Fair would be withdrawn. Songs such as ‘kaanta lagaa’ and ‘choli ke peeche’ were banned. It was told that depiction of these songs by male performers gave them a greater vulgar connotation.
Despite all these limitations what I would like to point out that the collaboration such as this was greatly educative for the students in terms of tangibility to the minority community, notions of vulgarity and the general homophobia. On the other hand collaborating with an educational institution for an event such as above gave Lakshya a platform to reach out for a larger audience and it was an opening and admittance into a larger heterosexual social space where they faced a constraint about their sexuality to be accepted. The performance thus turned to become an assertion of gay identity, and an interventional strategy in disclosure.
The second instance was a performance titled as Jism during December 2005 Fine Arts Fair which was based on issues of gender, community, sexuality, identity and individual experiences and choices. After a month long discussions and a few workshops, the students of Art History and Aesthetics came up with a script for a musical performance based on experiences of five persons. These auto-referential text based on actual people, were choreographed with elements drawn from fashion show and free dance. One of the segments was about the experience of a young man with queer orientation, the script in Hindi mixed with English of which goes as follows:
Male voice: kal mere hostel ek ghatna ghati.
Male voice1: e, ye kya jab dekho tab kapdon ko leke baitha rehta hai, bada hoke darzi banega kya?
Male voice: han mai paris jana chaahta hoon, wahan darziyon ko fashion designer kehte hain.
Male voice 1: abbe sissy, chod ye sab, mujhe dekh, mere paas jigar hai, tere paas agar jigar hota to tu ye sab paris varis chod kar mere saat national defence academy join karta.
Male voice: kaun kehta hai ke ladke kapde nahin bana sakte. Aadmi aur aurat mein biology ke siva kya farak hai?
Male voice 1: farak yeh hai ke boys like girls and girls like boys. Tere jaisa nahin.
Music: (the grand duel)
Male voice: (loud) … maybe I’m different. Maybe I’m not normal. I still am. That is not going to change. I’m a boy who likes boys.
Music gets louder and recedes…
These two instances go to prove that activism or representation is not to be understood in limited sense, but it involves pedagogy; interventions, teaching and learning outside classrooms and in relation to the reality that surrounds and concerns people, and mapping it upon real life situations. Students, Nalini Kannegal and Niveditha Kuttiah who were two main organizers of Chandini Bar observes in their article thus, “Paradoxically, the curriculum that the Faculty generally, and the Department of Art History specifically followed covered issue based studies where minority issues were openly discussed in the classrooms. Historical and Art Historical studies have always dealt with ancient and contemporary documents which show us that cross dressing, same sex representations in texts and visuals are aplenty.… While on one hand these issues were part of the theoretical studies, when it came to the practice and presentation of related project works there was a need for sanitized and muted version of the issue.” (see ‘Chandni Ba(ha)r: Questions of Place, Space and Censorship, in Art and Activism: Articulating Resistance, (ed) Shivaji K Panikkar and Deeptha Achar, Tulika Books, New Delhi, forthcoming)
Lack of empathy, education and understanding of minoritarian issues and struggles is a national level problem, where conventions and social prestige commend greater importance than individual’s reality, truth and choices, within a largely tradition based modernity of a nation like ours. The various incidents and experiences of previous years prove this, particularly with regard to the right wing political agenda. The right wing surely is oppressive, but possibly because their major attention is upon victimizing people belonging minority religion, other minors such as gays are relatively spared. The problem is experienced more as a structural problem than situations of open confrontation and violence. It takes real courage to come out of closet and speak up, and no one should underestimate or ignore the amount of pain, anxiety and the feeling of loss that is involved in all those individual cases.
In the past one year I had been deliberating on the possibility of building an institution for preserving and promoting queer culture. The proposed national center – ARQ: Archive, Research and Queer Cultural Practice has three main aims in its purview; firstly it will document and archive histories of the Indian queer culture and practice, secondly it will enable queer creative person’s professional practices, and thirdly it would promote critical thinking and creative skills among the Indian queer community.