A curious gallery of half-naked, queer Indians
Years after coming out to his parents, Sunil Gupta’s mother would, in passing conversation, still ask his friends, "Can you find him a wife?"
Gupta's father, an ex-military man, told him that being gay is “a phase and you will grow out it."
A series of autobiographical "documentary" photographs and other such conversations fill photographer Sunil Gupta’s coffee-table book, "Queer", published by Prestel and Vadehra Art Gallery earlier this year.
"Queer" is about one person's resilience against family, society and against his own body. It features the life and [bed]times of Gupta and his circle of homosexual/transgender friends and lovers around the world, arousing issues of gender, sexuality, displacement and his own diagnosis with AIDS in 1995.
The photos include a series called "The New Pre-Raphaelites;" a series on children living in an HIV-positive care center; 1970s street scenes from New York City’s West Village; and unprecedented portraits of gay men, women and transgender individuals living in India, still struggling against homophobic laws and culture.
An atmosphere of comic gravity pervaded the book’s opening night on May 3 at the Max Mueller Bhavan in Delhi, which saw many of those featured in the book drinking wine and talking together individually.
One of these friends, Gautam Bhan, introduces the book as a commentator for television news channel NDTV, describing it as “Nothing but a book of naked people, [pretending to] advance knowledge of the postcolonial body." Indicating that the photographer and his subjects take the inspiration behind "Queer" both very seriously and lightly, at the same time.
Saleem Kidwai, author of "Same Sex Love in India", calls the "The New Pre-Raphaelites (2008-2009)" photo series featured above, "beautiful."
The portraits diverge from Gupta's usual 'snapshot' aesthetic in that they are posed and purposeful -- staged with costumes, lighting, deliberate gestures and a self-conscious dialogue between the past and the present.
“My sense of art history is very European and I don’t know if it made any sense to work in India with that baggage,” says Gupta.
But on frequent visits to London, he went to see the works of the Pre-Raphaelites, and he realized that “what they were about was extremely relevant to our Indian queer situation.”
Just as the Pre Raphaelite movement rejected the artificiality of classical Victorian poses and attempted to bring truth and human nature to the fore, so does Gupta challenge the history of art by depicting homosexuality as a subject and by utilizing photography as a medium.
And yet, Gupta says, “I am not sure if they [Indians] made a connection between the pictures and paintings they were based on.”
"Queer", Rs 2,500, is available online at Flipkart and in Mumbai at The Taj Mahal Palace bookstore, Apollo Bunder; +91 (0) 22 6665 3366; Danai Book Shop, Ground Floor, Mangal Smriti Building, corner Of 14th Road, Khar Danda Road; +91 (0) 22 26487123.