Literally “perspective” in Urdu/Hindi, Nigah begins and furthers conversations, thoughts, debates, diatribes, rants, plays, art, protests, hissy fits and any other form of expression on issues of gender and sexuality. Virtually and on the ground in New Delhi, it is an effort to create inclusive and queer spaces that imagine new languages of cultural resistance and celebration around sexuality.
No lesbos this, our sea-girt isle, and Sappho does not sing her songs of love with silven tongue yet nonetheless they still are sung by voices new, in tropic clime.
-Inez Vere Dullas, Mitylene in Bombay
The 2010 Nigah queer fest in Delhi marked the passing of a year since the reading down of the draconian Section 377 by the Delhi High court. The art work exhibited at Siddhartha Hall at Max Mueller Bhavan, curated by Sunil Gupta, raised the question of what a post-377 world meant to us; What is the implication of declaiming that we are free today? What does sexual freedom mean in our current location and time? Does asserting one's queer identity liberate us, affect change or even cause a little dent or nudge to a heteronormative social order? The art works displayed were eclectic in the varied ways they were celebratory, questioning gender and sexuality as they touch our everyday lives, disrupt tradition, fracture some of our naive assumptions and cherished notions. The result was a harmonious cacophony of cartoons, pen sketches, photography and drawings expressing ideas on sex, sexuality and freedom.
In “An Ideal Boy,” Meera Sethi reproduces the chart of good habits. In the format of a straight-jacketed, normative and instructional code to good behaviour, Sethi inserts a subversive twist. ‘An ideal boy’ is show in various scenarios under the headings of 'kind and generous', 'makes himself clean', 'meditates daily', 'cares for family and friends' and 'takes part in social activity' which shows the 'ideal boy' at a bar with another man clinking glasses.' Perhaps most unique are the two images: ‘Uses protection' and 'finds good lover,’ which each represent the boy in a homosexual relationship. The artist performs a threefold task of mocking the normative order of what is considered good morals in Indian society, creating an alternate to a heterosexual idea of romance and sexuality and lastly, imparting the message of safe sex.
Cuban-American photographer, Silvia Ros's “Freedom to Love” features a lesbian couple with children as an aspirational reality superimposed on history. Ros articulates the political battle of queer rights against a legal system that does not validate a marriage to her partner or allow her to adopt a child. The artist uses a photo from the family album of her grandparents in a park with their children and superimposes her grandfather’s face with her grandmother's, quoting her family history of fleeing from Spain to Cuba to the United States in search for democracy and freedom. Ros anchors her family's quest for freedom in her own circumstances, as the state of Florida prohibits same sex marriage, denying her freedom and choice.
From the series, “Nine Acts of Reciprocity,” Qasim Riza Shaheen performs a tawaif in a work of photo performance. The bearded man in rich bright fabric with kohl rimmed eyes, luscious painted lips, wearing a gold necklace and a subtly seductive countenance against the background of a lattice window evokes the Indian courtesan tradition as well as subverts it. Here a man poses as the beguiler, as the object of desire as he meets the viewer’s gaze with charm, asserting his agency and strident sexuality as a gorgeous cross-dressing male.
“FAT.SO” calls itself “a production of a few fatwimmin who love their abundant and sumptuous selves.” It parodies lifestyle magazines targeted mostly at women who are instructed to aspire to a life of “size zero” without which they might as well be as good as dead. The cover photo done by Abhinandita Mathur and the concept by Neelima Aryan, has a figure of a voluptuous woman facing her back to the camera which lovingly captures the contours of her love handles. The magazine cover claims that saggy is sexy; “Eat play love” replaces crash diet regimes that are the most common itinerary in contemporary women's lifestyle magazines. Anita Dube's untitled doodles in pen of naked women engaged in sexual activity with each other and Vidisha Saini's “Unvoiced,” a photograph of one boy bending over to kiss another are representations of queer sexuality in the very act that was deemed criminal till the reading down of 377.
The invigorating quality of the exhibition was it's witty streak of parody and a very serious sense of humour. It makes forays into fantasy, the everyday, the political, the rebellious and the discomforting. We witness the multiple entrees through of the closet door, melting, emerging, converging, disrupting our normal course of travel. Sunil Gupta's curatorial exercise is praiseworthy in its sheer intrepidity, in it's vision of freedom in a land that may not be ancient Greece but where paeans are sung of queer desire and rights.
(All images courtesy of Nigah Queerfest 2010 and the arists.)