Critically Inclined | Art

It was art that first decriminalised gay sex

Bhupen Khakhar’s ‘You Can’t Please All’, 1981.  

There are many heroes in the struggle that led to the scrapping of Section 377 last week. The five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, of course. But we should not forget Justice A.P. Shah and Justice Muralidhar and their 2009 reading down of the obnoxious law at the Delhi High Court. There are also Ismat Chughtai, Ashok Row Kavi, Anjali Gopalan and the Naz Foundation, Deepa Mehta, Sunil Gupta, Ruth Vanita, Gautam Bhan, Anand Grover, Vikram Seth and thousands more who fought for the restitution of legality and dignity to homosexuality. They are all worthy of a salute.

But I am particularly pleased that the September 6 judgement decriminalising same sex intimacies will go down in history as the Navtej Johar vs. Union of India case. Johar, along with Sunil Mehra, Aman Nath, Ritu Dalmia and Keshav Suri, was the mover of the present revision petition. Johar is a prominent, Delhi-based dancer and yoga teacher who I have known since the mid-80s, when he was a Bharatanatyam student at Chennai’s Kalakshetra. He then worked on and off with Chandralekha in her early path-breaking productions like ‘Angika’ (1985) and ‘Prana’ (1990). Chandra also choreographed an intense piece with him and six other dancers for Sashi Kumar’s film Kaya Taran (2004). Many of Johar’s own dance works have dealt with the delicate subject of sexuality and the suffocation produced by gender stereotyping.

Vexed issues

Chandralekha too, from her first choreographic production till her last one 20 years later, consistently explored the vexed issues of sensuality, sexuality and the erotic. Her partnership with the gay dancer Kamadev in the early 70s and 80s had resulted in a couple of sublime, but provocative, dances. In her later works, she was preoccupied with issues of femininity — both in women and men. It had, for example, led to prolonged sequences in productions like ‘Mahakal’ (1996), ‘Raga’ (1998) and ‘Shloka’ (2000) which placed, centrestage, two women or two men in intimate proximity. These were some of the boldest moments on the Indian dance stage that celebrated the homo-erotic, positing it as normative acts of love and humanity, rather than as something sleazy or deviant.

As expected, the moral police in the English and Hindi media, which had already started consolidating in the mid-90s, prattled on about ‘obscenity’. With characteristic wit, she had responded with dramatic prophesy, ‘When little men cast long shadows, it is a sure sign that the sun is setting’. It is indeed a joy now to see that the ‘sun has set’ on those who want to convert ‘desire’ and ‘sex’ into dirty words.

One of the most important visual artists who handled the subject of homosexuality with directness, sensitivity and self-referential humour was Bhupen Khakhar. I first met Bhupen in 1977, in Baroda. For over 30 years, we met frequently in different circumstances. I did four longish interviews with him, the last and longest one some four months before he passed away in August 2003. It was exciting to observe how he progressively centre-staged gay sex in his works.

In his paintings, Bhupen reverses the art-historical convention of the female nude and the idealised male body.

It is useful to undertake a little exercise in the ‘provenance of the penis’ in Bhupen’s works, a journey spanning some three decades. It probably began with the hesitant introduction of the penis in some early paintings, sticking to the artistic conventions of the ‘male nude’. From this quiet emergence of the male lingam in his paintings, he slowly begins acknowledging it consciously — from ‘Hata Yogi’ (1978) to ‘Picture Taken on their 30th Wedding Anniversary’ (1998). By the time he enters the new millennium, his priapistic preoccupations with the penis are over and we see an artist in search of a new tranquillity.

Reversing the macho

In his paintings, Bhupen reverses the art-historical convention of the female nude — breasts and buttocks — as well as of the idealised male body. The men in Bhupen’s fantasy are older, sometimes hairless and toothless, a trifle potbellied, flabby and often with limp organs. He reverses the macho or even the muscular body types more commonly seen in European gay depictions.

From his first ‘coming out’ painting, ‘You Can’t Please All’ (1981), until the late 1980s, we see an ambivalence in the power relations within the narrative, as he consciously deploys symbolic, metaphoric and allegorical modes. By the early 90s, these become distinctly eccentric and enigmatic.

Gathering strength for a gradual disclosure from the Gay Liberation movement as well as from the international art scenario of the early 80s, Khakhar’s ‘coming out’ was also triggered by his mother’s passing away, which freed him from familial restrictions. However, the sub-text had always been there — the portrayals of innocent gay desire (‘Seva’) and older males yearning for the loving companionship of the young (‘Ranchodbhai Relaxing in Bed’, 1975) — revealing gay desire, as if in hindsight. More ambitious and outspoken are the paintings ‘Two Men in Banaras’ (1982) and ‘Yayati’ (1987), which he painted with exuberant, subversive sexual strength and confidence after coming out.

The virile male in relation to the passive partner was a major theme with which Khakhar continuously engaged, where his identity comes through as the weaker, desiring and submissive lover. This portrayal is seen in ‘Two Men in Banaras’ where he represents himself with a certain delicacy (the hidden face) as the older lover, subordinated to the young, macho, aggressive partner. Soon enough, with Yayati, he celebrates this mode of subordination through a mythical allegory of the exchange of youth and age, through a series that foregrounds penile contact.

And, finally, it is fascinating how with a single work like ‘An Old Man From Vasad who had Five Penises Suffered from Runny Nose’ (1995), Bhupen is able to displace the penis as a ‘sex object’ — the sheer vulnerability of the comical clump of penises leading to a kind of undoing of gender. Curiously, Chandralekha achieved a similar objective in her last work ‘Sharira’ (2002). It is these artists who contributed to de-criminalising homosexuality long before the courts did.

NOTE: The idea for this column was born out of a conversation with Prof. Sohini Ghosh, A.J.K. Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.

The writer is a connoisseur of progressive court rulings.

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