Why are Indian classical arts hesitant to depict queerness?

The concept of Ardhanarisvara shows that queer experiences have been a part of ancient Indian arts and literature.

Updated - June 26, 2024 12:51 pm IST

Published - June 24, 2024 05:09 pm IST

     A Raja Ravi Varma oleograph depicting Ardhanarisvara

A Raja Ravi Varma oleograph depicting Ardhanarisvara | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

There it stands, behind a glass case on the rotating platform in the centre of the Egmore Museum Bronze Gallery. Perfectly proportioned, rhythmic curves on one side, and graceful, well-defined lines on the other. Is the Ardhanarisvara supposed to represent contrast between man and woman? Or is it supposed to be a representation of equality? 

The answer lies a little deeper, in the queer communities that worship Ardhanarisvara as an icon of liminal sexuality. The god is neither man nor woman, and falls on a spectrum in Hinduism that only a few mainstream characters can lay claim to. While dancers have interpreted and reinterpreted the idol (most popularly through compositions by Dikshitar and Sankaracharya) can classical dance claim understanding or exploration of the queer experience?

Bharatanatyam exponent Praveen Kumar with disciple Divya Hoskere depicting Ardhanarisvara

Bharatanatyam exponent Praveen Kumar with disciple Divya Hoskere depicting Ardhanarisvara | Photo Credit: Courtesy: Simha’s Photography

Recently, dance has expanded its perspectives on mythological content by spotlighting queer characters, and tapping into the several stories from our rich literary tradition that demonstrate a pre-colonial Indian perspective on the matter. Productions such as Harikrishnan’s ‘When Siva Kissed Vishnu’ and Himanshu Srivastava’s depiction of Shikhandi, use traditional choreography skills with a modern sensibility to treat the subject of the queer experience. Yet, it still feels like much of LGBTQ+ material is considered taboo amongst classical musicians and dancers. It is almost as if some self-appointed guardians of the art form see queerness as foreign to India, and specifically to dance and music. 

Does India have inherently queer performance traditions?

In India there are indigenous trans communities with specific performance traditions, such as the jogappas of Karnataka.

In India there are indigenous trans communities with specific performance traditions, such as the jogappas of Karnataka. | Photo Credit: BHAGYA PRAKASH

A vast majority of geographical regions in India have indigenous trans communities with specific performance traditions, such as the jogappas of Karnataka. Some of these traditions are ancient and well incorporated into the cultural fabric of the region they represent, begging the question of whether the stigma around queerness is unique to the classical realm.

To find an answer, we must journey back in time. In addition to numerous mythological stories, sociological texts such as the Kamasutra refer freely to homoerotic encounters. Similarly, we have evidence of trans performers in the royal courts of south India, often serving as interlocutors for professional dancing women. These figures were extremely important as they traversed around the palaces easily, moving from spaces restricted to women, into the private chambers of the king carrying with them exceptional musical and mimetic ability as well as sensitive information. 

An Ardhanarishvara idol at Jhalawar in Rajasthan

An Ardhanarishvara idol at Jhalawar in Rajasthan | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

To find visual representation of the LGBTQ+ community in sacred architecture is effortless. From Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh to Odisha, all manner of queer social and sexual activities are depicted on our temple walls, with some sculptures boasting a history of 1000 years or more. The Madurai Meenakshi temple contains a beautiful sculpture of a figure with breasts, a beard and a moustache, considered by scholars to be a depiction of Brihanalla. The diversity in depicting queerness visually spans across geographical regions, cultures and media — including painting, sculpture, music and dance.

Furthermore, literature seems to reflect the same type of diversity in perspectives. There has been much debate about whether Kshetrayya’s open love for his lord Muvvagopala has erotic undertones. Similarly, a close reading of the Tiruvaasagam reveals extremely detailed, romantic descriptions of Shiva, lending a queerness to the voice of Manickavasagar. While more conservative scholars dismiss these details as the author “impersonating” a woman as a literary device, the descriptions are so detailed that one is compelled to explore all the explanations for this style of writing.

Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra depicting a graceful Radha. There is space within the tradition to take on multiple identities.

Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra depicting a graceful Radha. There is space within the tradition to take on multiple identities. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

When it comes to dance mimetics, we did not bat an eyelid when Pt. Birju Maharaj or Pt. Kelucharan Mohapatra depicted a graceful, ultra-feminine Radha or when Yamini Krishnamurthy portrayed the handsome form of Rama. There is space within the tradition to take on multiple identities and become a vessel for gender — a reality that is also reflected by the cross dressing Lila-Hava depictions of Krishna and Radha in North Indian painting.

With forms that are so expressive and malleable, it is hardly a surprise that many queer dancers and musicians have used their classical practice to establish deeper connections with their identities, and find their voices. Some of the earliest pieces that began the conversation around queerness and the classical space came through Internet platforms — specifically the work of Indian Raga (“Revelations”) and Patruni Chidananda Sastry. It is no surprise that proscenium stages in Chennai are still hesitant to showcase this subject matter. When queer dancers themselves struggle for acceptance, how can we expect the subject of queerness in art to be unequivocally accepted? 

Perhaps, the answer lies in looking to the past, before our sensibilities were encumbered by Victorian ideals, to a society that produced the image of Ardhanarisvara — neither man, nor woman, but both simultaneously. 

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