Indian cities oscillate between general dysfunction and complete mayhem: the roads are packed with traffic; buses are always overflowing; parks are run down; and zebra crossings are hardly crossable. Amid all this, the notion of what constitutes ‘public space’ is understandably hazy. Is the pavement that narrows out, altogether disappearing in certain places, a public space? Are parks sporting ‘Do not loiter’ signs, public space? Are buses, trains and metros public space?
Moreover, not everyone enjoys equal access to these spaces. On any day, venturing out into India cities involves a series of negotiations, calculations and risks, which vary depending on who you are. Cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied men have it the easiest — particularly if they are upper-caste Hindu. Cities are littered with such men occupying public spaces, not just for functional purposes but often in more informal and leisurely ways, such as smoking cigarettes on pavements or drinking chai at roadside thelas. This is not a bad thing, but what it elides is all those people who can’t ‘belong’ in cities the same way.
In their book Why Loiter, co-authors Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade highlight a series of “unbelongers” who are denied equal access to a city. Apart from the usual suspects — the poor, migrants, Dalits, and Muslims — this includes “the couples we don’t want sullying our park benches, the non-vegetarians we don’t want residing in our building complexes, the bhaiyas we don’t want driving our cabs, the women we don’t want loitering in public, and the gays and lesbians we don’t want corrupting our young”. For LGBTQIA+ communities in particular, the city and its public spaces have always been fraught: with uncomfortable encounters, discrimination and harassment, and over time, a lot of them have accepted, and learnt to cope with, this in their own ways.
What can cities do to make public spaces more gender inclusive and queer-friendly?
“You have so many signs in parks across India. Some say, ‘Do not loiter’ or ‘Do not spit.’ Some parks in Uttar Pradesh say, ‘No holding hands allowed.’ They try to determine and police behaviour. How about we subvert that to put up more creative signage? Why can’t we put up some around disability; or that say ‘Free love’, ‘No discrimination’ or even quotes from musicians, poets, and authors advocating love, not war.”Sharif RangnekarFounder, Rainbow Lit Fest
Creative new experiments
According to Gautam Bhatia, an architect who writes a regular column on cities and design, we live in such overcrowded cities that public space is a luxury. “If there’s any open area, the first question is, can I build on it? Can I build 10 storeys? Can I build 20 storeys?” he says. Bhatia cites the example of a colonial city like Delhi, which on the face of it, has more open spaces than most Indian cities: with its huge gardens in Lutyens’ Delhi, and the squares and boulevards of Connaught Place. But none of these were designed as people-centric public spaces. Most of the gardens are purely functional ‘green spaces’ that act as the city’s lungs. Others serve as protected grounds for Mughal monuments, which are heavily policed and often closed after sundown. Anything left over is turned into a commercial space.
Compared to Delhi, Mumbai is often conceived of as a more democratic city because it escaped the trappings of modernist planning, and emerged as a spontaneous, if haphazard, place. Its areas are more mixed-usage, with both offices and residences, and are busy late into the night, creating a buzz of activity and public life. “A real public space is somewhere people can gather, loiter and interact with each other,” says Bhatia. For instance, Central Park in New York City, which has bandstands, cycling tracks and amphitheatres housing regular cultural performances. “Engagement is very important for public space. We’ve not developed a conscious vocabulary of squares and courtyards that make people stop and interact with public spaces.”
Though this is overarchingly true for most Indian cities, the last few years have witnessed interesting new experiments: such as a slew of gazebos across Mumbai that offer seating and electricity, and increasingly serve as study spots for youngsters living in cramped houses; or the conversion of spaces below flyovers — such as the Matunga flyover and parts of what is known as One Green Mile near India Bulls — into public spaces.
In the national capital, there is the Chandni Chowk redevelopment project, which pedestrianised large sections of the old Delhi neighbourhood, making it a lively, if crowded, public space. Or the Lodhi Art District, which sports beautiful murals on street corners and buildings that make people stop and marvel.
“A lot of films nowadays represent trans characters in a scary way. Recently, there was Laxmi, in which Akshay Kumar’s character gets possessed by a trans woman, and goes on a killing spree. These are very problematic films because when young, impressionable people watch them, they start thinking of trans people in a certain way. What we need are more positive representations of LGBTQIA+ people in popular culture — whether in Punjabi rap music or in advertising campaigns.”OnirFilmmaker
The art district comprises more than 20 murals by artists from across the world, and was conceived by St+art India, a non profit that contributes to urban regeneration through contemporary art projects in public spaces (others have since been initiated in Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Goa and Coimbatore). Its co-founder, Giulia Ambrogi, explains that public art projects like these make you encounter things that are different. “It exposes you to diversity and heterogeneity, which is crucial because if you don’t look at what’s different from you, you’ll continue to live in your own limited bubbles.”
For instance, the wall opposite N.P. Co-Ed Senior Secondary School in Lodhi colony has a huge mural of transgender men and women sporting various expressions, from happy to sad to contemplative. It was painted by trans women in collaboration with the Aravani Art Project, a trans and cis-women led art collective based in Bengaluru that aims to reclaim public spaces for transgender and LGBTQIA+ people through art projects. This, says Ambrogi, normalises trans faces in public places, reducing the stigma associated with them, and increasing their visibility in society.
Karnika Pradeep, a trans woman from Jaipur, has been working with Aravani since 2017. “In cities, you see men and women everywhere, but you’ll see trans women only in specific spaces, like at traffic signals, or when they come to your doorstep to offer blessings, or as sex workers in red light districts. These are the only images of us people have,” she says. But when the trans women of Aravani go out and paint huge murals, this image changes. “People walking by see us, they come and interact with us, ask us questions about what we’re painting, why we’re painting. By the end of it, they come away with a very different image of trans women. They see that even we work, even we’re regular people.”
“For any queer person, the space most important for them — where they should be accepted and acknowledged — is the home. When that is not happening, nothing happens. We’re left vulnerable, to be shamed, discriminated against, and exploited in public spaces. This is especially true for trans people, who are more visibly different. We need to see more reservations for trans and non-binary people in schools, colleges and workplaces, to cement their place in public.”Kalki SubramaniamArtist and transgender rights activist, Tamil Nadu
Do away with the top-down approach
Art is just one way of queering public spaces. A city offers endless opportunities for creative expression and appropriation. In one of his recent columns, Bhatia offers a few suggestions: “Could we paint the Taj Mahal red for a few days, or wrap India Gate in khadi cloth the way Christo wrapped the Bundestag, the German parliament? Could the public be encouraged to write or paint their grievances on Kartavya Path in washable paint? Could we install anything other than expensive statues of political leaders? What if an Indian Banksy emerged mysteriously at night to scribble a drawing on the Supreme Court wall?”
But there is a reason why creative new forms of urban planning and expression don’t materialise in India. It has to do with the top-down approach to planning ingrained in the Indian governance systems. “In India, urban planning is divorced from local politics,” says Mathew Idiculla, an urban law and policy consultant at Centre for Law and Policy Research, Bengaluru. Theoretically, city planning is supposed to be the responsibility of local city municipalities, through bodies such as the Municipal Planning Commission. But in reality, cities are planned by state-controlled development authorities, which are primarily bureaucratic bodies with little knowledge of local context and needs. This leads to a very top down, technocratic approach to planning, with little involvement of civil society and grassroots groups in the planning process.
“It means that there is no way for say, the poor, the slum dwellers, the migrant labourers, or the LGBTQIA+ groups to represent their interests. There is a small window of 60 days, where people are invited to give comments, but the government is under no obligation to incorporate these,” says Idiculla. According to him, instead of a cishet man trying to plan queer-friendly cities, there should be more active involvement of LGBTQIA+ stakeholders in the planning process.
“The LGBTQIA+ community use public spaces, including streets, maidans, and pavements for their marches and meetings, but I don’t know if there has been a deliberate ‘queering’ of any public space [in Indian cities]. Policy makers and governments must embrace the idea of putting public spaces at the heart of a city, instead of making its land value the core of its urbanisation. One way for this is for people in an area to collectively ask for better and more accessible public spaces in their neighbourhoods.”Smruti KoppikarFounding editor, Question of Cities
There have been some encouraging steps in this direction. The first major leap came in 2008, when Tamil Nadu, under the DMK government, set up the first Transgender Welfare Board, to ensure social protection and acceptance of trans people into mainstream society. Recently, the State became the first to appoint a trans woman, Narthaki Nataraj, to the Tamil Nadu State Development Policy Committee, which sets short, medium and long term development goals.
“There’s interesting data-based research which proves that cities, states and countries that encourage diversity, that design for people with disabilities, LGBTQIA+ people and others, and provide environments for these groups to thrive, do much better economically, innovation wise, real estate value wise.” says Parmesh Shahani, author of the book Queeristan and an LGBTQIA+ inclusion consultant. For instance, the economist Richard Florida has cited global centres such as London, New York and San Francisco as beacons of diverse and inclusive cities, that are also prolifically productive places. “They become desirable places to stay and the best minds in the country gravitate towards them.”
More representation for queer identities
According to Sonal Shah, founder of The Urban Catalysts — an organisation that conducts action-oriented research on sustainable, gender-equitable cities, public spaces and transport — anyone who doesn’t fit into the heteronormative mould faces abuse and harassment in public spaces. Shah saw this first-hand while creating gender and social inclusion action plans for the Bengaluru and Chennai metro rail systems.
“Sexual harassment is a very big barrier for LGBTQIA+ communities using public transport. Our research with trans communities has revealed that they’re charged high prices for auto rickshaws or face higher risk of refusal, frisking at metro stations is tenuous, there’s a lot of giggling, staring in buses and trains, and they may be restricted in using public bathrooms that only cater to men and women. And finally, if you look at people as infrastructure, passengers and service providers alike perpetrate violence against trans people,” says Shah. Consequently, one of her recommendations was to hire gender minorities in metro stations; and the Chennai Metro hired 13 trans people in 2021. That’s a sure-shot way of queering a space.
Another way, of course, is culture. “We need to realise that culture and space exist in a dynamic relationship. Our culture shapes our surroundings, and the way we shape our surroundings shapes our culture,” says writer and filmmaker Paromita Vohra. So, while making public spaces more queer-friendly can be about physical design interventions, it must also include more representation of queer people in film, television, literature and music, which helps normalise queer identities and initiates their acceptance into the mainstream.
“There aren’t any places that are inaccessible to the queer community in Mumbai. The idea behind designing any city or town is to make it inclusive; it is the people that are not inclusive. We need to sensitise them and have an inclusive approach.”Rajiv MishraPrincipal, Sir J.J. College of Architecture
Vohra also points out that queer people have been forging spaces for themselves for centuries, all we have to do is unstraighten our gaze and look. In Mumbai, for instance, there is the August Kranti Maidan, where the annual pride parade starts and ends; ‘The Wall’, a popular cruising spot for gay men near India Gate; Liberty Cinema, where the city’s LGBTQIA+ film festival, Kashish, is held; Kitty Su, the bar known for its drag shows and queer parties. In fact, she was involved in creating a ‘queer map’ of Mumbai, which spotlights places in the city where queer people have found ‘history, community and pleasure’.
“If you look at the map, you’ll see that queerness is diverse, and the occupation of space is also diverse. Somebody wants to occupy it for health, someone for a protest, someone else for eroticism. So what we need are more alternative histories and geographies of the city. We need to actually queer the discussion on how and why people occupy public space,” concludes Vohra.
With inputs from Sonam Saigal