Queer cheer at rainbow carnival in Kolkata

This photograph captures a boisterously happy moment from the ‘Kolkata Rainbow Carnival 2018’. A woman exults in joy as she picks up another woman in her arms, quite clearly heavier than herself. The second woman is also all laughter and pumps her fist in the air at the success of her friend. A crowd of people around the two women also laughs and cheers, as a number of photographers mill around to capture the moment. The woman doing the lifting is dressed in a ‘kurta’, has short cropped hair and tops in her ears. The woman being lifted is dressed in a colourful saree and ‘bindi’. The carnival was organized by the West Bengal Forum for Gender and Sexual Minority Rights on February 18, 2018 at Triangular Park in South Kolkata. Photo credit: Nazia Khan

Insight, Clickhappy! Mar '18
Nazia Khan was busy shooting moods and moments at the recent ‘Kolkata Rainbow Carnival 2018’. The fair was organized by the West Bengal Forum for Gender and Sexual Minority Rights on February 18, 2018 at Triangular Park in South Kolkata

We met while others raised a hollow toast,
to lonesomeness and petty nothings.
We left unheard, silently in giggles.
You and me know what it is like to be anonymous.
Invisible in white clouds and dark mazes,
unlovable and unsung.
While others raised a hollow toast, we met.

She read it to her love and asked,
will you be my lover?
For the rest of my life, the other one whispered.
And they hugged each other for some more time.

This might sound like a fairy tale. But hey, what’s life without one or two mushy love stories!

This photograph captures a happy and ‘genderqueer’ moment from the ‘Kolkata Rainbow Carnival 2018’. Three individuals, all smiles, are posing for a photograph. From the looks of it these individuals include one female and two males, but we don’t know how they self identify in terms of gender. Besides, all are dressed in a manner that could be considered gender non-normative – in terms of the dress items, colours and cuts of the clothes, and accessories. One of the three individuals, who has a distinctly androgynous appearance, is wearing the tag of a carnival volunteer on their neck. A couple of men look on at the three individuals, standing a little distance behind them. In the background are many people standing around, chatting and visiting the stalls displaying clothes and craftwork. The carnival was organized by the West Bengal Forum for Gender and Sexual Minority Rights on February 18, 2018 at Triangular Park in South Kolkata. Photo credit: Nazia Khan

Last month, Kolkata, the ‘City of Joy’, witnessed some of the love stories at a rainbow carnival, the fourth since the very first one organized by queer support group Sappho for Equality in 2012.

From internationally recognised book fairs to pithe-puli utsavs (trade fairs dedicated to sweets and pancakes in winters), this city has an appetite for all sorts of carnivals. Even Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's government encourages all individuals and communities to take part in small business and trade fairs.

This mela, organised by queer collective West Bengal Forum for Gender and Sexual Minority Rights, aimed to provide an ‘open space’ for everyone. It was in the nature of a small trade fair to encourage and support people with non-conforming genders and sexualities. But it was also a politically charged space.

This photograph from the ‘Kolkata Rainbow Carnival 2018’ shows a young hirsute man in fitting clothes getting his face painted by a make-up artist. The young man, with a carnival volunteer tag on his neck and a pair of spectacles in his left hand, is seated on a chair, while the artist stands next to him and peers over him to paint a rainbow flag on his right cheek. The artist is also tastefully dressed in a ‘kurta’, jeans, spectacles, turban and a clunky wristwatch. An aged man can be seen in the background, seated on a bench under a tree, looking at the two men. The face painting stall is near the entrance of the park where the carnival was held. In the background one can see decorations hanging above the entrance, traffic outside on the road, a portion of the park railing, and the back of a billboard put up against the railing, blocking the view of the pavement on the other side. The carnival was organized by the West Bengal Forum for Gender and Sexual Minority Rights on February 18, 2018 at Triangular Park in South Kolkata. Photo credit: Nazia Khan

It was quite a crowd, but chilled out and laid-back, happy spending a Sunday afternoon in a queer carnival. People played games and presented dance, drama and poetry performances, even as the stalls selling craft items, food and drinks did brisk business.

The idea of blurring gender in a country where patriarchy and misogyny still hold sway is a courageous one. Of course, when an event like this carnival takes place, there will always be some onlookers with a voyeuristic eye. And yet, an event like a queer pride march, a film fest or a carnival allows more and more queer people to be visible to the society that we live in. This definitely plays an important role in generating social acceptance.

This photograph shows a classical dance performance in progress on a stage at the ‘Kolkata Rainbow Carnival 2018’. Two female dancers are caught on camera executing an intricate move and ‘mudra’. Just next to them, to their left is a placard placed on a chair – the placard says “Sec 377”, with the symbols of two same-sex couples (a male and female couple each) crossed out. This implies that the existence of a law like Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code stigmatizes and criminalizes same-sex sexual and / or romantic relationships. Behind the dancers, to their right, pasted on the back wall of the stage is a colourful poster with butterfly cut-outs pinned on it – the poster says “Kolkata Rainbow Carnival 2018”. Large rainbow themed decorations cover the rest of the back wall. The carnival was organized by the West Bengal Forum for Gender and Sexual Minority Rights on February 18, 2018 at Triangular Park in South Kolkata. Photo credit: Nazia Khan

But what kind of visibility are we looking for and what kind of visibility can we get? With the absolute rise of DSLRs, high end mobile photography, and a selfie-obsessed generation, we are being watched all the time. So is the idea of being visible comforting? Does the presence of a camera pointing at someone because that person is ‘different’ make the person happy? A friend came up with these questions as I tried to capture diverse images. But can we really be anonymous and visible at the same time? Are we not here today to be visible in the first place! The conversation went on.

“You see, it’s the concept of an open space where all can fit in with their own differences, where religion, gender, economic class or social status doesn’t matter – this is what we are looking for. The visibility of this idea called ‘queer’, not the faces or name calling,” concluded a friend while munching on a delicious fried chicken momo.

In this long shot photograph one can see the mood on the sidelines of the ‘Kolkata Rainbow Carnival 2018’. Two men, one middle aged and the other younger, are seated on a stone bench on a raised platform under a blue and white shelter. Both the men seem to be gazing at the happenings of the carnival, and are smiling at what they see. The older man is dressed in t-shirt and trousers, while the younger man is in a light pullover and jeans. The older man has a shoulder bag kept next to him on the bench. From the looks of it, both men seem to be labourers. A bicycle is parked next to the shelter and behind it is a lamp post. The shelter is at one of the boundaries of the park. Behind the shelter one can see the boundary railing, and behind it a house and several shrubs and flowering plants (including a bougainvillea tree). In the foreground one can see a string of rainbow flags cutting across the entire width of the photograph. The carnival was organized by the West Bengal Forum for Gender and Sexual Minority Rights on February 18, 2018 at Triangular Park in South Kolkata. Photo credit: Nazia Khan

While we were having this discussion in one corner, a charming young bearded boy, with dreamy kohl in his eyes, started singing John Lennon’s “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” Sometimes life syncs so well. I wanted to get closer to this dreamer and listen to him more peacefully, but got distracted by my friend fighting for extra mustard sauce to go with the fish chop. I had to reset my priorities, and switched to securing the food and a steaming cup of coffee.

This photograph shows a long shot of a game of musical chairs in progress under the bright sunlight at the ‘Kolkata Rainbow Carnival 2018’. Apart from 9-10 players doing the rounds around eight chairs, three umpires can be seen engaged in the game. The game is being played at the centre of the park, which is the venue of the carnival. The playground has light grass and is marked with white chalk lines meant for races and other carnival games. In the background are a number of stalls with displays of decoration, craftwork and clothes. The stalls have a few visitors. The camera also takes in tall trees behind the stalls ringing the park. A building adjacent to the park is visible through the trees. The carnival was organized by the West Bengal Forum for Gender and Sexual Minority Rights on February 18, 2018 at Triangular Park in South Kolkata. Photo credit: Nazia Khan

This last photograph is yet another cheerful moment from the ‘Kolkata Rainbow Carnival 2018’ – it is a close-up shot of two children, a boy and a girl, with bright smiles facing the camera. The girl is holding up a long-stemmed red rose in one hand and a few small rainbow flag stickers in the other. Both the children are dressed in t-shirts. The blurred background of the photograph shows a number of people hanging around, chatting and enjoying the carnival, which was organized by the West Bengal Forum for Gender and Sexual Minority Rights on February 18, 2018 at Triangular Park in South Kolkata. Photo credit: Nazia Khan

Author Photo

Nazia Khan

Nazia Khan is a photographer, traveller, storyteller and filmmaker from Kolkata, currently based in Mumbai. Documenting time through the camera is her zeal.

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