I found Varta Trust after conducting research on the historiography of gender and sexuality in India, and studying the history of LGBTIQA+ movements in the country.
While I was able to get a broad understanding of the struggle for LGBTIQA+ or queer rights and recognition, especially in the context of the reading down of Section 377, Indian Penal Code, I realized that there was a lack of diversity in the stories and voices from the queer movements that were easily available. I could find a lot more about cities like Mumbai and Delhi, but not as much about what was happening in other cities, towns and rural areas.
I also was interested in how these stories came to be told, and who was telling them, which is why I began looking for people and organizations creating archives for queer people and their movements. I was lucky to find Varta and become associated as a volunteer with their queer archival research and economic inclusion advocacy work.
Through my volunteer work beginning around October 2020, I was able to become familiar with Varta’s operations, impact, and its wonderful community of people. It meant a lot to me to connect to the queer communities and activisms in my own home city and context. This work gave me an even greater appreciation for the documents and materials that I was able to read this summer, as I began to help out with Varta’s queer archival work.
It is amazing to see how activism in Kolkata and the rest of the country has evolved over time since the 1980s and 1990s, and to see all the work and efforts that have culminated in the greater degree of freedoms we enjoy today. After having read and conducted research on queer histories and movements, it was incredible to be able to actually read letters and documents from these times, and hear directly from the people who shaped the movements and created the foundation for the queer communities and groups we have today.
Varta’s queer archival work mainly consists of efforts led by their Founding Trustee Pawan Dhall to better preserve, catalogue, digitize and increase the accessibility of the Counsel Club Archives. Kolkata-based Counsel Club was one of India’s earliest queer support groups and functioned from 1993-2002. Dhall, one of the founder members of Counsel Club, and his colleagues in the group had over the years filed and preserved many of the documents associated with the group’s activities.
This was an informal effort. In more recent years, since the formation of Varta in 2012, Dhall and his colleagues in Varta began more systematic organizing of the archival material – sorting, counting, categorizing and making an inventory of the archives, and digitizing parts of the archives. For example, the copies of Pravartak, Counsel Club’s house journal, have been digitized and uploaded onto the Varta website. When the Varta webzine was started in 2013, social researchers associated with Varta like Zaid Al Baset and Sayan Bhattacharya began researching the archives and writing articles for Varta and other publications.
Earlier this year, Varta took up cataloguing and digitizing the thousands of letters that Counsel Club received through the 1990s and early 2000s. There was now a need for better filing and storage of the letters, scanning them and creating a finding aid (catalogue) for the material. It was at this stage that I became involved with the archival work, and along with Varta associates Avina Majumdar and Somnath Barui, both transgender community members, began the process of cataloguing and scanning the letters. Together, we developed a method for coding, naming and listing each document that was digitized.
These archives are not only a means to learn about queer lives, but younger generations of queer people can work with the archives to enhance their knowledge of community histories, and also gain skills and empowerment. According to archivists Terry Cook and Eric Ketelaar, queer archives are important for people to understand their history and identity. Archives allow people to access a shared past, which is what gives ‘continuity, cohesion, and coherence’ to a community and gives people a sense of belonging.
Counsel Club provided space and a community for people at a time before the internet, when stigma and discrimination were greater, and only a limited number of avenues existed for queer people to find support and community. One of the key ways that Counsel Club reached out to queer people was by interacting with the media, and trying to get its post bag number published in newspaper and magazine articles. Whenever this happened, the group would receive hundreds of letters, where people asked questions on sex, gender and sexuality; shared their experiences of love, loneliness, relationships and homophobia; wrote about family issues; discussed their hopes and dreams; and sought out understanding, friendship, and community.
In the years that the group operated, it received an outpouring of letters, around 3,000 of which currently exist in the archives. These letters gave people a space to be vulnerable and talk about their personal lives and emotions in a way that they may not have even been able to with their close friends and family. For instance, there was TDA (name initials used to protect the identity of the letter writer) who was not even 19 when he wrote a series of letters to Counsel Club. He shared feelings of confusion and being lost, and requested members of Counsel Club to meet him so that he could talk to someone about what he was going through.
In some of the letters, the writers emphasized that they needed to keep their involvement with Counsel Club confidential as no one in their family could know that they were gay, lesbian or bisexual. Many people expressed the joy they felt knowing that a community and resources were now available to them. Having a record of these feelings and emotions going beyond the mere facts of events is so important, because it helps us value the people behind the movements and honour the struggles that they endured. The archives also gave me a greater appreciation for all the resources that are available today.
Counsel Club’s archival material also includes planning documents for various events, and emails and exchanges between different activists discussing movement strategies. Notable documents include planning papers for Fun Club, another Kolkata-based queer support initiative that preceded Counsel Club in 1990-91, and notes from ‘Emerging Gay Identities in South Asia – Implications for HIV/AIDS & Sexual Health’, India’s first conference for gay-identified men and men who have sex with men that took place in December 1994 in Mumbai.
I also viewed a group of files containing records of Counsel Club’s employment support initiatives, where they tried to help queer people find job opportunities. This initiative in particular reminded me of the efforts currently being undertaken by Varta Trust in setting up an economic inclusion mentoring forum.
To me it is important to construct historical narratives that do not present queer identities and experiences as monolithic. By including personal documents and narratives, archives allow us to tell not one history, but multiple histories. Stories contained in the archives can provide leverage and evidence for activists as they bear witness to the pain and discrimination faced by queer people. The Counsel Club Archives definitely changed and expanded the way that I understand queerness in the context of my own hometown, Kolkata.
I also think it is crucial for us as the younger generations to learn from those that came before us so that we do not make the mistakes of the past and only go forward. I am really excited to continue working with the Counsel Club Archives, and for the next stage of my research I will be conducting interviews with a few people to document the role that the archives have played in people’s lives, and the importance of sustaining and expanding this incredible project.
About the main graphic: The background illustration shows a New Year’s greeting card received by Counsel Club in January 1997. The collages in the quotes also consist of letters from the Counsel Club Archives. All graphic credits: Pawan Dhall