In Kolkata’s Queer Movement: A Recollection of Media Outings – Mid-1984 to Mid-2013 Pawan Dhall remembers his personal queer-story over the years.
This four-part series of extracts is being published in the run up to the fourth birthday of Varta webzine on August 1, 2017. This is the third part (read the first and second parts here and here). The full article will be published this year in an e-book form by Queer Ink, Mumbai, and the extracts are published here with their permission.
The honeymoon with the media in Kolkata, and particularly Bengali audio-visual media kept growing in excitement. In 2004, as part of my work in Solidarity and Action Against The HIV Infection in India (SAATHII), an NGO I joined in 2002, I facilitated the production of a film Piku Bhalo Aachhey (Piku Is Fine), an experimental venture of Tirthankar Guha Thakurta, then studying to be a doctor and already growing into an erudite and articulate queer activist, filmmaker and trainer on gender and sexuality issues. Produced with a limited budget, the film did not tick all the right boxes in terms of production values. But its pull-at-the-heartstrings story won many people and the city media over. Dola Mitra’s Look, Ma, I’m out of the Closet in The Telegraph (July 6, 2004) spread the word, and apart from doing rounds of the film festival circuit, for years to come, the film became a default choice for many NGOs in West Bengal attempting to sensitize doctors, lawyers, teachers and students on queer issues.
For nearly two years since 2005, Bengali music television channel Sangeet Bangla beamed Pokkhiraaj (The Pegasus), a five-minute video produced collaboratively by Bengali rock band Cactus, filmmaker Nintu, SAATHII and queer support groups Amitie’ and Swikriti. A first of its kind in India, the song expressed solidarity with the queer movement through soulful music and engaging imagery – ‘blue apples’ to signify the love that now dared to fly high like the Pegasus! Cactus lead singer and friend Sidhu and colleague Anupam Hazra took the lead in the research, scripting and logistics to ensure that the video was ready for a launch during the opening of the ‘Siddhartha Gautam Film Festival’ in 2005. The song remains one of the chartbusters for Cactus till date. Sange Theko (Stay Together) by Bidisha Chattopadhyay in Sangbad Pratidin, July 8, 2005 was a poignant and memorable story on the event.
Come Christmas Eve of 2005, and queer voices were again on air through Out on TV, a series of 10 short interviews (mostly in Bengali) with queer people living in and around Kolkata, their supporters and public figures (including some of the best actors from Bengali and Hindi film industries). This was courtesy Kolkata Sukriti Foundation, SAATHII and Bangla Akhon television channel. At least one of the trans women who then spoke with a camouflage is today one of the most visible queer activists in eastern India – colleague and sister Amitava Sarkar [now Amrita Sarkar]. Another personal high point was achieved earlier in the year when SAATHII joined hands with West Bengal State AIDS Prevention & Control Society and Heroes Foundation to organize a special screening of filmmaker Onir’s much loved My Brother Nikhil in Kolkata. But I am still jealous that my colleagues in SAATHII managed the best photographs with Onir and actors Lilette Dubey, Sanjay Suri and Purab Kohli.
The Plot Widens
Over the years, queer media coverage in Kolkata not only moved beyond print to audio-visual and other forms, it also acquired depth and facilitated geographical spread. In 1996, while working in Thoughtshop Foundation, a social communication NGO focussed on young people, I got an opportunity to work on the AIDS Sex Knowledge (ASK) column. Another first of its kind for Kolkata, Thoughtshop Foundation had tied up with The Statesman newspaper to publish the column every third Thursday in its Voices supplement. Interactive in its approach, the column attracted a lot of queries and intimate sharing by the readers and an analysis would have revealed that not just India, but ‘young India’ too was sexually diverse and active. All credit to The Statesman and Thoughtshop Foundation for facilitating a frank exchange of information and experiences on issues that agony aunt columns in other publications even now fail to handle with accuracy and objectivity.
From February to April 1996, four editions of the column dealt with lesbian, gay, bisexual, Hijra and transsexual issues – with inputs from Counsel Club, and the March 7 edition carried the group’s contact information. The flash flood of letters that followed led to the creation of a teenagers group in Counsel Club. The group was not ready to include those below 18, and even for those in the 18-20 years bracket, it was felt necessary to organize separate orientation meetings before welcoming them to the larger group’s fortnightly meetings where they would meet a large number of people from diverse backgrounds and ages. The Ballygunge Phanri Dhaba rooftop proved to be the ideal venue for these meetings.
Soon after these happy developments, came along the experience of a life time. On August 8, 1996, I found myself with three other Counsel Club colleagues inside the hallowed and deafeningly silent All India Radio (AIR) Calcutta recording studio for Sandhikshan serial, which had nearly 20,000 registered adolescent listeners across West Bengal and dealt with youth health and development issues. For nearly two hours we discussed issues on homosexuality, lead by the very capable and learned media person Dr. Amit Chakraborty, which were later broadcast through two 20-minute episodes within a month. This fortunate media linkage happened through respected social activist and mental health professional Dr. Amit Ranjan Basu, who was also a Counsel Club supporter. Today many FM radio channels don’t think twice before announcing queer events like pride walks, but a media outing through the venerated AIR was no less than a major breakthrough.
If one lives in the supposed ‘cultural capital’ of India, then it is no surprise that some of the most exciting developments for the queer community in Kolkata were centred on dance and music. One such example comes to mind nearly 10 years before Pokkhiraaj happened. J. P. Yadav’s feature Coming Out of the Purdah in the Impressions, The Statesman on December 24, 1995 had focussed on Counsel Club and Pravartak at length. It also featured a poem written by a key Counsel Club member and published in Pravartak – The Alien Flower, originally To the Unnamed XCVII, but renamed by the newspaper editor (see text in photograph below).
As miracles happen, good friend and contemporary dance choreographer Sudarshan Chakravorty, who was carrying out his own struggle against the city’s artistic orthodoxy through Sapphire Creations Dance Workshop, happened to read the poem. Within a year, the poem had been transformed into India’s first ballet on same-sex love (also named The Alien Flower). Braving initial homophobic opposition to performances in the city, the ballet went on to acquire national and international exposure and remains a key milestone for both Sapphire and India’s queer movement.
This example also highlights the intertwined growth of both media and the queer movement in Kolkata and elsewhere in India. In a parallel to the quintessential chicken and egg story, sometimes it becomes difficult to decide between the cause and effect. Was it the growth of regional media (newspapers coming out with multi-city editions, the mushrooming of television channels) that promoted the geographical spread of the queer movement to the smaller towns and semi-rural areas (as it had in Kolkata and other bigger cities in the early years)? Or was the movement anyway spreading its wings (at one time Counsel Club had four branches across West Bengal) and the media quickly captured it? Sangbad Pratidin’s story Sahar Chhariye Jelateyo Samakamider Sakha (Homosexual Groups in Districts beyond Cities), December 23, 1999, captured the phenomenon quite a few years ago.
A memorable professional experience was the launch of the Orissa (now Odisha) MSM Initiative by SAATHII in collaboration with partner agency Fellowship, Bhadrak, through a daylong meeting with NGOs, human rights groups and government bodies in Bhubaneswar. The local edition of The Times of India carried a short report NGOs Step in to Check AIDS among Gays on August 4, 2004, possibly one of the earliest instances of relatively progressive queer media coverage in Odisha. Sadly, many earlier stories had mostly been sensationalized exposes of a same-sex romantic relationship between two Odia women Mamta and Monalisa that came to light in 1998 and ended on a tragic note with one partner committing suicide and the other accused of murdering her and then subjected to shock therapy. Since then sustained civil society advocacy in the state has lead to a sea change in media attitudes towards queer issues and people. Sample this headline: Orissa’s Gays Rally for Their Pride in the Indian Express, June 27, 2009. Not entirely accurate in calling the first rainbow pride walk of Bhubaneswar as only a gay affair (as against mentioning the entire queer spectrum), the story was at least supportive . . .
Another aspect where the Indian queer movement and its media coverage seemed to have matured together is in the use of the term ‘transgender’ (which implies that a person may be biologically of one sex, for example male, but identify as a woman). Today regarded as a broad umbrella term that relates to several other (trans)gender identity terms used by queer people like ‘transsexual’, ‘Kothi’, ‘Hijra’ and sometimes even ‘intersex’, it acquired wide usage only since the early 2000s. This was also the time when Indian transgender communities began acquiring an independent identity and articulation, rather than be subsumed within catch-all terms like ‘les-bi-gay’, ‘MSM’ and ‘sexual minority’ or equated necessarily with ‘transsexuals’ (all transsexuals – people desirous of or actually having undergone sexual reassignment or ‘sex change’ – are transgender but the reverse is not true). Otherwise the ‘transgender’ concept and the associated lingo of ‘Kothi’ and ‘Hijra’ were age-old parts of Indian history.
To be continued.
About the main photo: Snippets of Thoughtshop Foundation’s ASK column (from the four editions that dealt with queer issues) published in the Voices supplement of The Statesman. All photo credits: Pawan Dhall (photographs are not part of the original article and are courtesy Counsel Club Archives maintained by Varta Trust).