Photographer Anusha Yadav has her hands full these days. She has been busy with shoots and preparing for her new show, which opens today on Gallery Chemould’s online viewing room. The sudden spate of activity offers much longed for relief from the lull of the past few months. “I am so glad things are happening now,” she laughs. Her exhibition, ‘Transfixed’ is a collaborative portrait series with members of the queer community, and is an ode to the uniqueness in ideas of beauty and expression.
“I, a cis-woman, an ally and a portraiturist, play witness and confirmer of the visibly shared concepts of femininity and vanity… . With courage-in-splendour, some dress to explore an identity, some to share an identity, and some to shed one off,” writes Yadav in her artist statement. The series was photographed between the end of 2016 and 2018, just before the Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was read down by the Supreme Court. The post-work on the series finished only in 2020. 16 of these are now being shown at the gallery.
It all started with Yadav wanting to try portraiture differently, going back to the way people would sit for portraits in photo studios many decades ago. “I knew what I wanted to do. So, I spoke to my friends, Vikram Phukan, Parmesh Shahani and Mario D’Souza about the idea of celebrating a different kind of beauty and they were all for it,” says Yadav. Through word-of-mouth, she got in touch with more people from the community. “For instance, I got to know Sumit and Sanket through Parmesh, and then more leads came in,” she adds.
Those who volunteered for the portraits would come home, where the studio had been set up. She would not tell them what to do, just show them the frame, the kind of silhouette needed and the background that she would put in later. The process involved a lot of conversation, with a thousand questions being asked and answered. “I would be asked why a person, who didn’t belong to the community, was doing this. It wasn’t accusatory but a question born out of curiosity. And I always said that because I enjoyed their feminine expressions and wanted to celebrate this unique beauty I see around,” says Yadav.
These discussions and conversations in turn helped her understand the choices of identity that members of the queer community had made, and the way they negotiated their lives. Photographing the portraits also led Yadav to learn more about the fluid and ever changing language within the queer community, the usage of pronouns, the changing definitions of identity. “I have realised that we often tend to confuse the western with Indian sub contexts,” she says. Nonetheless, the overarching idea had to navigate the space respectfully and with dignity. For some sitters, like Kumar Iyer, the shoot was the first in a public domain. It gave him the confidence to express himself in the open domain more often. “And he has now appeared in a Titan Raga ad, which is great,” says Yadav.
The conversations during the shoot helped establish a sense of trust with Yadav and led to an easy camaraderie. She ended up learning makeup techniques from some of the volunteers, who were makeup artists. They bonded over cats, parent problems, life struggles, and food.
Meanwhile, Yadav’s celebrated project, the Indian Memory Project, an online visual and narrative archive that traces personal histories of the Indian subcontinent, has evolved as well. She has now begun creating merchandise around the idea of Indian culture. “For instance, I have redesigned the Hindu and other community calendars into a contemporary and secular aesthetic. One need not be stuck in nostalgia but make the past relevant. I am working on an idea for a podcast as well,” she says. The ‘Transfixed’ portraits also draw from this desire to usher elements of the past into a contemporary realm. Yadav has always been intrigued by people who would sit for portraits and commemorate that as a special event. “I wanted to bring that into my portraiture and make sitting for a photo a celebratory occasion,” she says.
Transfixed can be viewed on www.gallerychemould.com/viewing-room till 31 December, 2020