One of the most striking aspects of the images on display at the Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi is the way photographer Sunil Gupta brings the invisibilised gay community to the forefront in public spaces. Scenes of intimacy and community are framed against prominent landmarks such as India Gate and Qutb Minar in Delhi and Christopher Street in New York.
Sexuality, queerness and otherness in public spaces, from the 1980s to now, is in fact the focus of his latest exhibition, Cruising. On view are some of his most powerful bodies of work, such as Cruising 1960s Delhi, Christopher Street, Delhi: Tales Of A City, Towards An Indian Gay Image, Exiles and a new series, Arrival, on the refugee crisis within the LGBTQ+ community. The latter has been created in collaboration with photographer Charan Singh.
“At the heart of Gupta’s practice is narrative assemblage; he explores the nature of conflict as expression and modality, placing it on historical, geographical and sociopolitical precipices that beset a discursively powerful, personally resonant and at times playful call to action,” states the gallery note.
This has been a significant year for Gupta, who remains one of the most consistent champions of LGBTQ+ movements. The Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto, Canada, held a major retrospective exhibition of his work just last month. Titled From Here To Eternity, it traced Gupta’s four-decade-long investigation of what it means to be an Indian gay man, through his personal archive of postcards, letters, photographs and news clippings.
Be it images from the Toronto show or the ongoing one at the Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi, each focuses on the autobiographical nature of the activist-artist’s work—with his projects focusing on issues such as family, migration, body politics, HIV/AIDS and taboos on sexuality. Gupta, who was born in Delhi and whose father is from Mundia Parmar in Uttar Pradesh, moved to Montreal, Canada, in the late 1960s for his bachelor’s degree. He later moved to New York and then England. He participated in New York’s Gay Liberation Movement in the 1970s and campaigned for the reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. In 1989, he co-founded Autograph in London as an association of black photographers and went on to help set up the Organisation for Visual Arts, also in London, to create an understanding of culturally diverse practices.
In past interviews, the London-based artist has often said art is not an answer to questions, it’s about putting those questions in a different context each time. As we chat over a video call, I ask him how the works on view at the Vadehra Art Gallery achieve this. “This show is very ambitious as it captures a wide range of time frames. Some of the series, such as Exiles, have been asking questions about what it means to be a gay man in India since the 1980s. The title of the series itself evokes a sense of being invisibilised and not recognised. Some people like me, who felt they couldn’t live like that, chose to live elsewhere,” he says.
One room at the gallery has images from Arrival, which features people from Africa, South Asia and eastern Europe escaping aggressive homophobia. If Exiles is focused on leaving one such society, Arrival is about finding relief and succour in a safer space.
Then there is Cruising 1960s Delhi, a crucial series of black and white photographs shot in the 1980s, in which Gupta composes a memory of a memory by contemplating moments of significance as a teenager. “I shot the images in 1982 but the time I was thinking of was 1962, when I was growing up in Nizamuddin East,” says Gupta. “We would hang about Humayun’s Tomb. It was not just a site for play but also for sexual experimentation. That is when I realised that there was this other activity that took place in a public space that no one spoke about.” When he left for Canada, no one there had heard of Humayun’s Tomb or Nizamuddin. And he could never really explain what it was like growing up next to a medieval tomb and having complete access to it.
Cruising 1960s Delhi also looks at the process of gay men stepping out to seek allies outside. “In the 1980s, my outlet was to go to a park. Since I visited every weekend, I would begin to see the same people, get to know them a bit more. It was about isolated people seeking communities,” he adds. He continued his investigation of queerness and public spaces with Delhi: Tales Of A City.
Between 2003-22, he photographed and researched historical sites in Delhi, focusing on the 1638-1739 period, when Shahjahanabad came up. “Centuries later, Gupta finds these sites, such as the Red Fort and Humayun’s Tomb, as well as the lanes of Old Delhi, visited by a diverse cast of people across age, religion, caste and sexual orientation, who in their living and playing overthrow a repressive heritage and claim the sites as a decorative backdrop against which to compose their individuality,” states the gallery note.
The other significant series on display is Christopher Street, which he conceptualised in New York in 1976. This was a few years after the Stonewall Riots of 1969, a series of spontaneous demonstrations by members of the LGBTQ+ community against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. It marked a turning point in the gay liberation movement, leading to a new display of openness within and towards the gay community.
The Christopher Street series marks not just this occasion but also celebrates people who had carved a public space for themselves. “That was a time when young people were flocking to metropolitan cities to join this new burgeoning out of gay life. People were promenading on Christopher Street to be seen. The community was a lot more self-confident,” he says.
There are interesting linkages between the Christopher Street series and Arrival. For the latter shows members of the community reclaiming space in a new country, relieved to be able to walk the streets freely. The style, though, is very different. Using the accoutrements of the 19th century studio portrait, which illustrated Victorian notions and ideals of behavioural identities, both Gupta and Singh invoke an anti-colonial legacy through empathetic, poetic gestures to express a range of emotions, in constant anticipation of completing the process of arrival.
When we spoke last in 2019, a year after the Supreme Court read down Section 377, Gupta had described the Indian art ecosystem as fairly conservative. In fact, he had shown his work here for only the second time in 2005, at the Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, Delhi. But there are signs of change. In 2018, the Kochi Muziris Biennale celebrated the community with a series of curated exhibitions such as Dissent And Desire. For it, Gupta and Singh brought together 20 hidden histories of people from different walks of life who usually do not get a platform to narrate their experiences.
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Gupta says there is a certain Indian shyness around the body in photography, more so than in painting and sculpture. Though there is a lot of body in commercial photography, ads and films, he says people get moralistic when it comes to art photography. “My father’s family is from Uttar Pradesh. They have promised to help me with a photographic tour from one end of UP to another. And they are quite clear, ‘HIV ko dikha sakte hain, gay nahi (you can depict HIV, not gayness).’ In such a scenario, art exhibitions, although seemingly elitist and seen by a handful of people, at least create a discussion, leading to ideas travelling outwards,” he says.
Cruising is on view at the Vadehra Art Gallery, D-53, Defence Colony, Delhi, till 16 September, 10am-6pm (Monday-Saturday).