A comic writer traces the rise of queer graphic work in India
ow that the fifth edition of the indie annual zine by Gaysi Family, a website and forum for LGBTQ-desis (or “gaysis"), is out, it’s time to acknowledge that the graphic story form in queer literature has come into its own in India. As a writer who has worked on queer graphic art—I am part of Kadak Collective, a group of women visual storytellers, which has contributed to this zine—it’s a changed milieu that is as new and exciting as it is inspiring.
The theme of The Gaysi Zine, which contains both graphics and writings, was the realm of queer desires. From the Kadak Collective, Akhila Krishnan’s Alone But Not Lonely: Most Of The Time explored the narrator’s sense of comfort with a lack of desire; Aindri Chakraborthy’s How Does Make-up Transform You? inquired into make-up as a tool of transformation and examined the relation between beauty and desirability; Mira Malhotra’s Cosmos presented two different manifestations and experiences of desire, created by the presence and absence of the object of desire; Kaveri Gopalakrishnan and I jointly created Desire & Dessert, in which we made food into a metaphor for desire. The other visual work in the zine included Karishma Dorai’s Multiple Orgasms, a sensitively written, illustrated piece. Dorai has been the art director of the zine since its inception (all except Issue No.4). Two years ago, one of the editions of The Gaysi Zine was an all-graphic anthology, the first of its kind in India.
So what is queer graphic art?
While there is no singular definition, I have grown to understand it as the sort of graphic art that offers an alternative point of view to the straight heteronormative world that we live in. What’s more, there has also been a significant increase in the incidences of representation of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) community in films, television, advertisements and illustration/comics. As the queer person becomes more ubiquitous, and the Web makes dissemination of images easier and faster, queer graphic art has found a new audience as well as newer subject matter. But the question of how to graphically present queer issues is an endlessly interesting one, and its answers change over time.
A couple of years ago, Gopalakrishnan and I had collaborated on a graphic story for First Hand: Graphic Non-Fiction From India, an Indian anthology of graphic non-fiction by Captain Bijli Comics in collaboration with Yoda Press. The Same, Everywhere was about two friends at a time when Section 377 was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2013. One of the recurring conversations during the creation of this piece was about the visual representation of one of the protagonists, a queer woman named Pia. “Does she look like a queer person?" “Does a queer person really look that different?" “Is this too much of a stereotype?" In the end, we chose to depict her as an androgynous figure, and Gopalakrishnan’s nuanced inquiry and visualization of gestures and emotions brought the story to life.
This dilemma of representation arose again when I worked with Bengaluru-based artist Renuka Rajiv on Aloe Vera And The Void, a graphic story that records a conversation with Purushi, a Bengaluru-based transgender woman, about belief, God and exclusion. This forms part of a forthcoming anthology on identity and politics through dialogues with members of the transgender community in Bengaluru.
During an interview with Gee Imaan Semmalar, a transgender man, we asked him how he would like to be represented; this led to a very insightful conversation about identity and image-making. Drawing and illustration are interpretative methods of storytelling, and our choice of visuals, words and gestures carries the weight of bias. So, as artists and creators, we are often confronted by questions like whether there is a “correct" or “incorrect" way to represent a queer person.
The impetus to create queer graphic art comes from not finding examples of representation of the queer body, identity or experience. From 1998-2015, LABIA (Lesbian and Bisexuals in Action), a feminist group in Mumbai, ran a self-published zine called Scripts. In some ways, this can be seen as a precursor to The Gaysi Zine. In Scripts, one found not only writing by queer-identified individuals, but also a set of clearly queer graphics, illustrations and short comics, done by members of the LBT (lesbian, bisexual and transgender) community. In these visual pieces, one found drawings of non-mainstream, non-heteronormative women who were clearly Indian, something that wasn’t easily seen at the time. One particular Scripts zine was the Hair issue (July 2006), whose cover featured illustrations of a range of butch and femme Indian lesbians and their hairstyles, which had names like Spyke-Dyke Cut and Kkkhan Cut.
These early efforts were some of the first published and circulated queer graphic storytelling publications in India. These zines were part of a continued effort by queer visual artists, photographers and film-makers to create a shift in the representation of the queer community, to show the diversity of gender and gender identity, body and politics within the LGBTQ community.
Amruta Patil’s Kari (2008) was perhaps the first widely published and circulated Indian graphic novel with a queer character. Kari is a short-haired, androgynous woman who mourns the end of her relationship with another woman in crowded-yet-lonely Mumbai.
In contrast, the cover of Gaysi’s 2015 graphic anthology showed a sharp-featured queer person sitting on a toilet, comfortable with their body, looking directly at the viewer/reader. This image seemed to signal a big shift in queer representation, and also mirrored a more self-aware and confident generation of the LGBTQ community, and its artists. “The person on the cover is someone who’s in drag, but in a state of undress. I came up with this particular depiction because I have met so many people who have had a “secret" side. It’s not easy for a lot of queer people in this country, yet they’re proud of who they are. I wanted to give a glimpse into the private life of a queer individual who could be any one of us," says Sreejita Biswas, who curated the stories in this anthology.
Now, Indian queer graphic content is also accessible online. Most recently, Puu by US-based Akshay Varaham, a Web comic set in Chennai, tells the story of two Tamil Muslim gay men—Jameel and Saboor, a Bharatanatyam dancer and harmonium player, respectively—who fall in love. Updated weekly on the artist’s blog, the comic has showcased 19 episodes, and while the storyline depicts struggle, the representation of the characters defies expectations. The protagonist, Saboor, is constantly wearing flowers (in Tamil, puu, means flower) in his hair, for instance. These characters and stories are some of the compelling examples of the huge positive shifts in presentation and representation of the LGBTQ community in India.
One hopes that the country’s legislation will eventually catch up with the times.