At an event called 'OUT' on Thursday evening, artists and activists shared real life stories and factors that shaped their art as well as their thinking
Call it a moment of self-realisation or discovery or give it any other name, every individual has a tipping point in his/her life. More often than not, this 'tipping point' changes the direction of their life, and then begins the search for something better and bigger. In an event called OUT, organised by Queer Ink, an online queer bookstore; and Kala Ghoda Art Festival at David Sassoon Library in Fort, artists shared their real life stories and elaborated on the "tipping point" in their lives that has shaped their art.
Electricity: Ashok Row Kavi with Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal and R Raj
Rao at the event. Pics/Bipin Kokate
Three speakers who shared their stories were R Raj Rao, head of department, University of Pune, Ashok Row Kavi, founder and executive editor of the magazine Bombay Dost, and Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal of Poor-Box Productions, which has produced the play 'The Vagina Monologues'.
Queer is General
The first speaker was Rao, who said, "I think I was born to be queer. I have been unconventional in a whole lot of things. In school, my friends spoke about their affairs with aplomb. I couldn't because it wasn't the norm then. I was non-traditional. I didn't like men who were handsome. I didn't like beefcakes. I wanted to sleep with men who were perceived by larger society as ugly. If I would say that to people, I knew they would tell me -- what taste?" said Rao, who started writing to vent his feelings.
"Literature has given me the space to figure out who and what I am. Initially, I started writing for magazines. When my articles appeared under my name, I would be ecstatic at first, but, then, I would fear what others would say. What if they found out that I was different? I was paranoid. Funnily, I would proudly show my parents pieces saying, I got published. But the moment my parents wanted to read the piece, I would snatch it away!
In thrall: An attentive audience listens to some words of wisdom
"Once, my close friend asked me if I wasn't afraid. I decided that I should start writing fiction to avoid such questions. I started fictionalising real life stories." Like any writer, Rao wanted to make an impact with his writings. He also added, "People would come and ask me, 'Why don't you focus on other subjects? Why do you write about yourself and about those who are your type?' I would tell them, 'You know why? Because I am in love with myself'." Rao is a self-confessed narcissist and believes that queer and narcissism go hand in hand. Moreover, he said that he prefered to use the term queer in a more general way.
Plug and Socket
The next speaker was Ashok Row Kavi, a Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) activist, who is, in fact ,one of the best known activists of the gay community in India. After a brief stint at Ramakrishna monastery, Kavi opted to become a journalist. Kavi had the audience in splits as he narrated an incident from when he was just a 12-year-old boy. "I was on the playground and there was a boy's hockey practice session in progress. Soon, the girls team arrived. One of the boys whispered in my ears.
He pointed to a girl and said, 'look at her bust, isn't it juicy?' I was shocked. I was about 12 and I was thinking, well how could a girl's bust be juicy? I was basically a science student. So, I decided to figure it out. I asked my father who was a budding engineer, 'Father how can girls be juicy?' So my father got a plug and socket. He explained it this way, 'See boys have a plug and girls have a socket.
Plug goes into the socket. And when the plug and socket fit in, electricity is produced and there is pleasure and ecstasy.' So I asked my father if that is how babies are produced. My father said, 'Yes that's how it is done.' But as I grew up there was never a problem at home when it came to my sexual preferences. The ladies either didn't discuss it and many others in the family accepted it," said Kavi, who began his speech by calling himself incorrigible.
Kavi, who is also the founder of Bombay Dost, India's first gay magazine spoke about the time when the magazine was just launched. "We started Bombay Dost with Rs 16,000 in our kitty and came out with 600 copies of the first edition. In the first week itself the copies sold and then letters started pouring in -- thousands of them. All gay men wrote with pseudonyms, some with pseudonyms like Einstein.
A few years ago, gay men wouldn't give their identity away. The copies sold quickly, but we wouldn't get any advertisements initially. We tapped the queer network to boost sales," said Kavi. Another tipping point in Kavi's life was in 1995 when, "12 of my 15 friends were HIV+. In London my friends were dying, in San Francisco they were dying. One chap said to me, 'Look, there is no point flagellating and breast beating about gay rights and all. I am dying. Can you help me? That is how we set up the Humsafar Trust. We have helped gay men and now our doors are open to lesbian and bisexual women as well." Objecting to the usage of the term queer, Kavi said, "I would rather be incorrigible than queer."
The V Word
The last speaker was producer, director, actor Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal. Kotwal, who was introduced by one of the moderators as one of the most powerful women in India, began by saying, "If you had seen me hailing a cab at Churchgate station, you wouldn't have said that I am one of the most powerful women in the country."
Kotwal's journey began when she was 44. "I first saw 'Vagina Monologues' in Atlanta in 2002 and I was blown away. The challenge was if a play like this in India would be accepted. In 2003, I finally decided to stage the play here, and I was fearful. My fellow theatre artists did not support me. Mumbai's renowned auditoriums too did not allow me to stage the play. I had no sponsors, actors, etc.
The lead actor refused to pronounce the word 'vagina'. I think vagina is a biological part of our body and each one of us has been in close proximity with one, before we were born. An industrialist who initially decided to support us walked into the office the very next day and told me that, 'My brother tells me that vagina is not a nice word and so I cannot be your sponsor.' But he personally donated Rs 2 lakh. The money that we collect is being used for battered and abused women."
In the Hindi version of the Vagina Monologues, "Women came, saw the play, laughed and cried at the same time." She added, "I have also done other plays where the dialogues touch upon female genital mutilation and marital rape. I met good looking, modern women backstage and they shared their problems with us and told us what they had been through. I would say that there have been various tipping points in my life."NTERACTIVESSION
After the panelists spoke, there was a question answer round with the audience. Somebody asked, "After the Delhi High Court decision on Article 377, how far has mainstream society been able to accept the LGBT community?" Kavi replied, "There is a long way to go. For example -- there are many hospitals, which do not compulsorily check anal Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), which many gay men suffer from. Only after a patient complains does the doctor bother to check if he/she has anal STIs.
This is something that has to be institutionalised in the system." When asked about the plight of lesbians in the country, Kavi replied, "Unlike gay men, who often write with their original names, very few lesbian women write with their original names. In India, many women are not even aware of their sexuality.
We, gay men want lesbian women to come out of their shell." Shobhana Kumar, founder of the online queer bookstore Queer Ink, said that it is only when queer events are held in coalition with mainstream events, and not in isolation, that they manage to involve people from all walks of life. "The audience was diverse because this was not a queer event per se. This was part of an event, which involved people from all walks of life. Associations with bigger events will benefit the community as well," said Kumar.
What is Section 377?
Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is a piece of legislation introduced during British rule that criminalises sexual activity 'against the order of nature.' The section was read down to decriminalise same-sex behaviour among consenting adults in a historic judgement by the Delhi High Court in 2009. This section continues to apply in the case of sex involving minors and coercive sex.