The butterfly effect

Updated: Jul 14, 2019, 08:45 IST | Anju Maskeri | Mumbai

In a unique photo series, LGBTQI activists, photographer Monisha Ajgaonkar and performer Sushant Divgikar, dwell on the transformation a queer soul goes through

An image by Monisha Ajgaonkar from the photo series titled Blossom, featuring Sushant Divgikar
An image by Monisha Ajgaonkar from the photo series titled Blossom, featuring Sushant Divgikar

For a rainy afternoon, model and gay activist Sushant Divgikar is "conservatively layered up" having chosen to team his black t-shirt and jeans with a military-style jacket. "Deep down, I'm just a regular Konkani boy," he says, settling into the corner most couch at Bandra's Out of the Blue. The 29-year-old is here with photographer Monisha Ajgaonkar, whom he has known for many years, given their interest in queer activism. So, last month when Ajgaonkar approached him with a photo project titled Blossom, he agreed in a heartbeat. Their previous collaboration on a visual project in 2016 had fallen through. The failed project was aimed at subverting popular fairy tales, and featured Divgikar as Aladdin uniting with Prince Charming.

Sushant Divgikar

But, this time they were intent on making it happen.

"For one, it was the International Pride Month. Secondly, I wanted to show my support to the transgender community which routinely faces violence for being who they are," says Ajgaonkar, who runs The Photo Diary, a company that specialises in wedding photography. Divgikar was an undisputed choice as muse given his ability to straddle his identity as a gay man and drag queen seamlessly, and his popularity within the LGBQTI community. "Frankly, I couldn't think of anybody else," she says.

Dropping defenses

Sushant Divgikar and Monisha Ajgaonkar

It was all good, until they reached the studio. The opening shot required Divgikar to do the unthinkable: go nude. "I threw a fit. I was not going to do this," he recalls. A puzzled Ajgaonkar did not know what had triggered the tantrum considering she had already emailed him the reference shots. "Yes, I had seen them, but I just couldn't believe that she really wanted me to be naked," he says. After going back and forth, he finally relented.

"In hindsight, I think it was one of my best decisions," he says. Shot in a day over a span of six hours, Blossom captures the transition of Divgikar from a young boy, who is, at first, scared to come out of the closet to eventually embracing the queen in him. According to Ajgaonkar, who identifies as lesbian, it's a representation of what a queer person goes through. "The journey of self acceptance is tumultuous because we internalise so much prejudice without even knowing it." While it's hard for a man to come out of the closet, it's tougher for a lesbian, she adds. Ajgaonkar, who grew up in a Maharashtrian family, battled resistance when she came out. She shot to fame in early 2018 when her campaign #LforLove, aimed at normalising the status of lesbians in society, went viral. "This time, I wanted to train my lens on the community as a whole through an individual," she says.

As raw as possible

Sushant Divgikar
Shot at an Andheri studio, the series captures the transition of Sushant Divgikar from a young boy, who is, at first, scared to come out of the closet to eventually embracing the queen in him

For starters, she was clear that the imagery had to be raw, which is why all she chose to invest in was a bare studio in Andheri. The final outfit, as seen in the series, was created by designer Swapnil Shinde and styled by Mayuri Nivekar, who did the project pro bono. "People who have been involved in this are those who feel for the cause. We did not do this for money," she says.

The initial shots show Divgikar lying on the floor with his back to the camera, curled up like a foetus. His face is mostly hidden from the viewer until, bit by bit, the veil is lifted. The final shots are of Divgikar as we know him today, Rani-Ko-HE-Nur. "I must admit that I initially felt awkward. But when I finally made up my mind and faced the camera, it was weirdly relaxing, and normal," he says. It wasn't the first time that he was approached for a nude photoshoot. There were offers in the past, but he had always declined "because the thought of being naked made me feel conscious". "I come from a community that is vain and always has its guard on. So it wasn't easy for me to appear this vulnerable," he says. Although he claims not to have been at his fittest best at the time of the shoot, he went ahead nonetheless, given his rapport with Ajgaonkar. His parents, too, were okay with his decision.

Sushant Divgikar

All through the shoot, the only people present in the room with him were the makers of his upcoming documentary—details of which are under wraps—and Ajgaonkar. "On my part, I ensured that he looked as raw as envisioned," she says. Therefore, no image has been photoshopped or airbrushed. The curves, the love handles, the spots have stayed as is. "I didn't even wax my legs," says Divgikar. "We need to realise that life doesn't come with Instagram filters. This shoot essentially showed the authenticity of a person." The inputs that came from him were more to do with the poses. "I was amazed that he could contort, bend and intertwine his legs and yet look so graceful," she laughs.

For now, the photos have created a stir in the community with both the photographer and muse inundated with phone calls. "When I made the series, the idea was to upload it on social media so that there's direct connect with the audience. I didn't expect it become big," she says.

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