During the Supreme Court hearings for the 377 case in 2013, Siddharth Narrain from the Alternative Law Forum (ALF), an organisation that provides legal services to marginalised groups across the country, would record transcripts of the court proceedings each day and send them out to a list of activists across the country. Reading these proceedings, it struck Bengaluru-based documentary filmmaker T Jayashree to interview on camera all the different lawyers fighting the case and also the different petitioners, who included parents and activists.
Jayashree had been documenting the movement since 2001. In 2004, I screened her film Many People, Many Desires at Between the Lines Film Festival that I curated at MIT. Her film documents the daily lives of hijras, kothis, lesbians, transgender and other queer folks in Bengaluru. It masterfully cuts across the different barriers of class, gender, language and caste to tell a moving composite story.
Jayashree continued documenting the queer movement over the years, and she rekindled her efforts post the shocking 2013 Supreme Court judgement. In 2017, after the ten-year anniversary of Bangalore Pride, she finally started looking at all the footage she had gathered over the years and realised that she had, in fact, created a huge archive of the movement’s contemporary history.
There were other personal archive projects happening all across the country. Photographers Sunil Gupta and Charan Singh had collected oral histories of queer people from across India over the years, and some of their work was showcased at the Kochi Biennale in 2018. Vinay Chandran, the director of the Bengaluru-based Swabhava Trust, had collected mental health narratives of queer people across the country. Many of these queer individuals had been taken by their family members to doctors and mental health professionals against their will. Some of these narratives came out in the 2015 anthology Nothing to Fix: Medicalisation of Sexual Orientation and Gender, which Vinay co-edited with Arvind Narrain, advocate and co-founder of ALF, but there are so many other stories that are still undocumented.
Meanwhile, the Bengaluru-based NGO Sangama had to move office because of a funding crunch, so Jayashree found herself suddenly entrusted with all their files from 1999 to 2014 for storage. These included press clippings that the Sangama staff used to cull every day from newspapers across the country – all LGBTQ-related news items.
What to do with all of this? Should these different resources be used in the future as “visual jurisprudence”, so that no judge could ever declare, like in 2013, that LGBTQ people are a “miniscule minority” in our country?
So, in 2018, Jayashree, along with Arvind, the advocate Deeptha Rao and other volunteers, began the Queer Archive for Memory Reflection and Activism (QAMRA) as a multimedia archival project “to chronicle and preserve the Queeristan stories of communities marginalised on the basis of gender and sexuality in India”. They started collecting more material from other community-run organisations, queer rights activists, lawyers and individuals who had participated in or been allied with dialogues on queer rights.
I visited QAMRA for a day in September 2019. I drove directly from the Bengaluru Airport to their Lewis Road office in Cooke Town, past the Bengaluru East Railway Station, past a blue roadside dhaba with a giant mural of Ambedkar painted on it, alongside his famous quote – “I like the religion that teaches liberty, equality and fraternity” – and past the quaint, winding roads of Fraser Town into the leafy McPherson Road with its line of elegant bungalows. This is the genteel Bangalore of yesteryears. Garden city.
I walked past the metal gate of a bungalow that housed the Lightroom bookstore on the ground floor. The courtyard was paved with exquisite cement mosaic tiles in a floral pattern. The external wall of the bungalow had peeling paint, and it was covered with posters advertising other Bengaluru events like the Urban Lens Film Festival. The outside garage had been converted into a reading room with the addition of what looked like some gorgeous teak and cane Pierre Jeanneret ‘Chandigarh’ chairs.
Inside the bookstore, there were paper cut-outs of clouds, umbrellas and raindrops hanging from above. I spotted a book titled My Brother’s Name Is Jessica right up front, and I made a mental note to pick up a copy of The Legend of the Orange Princess, retold and illustrated by artist Mehlli Gobhai, on my way out. Mehlli, one of my favourite artists, passed away in 2018. I am lucky to have one of his early drawings hanging above me in my bedroom. Some years ago, I had flirted quite scandalously with him over dinner at a common friend’s place.
I took the narrow staircase to the left of the bookstore and climbed up to the QAMRA office, which operated out of Jayashree’s studio on the first floor. So you have the oopar ka kamra, I told Jayashree and Arvind, and they laughed. “I am lucky to have a benefactor, who’d kindly given me this studio space,” Jayashree confided, as we gathered around a long wooden dining table surrounded by fake Godrej steel cupboards and a mishmash of other furniture.
There were side tables, chairs of different shapes and sizes, and stools. Every surface was covered with papers and books, and every cabinet was overflowing.
The tables were groaning under the weight of a three-foot-high stack of legal documents, neatly bound, with yellow post-its peeping out. The cabinets held hard drives, more documents and photo albums. There was a rainbow-coloured feather duster, propped, almost sculpturally, over one of the tables. Sunlight billowed in through the biscuit-coloured curtains. Here was the queer movement of India. All packed into one small room.Arvind poured us some coffee that had just arrived from a Hatti Kaapi flask. We reminisced about the first time we had met and had had dinner together at Koshy’s in 2004. I was researching my first book then and had come to Bengaluru to attend the second International Conference on Sexualities, Masculinities and Cultures in South Asia. I told him how much I loved Because I Have a Voice: Queer Politics in India, the anthology he had co-edited with Gautam Bhan in 2005.
Over the years, Arvind co-founded the ALF, left it to go to Geneva to serve as the director of research and practice at the global organisation Arc, and returned to Bengaluru. He now splits his time between research and teaching law. It was so good to meet him in person again. Some of my queer heroes, I realise, are better admired from afar, but with some like Arvind, my respect only grows deeper and deeper with each meeting.
QAMRA’s aim is to “build a resource base for students, educators, artists and scholars working around the history, present and future of the Indian LGBTQ community”.
I learnt that the archive already had four categories – video (with more than 1,000 hours of footage), image (more than 1,000 images), audio (more than 500 audio files) and text (personal stories, legal documents and notes). They had also collected personal artefacts and memorabilia from more than two decades of the queer movement in India. The archive is not yet open to the public because, quite honestly, the team is still very busy cataloguing everything they have.
“Privacy and data loss are our two main concerns,” Jayashree told me. Plus, the funds were tight, so the process was taking longer. We sipped our coffee and excitedly brainstormed about all their challenges and how they might be overcome. What if we had a queer museum attached to the archive, I proposed.
I was thinking of New York’s Leslie-Lohman Museum as a possible model, while Jayashree told me she was more drawn to what the Schwules Museum in Berlin had done as the world’s first gay and lesbian museum. We planned an event we would do together at the Culture Lab in Mumbai as part of the 2020 Pride programming, along with the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy in Delhi.
Many of the stories I encounter while going through all these different online and offline archives are not just about despair. There is also an abundance of joy as portrayed in the work of the historian Anjali Arondekar, for instance. She looks at English, Marathi, Konkani and Portuguese sources to rethink sexuality. It reminds me of how Brian Horton described his Brown University thesis to me: “What do queer people do when they are not suffering?” Similarly, Arondekar looks at Indian queer history as one of abundance, not loss.
Excerpted with permission from QUEERISTAN: LGBTQ Inclusion in the Indian Workplace, Parmesh Shahani, Westland Business.
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