In 2016, a man and a person dressed as a teddy bear were deep in conversation in a dark room, and the only bright spot was the pink of the costume. They were sitting for an image being shot by photographer Soumya Sankar Bose.
The man, Pradipto, met Bose while the latter was working on a photo series titled Full Moon on a Dark Night, which explores the psychological aspect of how men and women in India deal with gender identities and antiquated laws that create an environment of prejudice and discrimination.
“Pradipto has a recurring dream in which he is talking to a teddy bear,” said Bose, a Magnum Foundation fellow. “They talk about his life and emotions [as if they were] friends. Pradipto is not sure who the person is in the costume, but the fact that he was gifted a pink teddy bear by his ex-boyfriend, whom he misses constantly, could have something to do with this.”
Lost in dreams
The photography series, which the 28-year-old started working on in 2015, will be on display at the Experimenter Gallery in Kolkata till May 31. It was sparked by another story Bose heard about recurring dreams – “For the last 16 years, a very close friend of mine has had a recurring dream in which she returns home from an unknown war, and a body is lying on the bed. The identity of the dead character is never clear to her. She wonders why she is dressed like a warrior in her dream. Because she has been fighting for acceptance? Maybe with her mother who always told her that it’s a crime to love a girl?”
Bose recreates the dream in a photograph taken in a room with large open windows. His friend, B Chakrabarti, wearing a medieval Indian warrior costume, and a woman in a red sari is sprawled on the bed.
There is a dreamy quality to the works in the series, even the ones in which the photographer is witness to real moments of tenderness, emotion and affection. Every aspect of the pictures – the diffused light illuminating the private spaces of lovers, the inclusion of animals and nature, and people in costumes – contributes to the surreal nature of the series.
Peeling back layers
Full Moon on a Dark Night profiles men and women who identify themselves as part of the LGBTQ community. Bose’s subjects live with social rejection and the constant fear of being discovered in a society that sees same-sex intercourse as a criminal offence under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.
“Most of my ideas come from what I see in my family or in the lives of my friends,” said Bose. “Documenting their regular selves and their daily lives doesn’t interest me as much as documenting what is going on in their subconscious. They tend to be completely different people in their own heads.”
Through friends, Bose met people in various cities, followed their lives and understood their realities and desires before creating a photograph featuring them. It took him two years to put together enough images to create a show. He believes, however, that the series will always be a work in progress.
For Bose, the aim is to capture not only the activists and fighters for LGBTQ rights, but also the connection between two people that occurs when they are alone and away from the eyes of the public. None of the images are created in public spaces and even the ones shot outdoors convey a sense of private space.
“The idea is to present the picture as a whole as the dark night,” said Bose. “The people, their stories, the representation of themselves as they feel inside is the full moon. The dark surroundings are a symbol of how they feel their life can be like on the outside.”
In one image, he photographs two men in their South Kolkata house, embracing, about to share a kiss. “One is a cobbler and his partner is a junior artist and they don’t even know the literal meaning of LGBTQ,” said Bose. “They don’t understand why a group of people walk with a rainbow-coloured flag. They just want to be like women and hope that someday someone will marry them. They posed for me not because I am working on a project related to the LGBTQ community, but because I’m a friend.”