Mahesh is an engineer at an IT company in Kochi by day and a painter by night. At the end of a busy day, he brushes up his skills with the help of online tutorials and churns out paintings that dwell on his favourite subject – the intimacy of male bodies.

“I haven’t come out as gay yet,” said Mahesh. “You know, it is difficult to break the shackles and free yourself in Kerala. So I have taken to art to express myself. I feel liberated when I complete one work.” The 30-year-old believes the course of “his life will change” once his art goes on display at Homomorphism-II, an exhibition of same-sex intimacy, at the Kerala History Museum in Kochi from July 14 to July 21.

Organised by Queerala, a Kerala-based organisation that aims to bring more visibility to issues important to the community, Homomorphism-II will showcase the works of seven artists from India and abroad that narrate their experiences of being queer and their thoughts about the traditional world which is still reluctant to accept their sexual orientation.

Image courtesy: Mahesh.

For example, in one of his paintings, Mahesh shows two young bare-chested farmers, with the traditional cotton towel wrapped around their heads, in a banana orchard drinking nectar from banana flowers. To the untrained eye, it might be a simple piece of art, but it shatters a myth about same-sex intimacy. “There is a common belief that same-sex intimacy exists only among middle- and upper-middle class societies,” said Mahesh. “I wish to tell the world through that work that romance happens everywhere. There is no class or caste difference for same-sex intimacy.”

With a purpose

The first edition of the Homomorphism, held in Kochi in 2015, had showcased the works of five artists. “Yet it was a huge success,” said Jijo Kuriakose, the founder of Queerala and a Kochi-based artist whose work is also part of the exhibition. “Many people reached out to us. That is the reason we decided to continue it.”

As Kochi is set to host the second edition of the event after three years, the organisers have adopted a new theme and ensured the participation of artists such as Mumbai-based Pragya Pallavi, Bengaluru-based K Aishwaryan and TK Sandeep, Mauritius-based O Arvin and Kolkata-based D Santanu.

Jijo Kuriakose said the exhibition assumes significance as members of the queer community in Kerala continue to suppress their sexual identities and stay invisible under the blanket of traditional social norms – “The exhibition provides an avenue to discuss the politics of sexuality in Kerala.” It is also, he emphasised, a platform to protest against the fact that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalises homosexual sex is still upheld by the judiciary. “And the artists come from different geographical and linguistic backgrounds. Hence their works are extremely diverse.”

Jijo Kuriakose’s photographs and watercolour paintings focus on different aspects of the male body and same-sex intimacy. One, titled Gayrala, shows a gay couple on the geographical map of Kerala – “it represents the gay community in Kerala,” he said. The photographs are mostly black-and-white and capture intimate moments between members of the community. Jijo Kuriakose shot all of them at Rainbow Nest, where the LGBTIQ community in Kochi meets. “It is impossible to shoot these photos outside. Rainbow Nest is the most comfortable space for the queer community.”

Image credit: K Aishwaryan

Aishwaryan said his works explore intimacy through his own lens – “It may be quite different from the perspective of [other] people.” Pragya Pallavi, who works on digital medium, said her works illustrate the invisible energy that connects people in love – “Most of the works express the idea of same-sex intimacy. But any work of art can have multiple interpretations. So I leave it to the audience to have their own [understanding of it].” Arvin, who earned his master’s degree in art from Visva Bharati in Kolkata, said all his 15 works very personal. “They are all about my experience,” he said.

While the artists have adopted different means to express their ideas, they are all on the same page while talking about how they hope the exhibition will play a role in shaping the future of India’s queer community.

Image credit: Pragya Pallavi

Pallavi said art will bridge the gap between the queer community and society at large – “Violence is the norm of the day, but art provides an opportunity to fight a non-violent struggle. So I think this exhibition will go a long way in changing the perception about queer people.”

Arvin echoed her views. “Of course, change has to happen,” he said. “But it is going to be a slow process and not take place overnight.”

Jijo Kuriakose, too, is optimistic, but he is concerned about the dearth of women artists from the community. “We are happy to get Pallavi for the show,” he said, “but we wish to have more women artists who can depict same-sex intimacy among women.”