Shivam S is a writer, performer, theatremaker, copywriter based out of Mumbai. This discourse was a part of his session on 'Queer art and performance' at The Goa Project (27.02.2015)
Queer art and performance. And not art and performance!
I tell everyone I don’t have a coming out story. Because I was seeing women till I was 23 and I was happy. Satisfied. Then at some point I didn’t feel satisfied enough and I thought let’s see how the neighbors live. And it turned out I belonged in their home. I kept everyone in the know about my moving including my friends, parents, colleagues even… bit of a big mouth, me…
So I tell everyone I was never inside any box… when in fact I was. For that brief moment when I considered what it would do to my career as a performer… actor… hero maybe? Because let’s face it… queer people only get to play 2 types of characters in India: Queer, if it’s a modern, bourgeois, indie project and in case of those targeted towards larger audiences… creeps.
What a beautifully tragic story that would make… to fulfill the artist in him, he lived a life in the hiding, very unique don’t you think? I didn’t so either. I thought to myself if my work does not fulfill or draw from who I am… what’s even the point of everything else that grows from there on! And because I thought so… because of this remarkably evolved choice that I made… you can all stop clenching your teeth and breathe a sigh of relief because this session isn’t about a tragic story of a gay man trapped in the closet!
This session is possibly about evaluating my choice of being a queer writer and actor, which means in some way giving up on the avenues that lie in the straight art pool and jumping into a rather smaller pond which is not yet fully formed and certain of its existence, especially in a country that denies its very foundation. This session is also about taking a peek at the queer art movement in India and thinking where are we headed? And by we I mean, even straight people because at some point queer art and culture will reach them too no matter how much they run away from it.
We are already seeing stories sprout up in films, on stage, in writing and it’s only a matter of time before commercials start harnessing their potential and then what will you do?! You will be sitting in front of your TV and an ICICI insurance advertisement will have two men or women looking dearly at each other, after one of them has agreed to pay heavy premium to safeguard both their lives. You will have to have that conversation with your friends, your family, you kids… you will have to be involved in the queer art and culture just as the queers have been involved in yours. And talking from experience… it hasn’t harmed us to know about relationships we will never get into ourselves.
Am I tricking you into consuming queer art?
Great stories live in wretched corners of oppression and a plethora of Indian queer stories await their telling. Unfortunately we have just one known queer filmmaker making films on the subject, no popular queer novelist, no big theatre groups or painters telling queer stories and our designers… well our designers don’t really stand for anything. Some people in their heads are going … this fucker was only trying to scare us! That means there is still time before the commercials get to it right!?
I am not completely sure but from what I know queer art movements everywhere else in the world have always been initiated by the older lot so it’s very interesting that in India the movement largely belongs to young people. I am still trying to wrap my head around the implications of that… that means our art will see a lot of bravado before it settles into subtler themes. Does that also mean a huge chunk of the subject matter and characters and stories will revolve around younger demographics? This is really sad because it leaves out generations of people and their stories… unless those people decide to stand up for themselves and tell their lives! I really hope that happens. What I hope doesn’t happen is that the older generation of Indian queers loses interest in contemporary Indian queer art… because god knows we need all the support there is… It’s a critical time for the arts in India, leave aside just queer art, as we buckle up to battle an essentially authoritative and totalitarian new regime.
Politics of queer performance… try casting for part of a necrophiliac and you will find many actors willing to perform the starkest scenes or delve into the deepest darkest psychographics. An opportunity to understand what’s unknown to you that’s what acting offers. I was casting for my play last year and I read almost a dozen of Mumbai’s most popular and evolved theatre artists who loved the play but wouldn’t get physical with another man on stage. These are young actors. Not because they wouldn’t do that in private, but because casting directors across India work by the queer for queer, straight for straight rule. I mean isn’t it revolting I had to make a conscious choice in my head to be prepared to give up on a certain aspects of my job in order to do what I do today. That the best option for me is to be a queer artist if I am queer and want to tell queer stories. Mind you, I don’t regret one bit of it I have had a sea of opportunities open up to me as I went through that decision. Niches can be good for art, limitations as opportunities you know about that.
Some may argue that its me who made that choice. Some may say it’s the gays who go ahead and segment everything. The porn, and then the pride, and then film festivals, hell… even marriage! I think you guys know the reason behind this phenomenon; you seem pretty intelligent, attending the Goa Project, art ‘unconference’ and all that!
But what is queer performance? Is it performing queer characters? Or is it a queer actor performing? I have lots of people coming up to me after my show and asking if I am ‘really gay’… I wonder what sense do they make out of the fact that I am. But that my co-actor who also plays a queer character isn’t… Are we willing to believe what’s true of an actor only if it’s true of the person he or she is? And in that grind… have actors forgotten they can be someone they are not when they are acting?
There is a beautiful lovemaking scene in my play between the two male protagonists, I feel beautiful performing it, partly because my co-actor is a gorgeous looking boy … flattest stomach in the world, very good friend… but what’s equally exciting is the effect that it has on the audiences. I wonder if it’s repulsive even to the most homophobic eyes… I wonder if we are able to surpass conditioning and bias and evoke a feeling of empathy… envy, love maybe?
I wonder if queer art can be on the forefront in the confluence of queer culture with the larger Indian society. Because art doesn’t need to break walls, it can simple paint it invisible.
We love watching films from other countries, reading fantasy novels and writings from distant parts of the world, we like knowing about things we don’t know… and I want to tell everyone here that consuming queer art whether you are queer or not is exactly in tandem with that quest. Don’t let anybody tell you it has any other implication apart from that.
And if that doesn’t convince you… I will say witness queer art before you are thrown into facing queer advertising! I love how advertising has everyone’s balls in its hands.
In a country that legally takes away your rights to individuality, personal expression becomes a very important political tool. But for people feel like queer individuals, queer people need to know there is history and culture and stories and literature and art and tradition… yes, tradition for them to be a part of… That queer lifestyle exists beyond queer sexuality. And that’s where Indian queer art must play its part. Build a world for people to live in, relationships for people to believe in, tell about histories for people to remember, freedom struggles, victories… we are very rich in heritage. And have full rights to Be.