by Vatsala SethiDec 31, 2022
The word ‘exile’ has begun to assume a personal connotation ever since I learned I would have to wait eight months until the Italian bureaucracy would deign to process my stay permit renewal application. The waiting in and of itself isn’t cumbersome. What feels invasive is the fact that during this period, as the holder of an Indian passport, I am only allowed to either return to India on a direct flight or remain in Italy without daring to cross the border into the other regions of the European Union I could, until recently, easily access. I would have considered returning, given that I have been in Italy through the pandemic. However, our child, an Italian citizen by birth, is still passport-less. The Italian state has promised to process his application only in December. Since travelling to India without him isn’t an option, I am struggling to find ways to navigate this state of immobility that is contributing to my feeling of being in involuntary exile.
In this moment of frustration and precarity, I am increasingly drawn to artworks that are located somewhere on the spectrum of such lack of agency or that repudiate, mock, or critique the artifice of borders and the violence that often marks their enforcement/ encroachment. Seeking out artistic solidarity helps me regulate the envy and resentment I naturally feel when I meet those with passport privileges I cannot even imagine. It is easier to empathise with those who float in the same boat. No wonder, then, that I felt attracted to Exiles, Sunil Gupta’s 1986-87 series of photographs. I was familiar with the work but hadn’t really had the opportunity to critically pause and reflect on its substance. Gupta’s ongoing solo, Cruising, at Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, viewable online, seemed like the perfect invitation to reconsider the series’ poetic crux.
I have always been fascinated by Gupta’s earnestness. It has appealed to a writer like me who functions primarily from the premise that the personal is political is structural. Gupta has never hesitated to wear his sexual identity and relate his queerness to the world around him, particularly as someone who has straddled many worlds, growing up in Delhi, moving to Canada, then to the US, finally locating himself in the UK. These mobilities have allowed him opportunities to immerse himself in various subcultures and contexts, and it moves me to think that he has somehow always shared the privilege by using photography as a medium to connect, document, visibilise and legitimise the personhoods of people who have been, at various moments in history, criminalised for not conforming to the standards of heteronormativity. Exiles is a particularly significant series, because it validates, reinforces, and localises queer art history within an Indian context. It is so easy to think of queerness as a western construct and the now historical nature of Gupta’s series reminds us that gay people were always occupying space, in various capacities, but their narratives, like their sexualities, were marginalised.
On his own website, Gupta writes about the series’ origin: “It had always seemed to me that art history seemed to stop at Greece and never properly dealt with gay issues from another place.” This canonical erasure became for him an imperative to create images of gay Indian men who seemed to not exist not only within Indian consciousness but also in the global mainstream. A commission from the Photographer’s Gallery, London, allowed him to visualise this project in his hometown of Delhi, photographing gay Indian men against historical landmarks, thus attempting a figurative and literal queering of history. “At the time they seemed particularly vulnerable as a group and didn’t have a recognisable place in society. As a gay man, I felt I couldn’t live in such a repressive atmosphere,” he writes.
The compulsion to adapt to such an oppressive environment is encapsulated in a quote by one of his subjects, who is photographed with his back facing the viewer, underscoring his anonymity, on the rooftops of one of the Hauz Khas tombs. Gupta inserted brief quotes from each person he photographed. This one read, “It must be marvellous for you in the West with your bars, clubs, gay liberation and all that.” A sense of envy, loneliness and alienation hangs all over the sentence, flooding the portrait. The series marries subjectivity with portraiture, allowing for the vocalisation of such alternative stories of marginalised queerhood. The nuances that are evoked include the loneliness encountered by bodies that do not conform to heteronormative masculinities or that are ostracised for daring to counter rigid societal conditioning. Exiles doesn’t position the gay sexual experience of cruising as something ideal either. One narrative, in fact, attests to the hollowness of encounters that are exclusively sexual and do not allow for greater intimacy. A gay subject in an ikat print shirt and jeans stands on a balcony, his back facing the camera. He says, “I am tired of being alone with no prospect of meeting anyone I like. I am nauseated by the party and park scene.” This resonates with another portrait of a man whose side profile is visible to us as he is pictured sitting on a park bench in a known cruising zone. ‘This operates like a pick-up joint. People don’t want to talk, they just want to get it off,” he says, his quote capturing the potential shame of engaging in covert sexual acts and the potential fear of initiating any other form of intimacy.
The series asks the viewer to engage with the meaning of this category of exile, what it must have meant and still means for gay men to forge an identity for themselves within society without having the privilege of ‘coming out’, a condition that was and is often shared across class and caste barriers. Gupta asserts that this experience counts, too, as exile, and everything about the series seems to suggest a tenderness, or a way of touching that goes beyond grazing the surface. I like that the ongoing solo at Vadehra Art Gallery is called Cruising, suggesting Gupta’s camera’s approach that seems to eternally wander the peripheries of its situated environment as if in search of relations and intimacy.