Sunil Gupta, the Delhi-born London-based photographer, discusses issues related to gay visibility and interactions, race, identity, representation and vernacular experiences as captured in his last exhibition, Cruising, organized at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, from August 12 to September 16, 2022.
Gayatri Sinha (GS): What is the content of your latest exhibition?
Sunil Gupta (SG): The show is called Cruising and the title refers to the historic way in which gay men have left their homes and gone out into public spaces to find each other. This has happened across time in most parts of the world. But more recently, there has been a change brought about by the internet. That is why there has been an academic desire to look back at this gradually disappearing phenomenon. These days, people interact on phones and online; they no longer go out as much. Given that in India, there is still a great crisis in identities and absence of private spaces, unlike in other parts of the world, we have witnessed a form of community building happen informally through this act of going out. Since many of the places where gay people meet stay constant, you can chart the population that comes and goes. You begin to get a sense of the others who frequent this common space, even if you have never had any verbal exchanges with them. Faces start becoming more familiar and then as you begin to speak to some of them, a community grows. The act of cruising is the primary driving force.
Katyayani Sinha (KS): I went for the Masculinities exhibition at the Barbican in London and it was quite disconcerting to see that you were the only South Asian artist featured. There is still hardly any representation of queerness and transness from the Indian subcontinent.
SG: Actually, it was unusual because the Barbican had decided to show the whole series. Normally they never have space. Exiles was there in its entirety. Even here at the Vadehra Art Gallery, there are only seven works on view.
KS: I am interested in studying the queer home and the idea of queerness as multitude, as opposed to the emphasis on coupledom and marriage that has taken over after the the Navtej Singh Johar vs. Union of India ruling. The latter have become the aggressive focal points in the fight for same-sex marriage, whereas queerness is equally about community. Also, as a lawyer, I’m interested to know we can think outside of the legal archive? How do we look at people like you, who have been archiving and preserving queer familial spaces?
SG: We have explored the idea of how cruising led to community building, because people went out and tried to find like-minded others, oftentimes just for sexual gratification. This in turn resulted in encounters with those there for the same/similar reasons. You may not have fancied them or engaged with them; but over time, you would get to know them simply because you repeatedly came back to the same place. This created a sense of tribe - it became not just about ‘me’ but ‘us’. Even now, the wonderful thing about cruising spots is that they are public spaces shorn of any class, subclass or identity markers. The person you speak to could be a banker or a rickshaw puller.
KS: Work like yours offers so much relief, especially for people from the community who see themselves in vulnerable but also playful spaces. The victories are so much greater than any that the Navtej ruling could ever try to fathom…
SG: In fact, my partner and I made a book three years ago, for an American publisher, called Delhi: Communities of Belonging. Here, we portrayed Delhi as a set of 17 individuals from different backgrounds, each of who had gone through their own journeys of discovery to find a like-minded community. Even though our cities may not have gay bars, we have these communities and a sense of sharing. Our sense of identity and belonging come from them.
GS: Your earlier pictures of gay men embracing each other at India Gate show the mutuality of desire. Your later pictures, like those in Mr. Malhotra’s Party, use a deadpan aesthetic. As a result, we see full-frontal portraits, with no signifiers of being gay, no evident partner, no embrace. There is no specificity of location, no Humayun’s Tomb or India Gate, which claims a geography or historicity to personal experiences. Why did you make this switch?
SG: Mr. Malhotra’s Party was a response to an earlier series called Exiles. In that, the public spaces were often parks, many inside monuments. This grew out of my larger interest in photography and its history. Since the 19th century, Indian photography revolved around public spaces (especially historical sites), and I thought of making a tongue-in-cheek reference to this by highlighting how gay men may have embraced these spaces for interactions even back then. Partly, I did it for the London show in the 1980s. I needed my audience to understand the context of Indian historical photography, which they would not have if I made it entirely vernacular in approach.
By the time I started work on Mr. Malhotra’s Party, things had changed and made way for a new generation. In this series, I followed the story of young men and women who were single, coming out of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). I shot them in a vernacular way, near where they lived or worked. The situation suggested the location. I initially thought of giving the locations in the captions, making it very local. I was shooting on flyovers, or the Ring Road bus stop, or South Extension. These were landmarks of a lived city, and I thought everybody in Delhi would recognize them.
GS: It is interesting that you are using the term “vernacular” for people recorded in a metropolitan location. Would you use that in an international context?
SG: I do, actually. I would use it to suggest a common person’s experience of the everyday city as opposed to historic locations.
GS: “Vernacular” would be a broad-based term which someone from any other part of Asia might use to talk about a certain kind of ethnicity.
SG: I thought that if Delhiwallahs see the photographs, they will know where they are, and that is good enough for me. I do not need to explain what is Defence Colony and what is the bus stop to somebody in New York.
GS: So vernacular means location?
SG: It is very local. When I started video work, I added snippets of Bollywood songs; but at some point, I decided not to translate them. This is another stand taken in support of the vernacular.
GS: Tell us more about your current exhibition…
SG: So, there are six photo series in this show. The first is Cruising, which is a set of black-and-white pictures that retrace myjourneyfrom thehomeI grewup in Nizamuddin to the back of Humayun’sTomb,whichwasacruisinggroundinthe1950s and ’60s when I was a kid. When I returned as an adult in 1982, I shot the pictures of these places which had incredibly remained more or less the same. We have not shown all the images or sites here. We have taken three images from this walk and blown them up. So that is about me remembering. It islike a memory of a memory. In 1982 I shot a memory and did not look at that roll of film for the next many years. Now that I have started scanning and archiving all my personal material and works in London over the last few years, stuff like this is coming out.
In 2004, I did a project called Delhi: Tales of City, in which I looked at written histories of Shahjahanabad by travelling Chinese monks and others passing through, offering vernacular accounts about life in Chandni Chowk and the characters who lived there. I was led to the librarian at the India International Centre from whom I collected these texts, and then I went off to shoot pictures at the same sites. Originally, I had the texts as a brochure; but for this exhibition, we just have the pictures. In this second series, I am going back to the medieval period to think of all that went into the building of the city.
In the second gallery, in the back, I have also displayed the Exiles series.
GS: Most of the ground floor of the exhibition would then have a historic focus.
SG: Yeah, there are a few pictures from when I first came back to India in the early 1980s to make Gay Indian Pictures. I realized that there weren’t any such images of the community then and that nobody from it seemed to want to be in photos. So, it seemed like an impossible task. This exhibition has a handful of some of my experiments from that time.
GS: Can you speak more about making “gay Indian pictures”? Is it an act of mimicry and masculinity? Are there gay men who pose for you? How do you make these images and determine the level of intimacy?
KS: Also, there’s the aspect of subverting the gaze. Photography becomes a difficult act when there’s so much surveillance and policing. The photograph also becomes evidence of a person’s sexuality. It translates into a process of coming out, which the subject may not necessarily desire. And the meanings attributed by the viewer to an image as assertion of gay identity may be at odds with how the subject feels.
SG: So, there was a mismatch between my ambition and the outcome. I was very political and open about my identity as a gay man. After coming back to India, I found much of my community through my friend, Salim Kidwai. Back in 1980, we had to be very hush hush about our movement and activities. At first, the subjects I wished to photograph said they did not want to be in any pictures. On top of that, they did not look like what I thought gay people should look like. They were all living at home with their mothers and some were also married. They were not independent social creatures trying to be themselves. When I talked to them, they would say, “I must get married, because my mother would like it.” They did not question their parents’ wishes and were not rebellious in any way. They were not “gay” at all. They had no ambition to change anything.
The other thing was that when I was younger and in college, I thought a lot about the documentary medium. I was attracted to a certain 1950s kind of humanist storytelling within documentary. In fact, I came to India not to document the gay community but to look at extreme poverty in the country. I was a friend of Aruna Roy’s and followed her to Tilonia to work on a humanist documentary on institutional poverty in the countryside. I had grown up in Delhi and my middle-class parents shielded me from the poverty that existed outside the city. This is why I was curious and keen to explore it further. I also thought I would combine my humanist documentary style with my interest in gay lives.
But even though I tried, the documentary on their worlds was a non-starter. There was a very popular cruising site at Central Park in Connaught Place and I would hide in the bushes with my camera, waiting for some unsuspecting people to arrive. Once I found my subjects, I would leap out and take pictures from a distance. But afterwards, this act of recording would seem unfair. Especially, given that there were discussions happening internationally about ethics, race and rights about who can photograph whom. In this context, it would be wrong of me to publish pictures of startled people caught in the act; this would only expose and make vulnerable my subject(s).
To replace this method, I constructed this mise-en-scene kind of directed storytelling. I came back and made Exiles in that way, with a consenting cast of people, who were also my informants. But what was very critical for Exiles was the fact that it entirely featured Indian gay men. And no representation of this kind had existed till then.
GS: These days when you come back to India, what does it feel like? Has the abolition of Section 377 helped? Conservatism and religious conservatism though have increased over the last few years.
SG: I think conservatism largely pertains to an older generation that will soon die out. The younger lot have been trained to think better at the universities and are less bothered about it. They are the people who will create a new India.
KS: I saw your photographs and then I saw Salman Toor’s work. I found some commonalities, since he too looks at intimate queer spaces. Much like you, he has spent a large part of his life abroad. This departure itself awards space to be yourself, to breathe, think and look at matters from a distance. While you are living in your home country, especially in places like India and Pakistan, the surroundings can get too overwhelming and throw up challenges to flourishing artistically.
SG: Yes, that made matters difficult. So, I had to eventually leave. In America and England, I was able to make work which I could not have created had I had not lived there. Exiles was possible as a singular project because I had a roadmap on how to research and find gay people. By the time I came to Mr. Malhotra’s Party, I was photographing people I knew. For that too, I had to live in Delhi to know them. I joined a group from JNU and that is how I met my subjects. When I made Pre- Raphaelites at a studio here, it was again people I knew locally.
GS: What was your approach for the recent series that looks at LGBT asylum seekers who came to the United Kingdom during the 2022 Commonwealth Games?
SG: This series, called Arrival, is the opposite of Exiles. It is about people who have come from Africa, South Asia and Eastern Europe, to escape the horrors back home. This project wastriggeredbytheCommonwealth Games.We used the 19th-century Victorianstudioportraitconventiontomakeaseriesofportraits with them. These would be displayed on the road and seen by passers-by. So, even though the pictures are in the studio, the viewing setting is vernacular.
GS: What was the studio setting that you chose?
SG: We used the Indian bazaar and have painted backdrops from Chandni Chowk. Wealso had a discussion with each subject and incorporated textile or items they brought with them from the hometowns they left behind.
The subjects are in a state of limbo. They have applied for asylum but have not got it yet. They do not know what to expect as the British Home Office has been operating with a hostile policy for everyone at the moment. And yet, even in these uncertain situations, there is a certain joy captured in these portraits.
If you come as a lesbian/gay asylum seeker, the authorities want you to give proof of your gender identity. How do you prove such a thing before bureaucracy? This is where my photography came into help. There were two things happening. Some people did not want to be exposed in case their home country found out and made it difficult for them to return. With others, there was paperwork to be done. They signed consent forms, we exchanged emails, and this correspondence along with their participation in our project with the photographs and stamp of the Commonwealth Games proved to the administration that they are gay.
GS: Looking at your body of pictures, one notices how life abroad has paved the way for sexual self-discovery. But there are still challenges in acceptability of race. You have said about Christopher Street that you were a brown boy among white men. Race and sexuality seem to be at odds with each other. What is acceptable in one culture is not acceptable in another. Is there a merging now? Has it got easier for you to create your kind of narratives in the West and in India?
SG: This has been a constantly shifting territory over time. In 1987, when Exiles was first shown in America, there was a lot of difference between India and the West.
But things have changed since then. As we discussed, a young generation in India has completely different views. Simultaneously, there is a pushback from the Right wing. It is a bit like that in the US, but less like that in Europe. There is wider public education-in any classroom I go into, I see more and more people accepting gender fluidity as the norm. If I tell the students that I am a gay man, they may think of me as a dinosaur. Gay photographers are so last century.
KS: The art world and market in India is dominated by wealthy people who decide what gets deemed valuable and how much value is bestowed on a work. Sometimes, it can be very superficial. An abstract work is going to look good in a drawing room or a Christie’s auction, but gay men holding hands is just not “sexy” enough.
SG: There is still some reticence in India, at least in the commercial market. The trouble here is that there is not much else to support the art world. I have done my work through the grantee system, not through the market. My earlier experience with the market was very hit and miss. There was a general conservatism among collectors and galleries. I had people in Delhi say “I really like this, but I can’t have it, because what would my wife say.”
If my patrons and connoisseurs are not collecting, I could not survive.
GS: In India there are very few alternative spaces and most art galleries are managed by rich businessmen.
SG: Canada, on the other hand, gives mid-career art grants which are essentially a year’s salary. So, you do not have to struggle for a living and there is no demand for constant output. You do not have to scramble to make ten paintings; you can take your time and be guaranteed of support.
In England, everything is about the emerging artist. But when you are 30, 40 or 50, like me, you have already emerged.
GS: You said in an interview to The Guardian that the act of taking a picture felt as good as sex. It’s interesting how Ingmar Bergman said something similar. How does the act of shooting become a substitute and how then do you view the camera?
SG: The word “having” always comes to my mind whenever this issue is raised. When you “have” sex, it is a kind of claim you lay on another body. It is a way of “having” something. And with photography, you “have” it via the image. So, if you see the exhibition, you see the Christopher Street pictures, there are 90 people that I feel like I have had something with. They have become a part of my history and, in that sense, they are all equally pleasurable.
GS: Theorists like Roland Barthes argue that the photograph is seen as an instance of death. There is also a kind of death encoded in making the picture…
SG: I think pictures of actual sex feel like that. But the “cruising” pictures do not feel like the end because they are the beginning of something.