Born in New Delhi in 1953, Sunil Gupta left India when his family emigrated to Montreal, Canada in 1969. He subsequently studied in New York, and finally settled in London to live and work. In 2004, Sunil came back to India with his first autobiographical exhibition and stayed in New Delhi for seven years before returning to London.
RS: Take me through the trajectory of your life and work as a photographer with reference to your return to New Delhi to live in the city after 35 years.
SG: I think my original question as a teenager in Canada, even before I picked up a camera, was ‘what is it like to be an Indian from India?’ It appeared to have no significance and no context. The next question was, ‘what is it like to be a gay Indian in Canada?’. That seemed to have even less of a context.
Because of that, I picked up a camera to photograph a university gay protest group on campus. It was very early gay activism - protest marches that came out of trade union politicization but around sexuality rather than Marxism.
Decade after decade I have asked that question, whether I was living in Montreal, New York or in London. It was the same question when I came back to live in Delhi, and now having returned to the UK, it's still the same question. I haven’t managed to answer it because it is a slippery question.
But I will say this. When I was living here I had this very positive experience of being ‘welcomed back home’ by people I met. Nobody ever questioned my Indianness, or said you’ve been away for 35 years. It didn’t seem to worry them at all. There was no problem. I was Indian.
The other good thing was that I walked into Delhi at a good upward rising moment in the history of gay activism. Anjali Gopalan (Naz Foundation) had a case in the Delhi court challenging the archaic Indian law criminalizing homosexuality. On earlier visits I had seen street protests against the banning of Deepa Mehta’s film, Fire. I had attended a film festival in memory of Siddharth Gautam, a lawyer and early HIV activist who died very young. So there had been some public expression and it felt different to be a gay person in Delhi in 2005 compared to when I used to visit in the 80’s.
In the 80’s, being gay was unmentionable.
My other problem in the 80’s was that even those people in Delhi who said they were gay, were not gay in the sense that I understood it to be. I was very clear from my youth what it meant because of my campus activism. These people were not politically gay. They were married and for them it was just a sexual act. That did not make them gay in my eyes. I did not empathize with them. I’m a strong believer in making a statement and coming out to take a choice between your belief and the traditional cultural norms that bind you into a comfort zone. What you have to do to subvert this is to move out of the structure of family and property. Being gay, they were still marrying and having children so that they could inherit family property, and buy that BMW, if they were from an affluent background! If they stepped out of this lifestyle it would mess up the system and they didn’t want to live like that. I don’t think you can be gay and still have it all, I get irritated with that.
There was a high point in 2009 when we got a very detailed and favorable judgment in the Delhi High Court. Section 377 was going to be amended and India seemed the right place to be. Unfortunately, it unwound very soon after a few years.
RS: While you were here did you work on a project that brought out the difference between the 80's and 2000's?
SG: I felt very involved in the sexuality debate. We were on the streets with the first set of gay prides in India. We went to court to hear the arguments, we attended a lot of television shows to speak and to discuss the subject. We gave interviews to the press, put together small exhibitions and film festivals. I made a lot more work about it while I was living here. It became a part of my activism.
In the 80’s I had made a body of work called Exiles. It was shot in India, but since I was living in the UK, the work was conceptualized there, printed there and shown there. The first time Exiles showed in India was as part of the exhibition, Pictures from Here, which you presented at the Habitat Centre in 2004. In Exiles people look away and hide in tombs, not wanting to reveal themselves. That was when gays were invisible and unmentionable. Exiles is also shot in places which have a photographic history, and that has made the series memorable as a reference too.
In 2005, I started the series, Mr. Malhotra’s Party, which is street portraits of gay people, looking into the camera and willing to reveal their names. The places where I shot them were more vernacular, more ordinary. Places that were more immediately relevant to them. Suddenly you realized that they are everywhere in the city, not hiding away in gardens. I was interested in the vernacular street corner, like Savitri Cinema, which has no reference in photo history. I wanted to move away from the idea that we have to go somewhere else to make pictures. I took a lot of pictures in Greater Kailash 1 because I lived there not because there was something extraordinary about it. I knew it would be a hard sell because it was not tribal, or Goa or the mountains!
Then there was the studio project, The Pre-Raphaelites, which is a kind of euphoric moment that I picked up aesthetically from Pre-Raphaelite painting. This series has done very well and has been shown by the City museum in Aberdeen in 2010 that had the originals.
While I lived here I was very conscious about the work being made here and printed here. The question of authenticity has always bugged me. Exiles carried the baggage of being an outsider’s work - Indian or not. The work I did here at that time was shot here and made here. It was irrefutably from here. I also tried not to make work that was not showable here.
This also led me to my fateful series Sun City that was made in Paris but for India. This was a fictional narrative about an Indian gay man arriving in Paris and alternating between the experience of anonymous lovers in gay bath houses and enjoying a romantic relationship with a French lover. It is loosely based on a French film from 1962. But the exhibition of this work at the Alliance Francaise in Delhi provoked an unfortunate incident and the police shut it down on the opening night.
RS: Were there any other significant personal projects during those years?
SG: Yes, another thing in that trajectory from start to finish, over 7 years in Delhi, was that the Queer book happened. It was called Queer and had Vadehra Art Gallery’s name on it. That was pretty impressive I thought. It was a big shift awayfromnevermentioninggaytohaving Queer as a title to your book published by a mainstream gallery. The second book was published by Arpita Das from Yoda Press, and it was called Memories of a Gay Life.
So those two books happened and they had the words ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ in the titles - a first in India and definitely unusual.
What is even more remarkable is that the word ‘gay’ converted to ‘queer’ very quickly, within a year or two. The political positioning changed. This was an academic discussion that came to India via the campus. Queer theory has become a serious academic department in American universities and even British ones now. The change happened in the 2000s. The younger generation brought the word into the media. And interestingly, the English language Indian media began using ‘queer’ very soon after it was introduced in India, and the Hindi medium news media started using it as well, spelling out the word ‘queer’ in Hindi, rather than saying LGBT.
Hindi speaking people talking of being queer is a great leap! A lot of them do not understand where the positioning is coming from because such discussions are only held in campuses, and the general population do not read such texts.
I had started out saying that I didn’t know what being gay and Indian was about, and now gay has got repositioned to being queer. So young people now look at me as a kind of cis-gendered, gay male. It’s come into the theoretical via university debates. So its now cis and trans, not just gay, straight, and LGBT. It’s about identifying this way or that way, and its fluid. Today you’re cis and tomorrow you’re not. Its nothing to do with who you are sleeping with.
So now that I’m back in the UK I am confronted with all this cisgender, queer theory, and being Indian again! I’m back to my original question, just the terms have changed. It was gay and Indian before, and now it’s become queer and instead of Indian, the word is migrant. It’s all politics and theory.
So I am tackling my PhD as a queer migrant in the UK. But that’s another discussion.