Queerness has long been an inexorable part of South Asian history. Depictions of gender nonconformity and non-normative forms of sexuality and desires are a common sight in the country’s historical relics. From paintings to literature, and from poetry to cinema, art has long been one of India’s most diverse and fundamentally radical channels to rattle the status quo.
If in recent times such freestyle expressions find themselves clamped or inhibited, it is only a testimony to the sheer transformative strength art harbours. That art in our politically charged times has often been policed and sometimes downright censored only goes on to show how radical and subversive it is.
For the art fanatic, a visit to the nearest government-funded art gallery perhaps won’t suffice. For the cinephile, watching the latest entry in Bollywood’s notoriously problematic series of queer-centric films probably wouldn’t be satiating. Truly subversive and profound artistic works are aplenty on the South Asian queer scene; if one were aware of it, that is. They are found in niche little exhibitions hosted by independent galleries; film screenings are held on Zoom Meets and in small halls booked by groups of people; gorgeous poems about queer intimacy are hidden in books not easily found in public libraries.
Here is a list of South Asian queer artists we think you should be checking out today! We love their portrayals of queer desires, their transgressive depictions of queer friendships and the love and intimacy they manage to convey to their viewers.
1. Salman Toor
New York-based Pakistani painter Salman Toor’s paintings have been hailed by critics as tender and evocative of the cosy love between friends and lovers alike that they depict. Toor’s iconic style of painting has since come to be easily recognisable; keep a lookout for brown lanky men hanging out together, partying, lying naked out on the verandah, or doing each other’s makeup- that is probably something painted by Salman!
In showing South Asian men openly displaying their emotions and being intimate with one another, Toor manages to create a utopian little world where queer people find happiness away from the conventional trappings that come with being a gay man in a hetero-patriarchal world and stresses the beauty of families we create for ourselves, ones who accept us as we are. Some of Toor’s works are currently on display at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, so if you’re in or around Delhi until September, do check out his works there!
2. Akhil Katyal
Delhi-based poet and professor at the Ambedkar University Akhil Katyal’s poems are well-known in literary circles. They are also well-known in queer circuits, especially in Delhi, where his poems, showing life as a queer person in the bustling city, are discussed and recited reverently. Such aspects of life in Delhi as the Metro- connecting gay people throughout the capital- and landmarks like the Palika Bazaar, that shady underground market in the city’s southern parts are regularly featured in Katyal’s poems, adding much life and emotion to them.
Check out Katyal’s collection of poems in his book, “Like Blood on the Bitten Tongue,” for a glimpse into his brilliant poetry.
“Miniscule minority,” “Miniscule minority,”
-the judges kept on barking,
clearly, they’ve never been
on a Sunday evening to the
park above the Palika parking.
3. Raveena Aurora
It is hard to miss American singer-songwriter Raveena from a catalogue of musicians. She’s easily identifiable by her colourful attire inspired by 60s and 70s Bollywood fashion, and her sonic style remains unique amongst today’s generic pop music. Whether it be her iconic R&B songs incorporating elements of South Asian cultures (Raveena is the daughter of Sikh refugees from Punjab) or her pop songs with their decadent psychedelic influences, Raveena continues to enthral her audience with her unique musical tones.
And what’s more- her music is unabashedly queer! As a bisexual artist herself, Raveena doesn’t shy from including elements of queer love and relationships in her lyrics or her music videos, such as in her acclaimed single, “Temptation.”
Only last year did she make history as the first artist of Indian descent to headline Coachella, while being openly queer. Check out Raveena’s latest album, “Asha’s Awakening,” out on music-streaming platforms everywhere.
4. Rituparno Ghosh
Bengali filmmaker and actor Rituparno Ghosh remains a vital figure in India’s queer history- they were known for using their films as a means to create space for sexual and gender minorities. This representation of queer people was radical for its time; it made huge swathes of Indian cinema-goers get their first encounter with an entirely normal, and not caricaturised, portrayal of queer persons in India.
Films such as ‘Arekti Premer Golpo,’ ‘Memories in March,’ and ‘Chitrangada,’ were acclaimed for bringing queer desires and queer life onto the big screen. Ghosh continues to be revered as an immensely talented auteur, and an important figure in normalising queer visibility in Indian cinema.
5. Suniti Namjoshi
Lesbian poet Suniti Namjoshi is known widely in academic circles for her poetry and for her queer rewritings of fables based on lesbian-feminist principles. Known for her witty and playful narrative style, Namjoshi incorporates discussions around lesbian desires and identities in her works regularly. Her engaging narrative style is especially visible in her critically acclaimed work, “Conversations of the Cow.”
By rewriting and re-examining existing canonical texts through a third-world feminist perspective, Namjoshi has created a unique niche for herself wherein she demonstrates her creative talent and witty insight. Keep a lookout for her poetry collections as well, which similarly incorporate her unique tone and stylistic elements of writing for some brilliant poems!
Disclaimer: This is by no means an exhaustive or representative list. Suggestions to add to the list are welcome in the comments section