Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 16, March 2008

Ana Garcia-Arroyo

The Construction of Queer Culture in India:
Pioneers and Landmarks[1]

Barcelona: ellas editorial, 2006
ISBN 84-934973-2-0 (pbk); vi + 222 pp.
bibliography, index, images

Reviewed by Subhash Chandra

      It is well known that the combination or convergence of several factors, circumstances, and events at a particular moment in the history of a country unleashes collective restraints and inhibitions, produces awareness and action, and eventually sparks revolts and considerable change' (p. 77).

  1. These words from Ana Garcia-Arroyo's book The Construction of Queer Culture in India: Pioneers and Landmarks are prescient and may well prove prophetic, at least in a limited way, in the Indian context. Though no revolt or revolution may be in the offing in the near future. India as a culture seems poised for a significant change in attitudes to same-sex love and relationships. Now is the time in India, when a slew of factors seem to be working in tandem to facilitate the opening of the queer closet and alternative Indian understandings of the expression of the same-sex desire, as against the Euro-American paradigm, are emerging. The processes of globalisation and liberalisation have brought to the fore issues and identities which were kept under wraps by Christian Puritanism or conservative Islam and Hinduism. Hijras and kothis are naming themselves as such and claiming their right to live with dignity.[2] A native queer discourse is in the process of being formulated which would adequately frame the nuanced queer identity, and representation of same-sex desire in arts and culture in India.[3] The debate about same sex love has entered the public domain.[4] Courts are changing their perspective on homosexuality.[5]
  2. This, however, should not give the impression that all is well for the queer in India. The change, mentioned above, is to be noticed in the urban metropolises and among the educated, middle or upper middle class. Besides, the extent of the change is small and often entails stiff resistance from the entrenched heteropatriarchal anti-gay lobbies, interestingly comprising the Hindu Right, the Church and the Muslim clergy. Away from the urban centers, in small towns and villages, among the lower and lower-lower classes, homosexuality continues to be feared, hated, and stigmatised, and lesbians and gays generally lead closeted (read oppressed) lives. The media representation of lesbians and gays is geared to titillate the readership or pathologise the queer.[6] At the level of activism, feminist forums theoretically subscribe to gender fluidity, or plurality, but queer sexual liberation does not find place on their agendas.[7]
  3. The Construction of Queer Culture in India, appearing at this crucial juncture is, therefore, valuable in terms of its reinforcing the 'cultural push' that is in the process of emerging in the Indian cultural environment as it offers insightful perspectives on the issue of same-sex love and desire and their expressions.
  4. The title resonates with Michel Foucault via Judith Butler and sets out the trajectory of the book: gender as also sex and desire are constructions within the socio-cultural matrix, determined by temporal/spatial specificities and political hegemonies and are subject to ideological accretions over a period of time. Since gender is conceptualised as performative (and therefore plural), Garcia-Arroyo points to different ways gender was constructed in different cultures and spaces, depending on the prevailing ideological slant. This thesis is used to establish the existence, legitimacy and even celebration of same-sex love in ancient Indian and Greek civilisations. It was the ascendancy of Christian metanarrative in the West and the arrival of colonialism in India that sexualities other than heteropatriarchal were invalidated and were formulated in the binary epistemological framework. I will elaborate the Indian situation later in the review.
  5. The Construction of Queer Culture in India is structured into the following sections: (i) A comprehensive Introduction (ii) An Overview of the Past, (iii) In Transition: Sexuality and Morality (iv) Contemporary Politics and Art and, (v) A biographical note on R. Raj Rao, an out gay academic, writer and queer activist.[8]
  6. The Introduction consists of 'General Aims' and 'Terminology', the latter being a thoughtful addition, as there is generally some confusion about the cultural nuances and scope of the terms used to discuss the queer desire, especially in a particular cultural context. To give a few examples, not many outside (at times even within) India would know the terms saheli, sakhi, panthi, kothi, hijra, yaar or masti, as representing alternative genders and sexualities. The 'General Aims' section raises a crucial question: 'Is there a queer culture in India?' which could be linked to both the present and the past.[9] The answer to this question, in fact, overarches the whole book.
  7. The one major argument against same-sex love in India is advanced by the Hindu Right who contend that it is alien to Indian culture and is, therefore, not only discordant with it, but also has a morally corrupting influence on the Indian society. Their protests and violence against Deepa Mehta's film Fire stemmed from this ideological position and they continue to oppose all that they consider obscene, pornographic and vulgar, unmindful of the autonomy of the artistic expression. The film Bandit Queen was also the object of their ire on account of the sequences of rape.[10]
  8. Section two 'An Overview of the Past,' constitutes a counter argument to the thinking of the Hindu Right and establishes that queer-sex and homoeroticism are very much part of India's culture. For this purpose, Garcia-Arroyo ranges wide from the Vedas, to the Smritis, to the Kamasutra, the Panchtantra, the Buddhist religious texts, Sufism, Ghazal and Rekhti poetry by women in which the poet addresses her female lover. She points to ancient cosmological myths or stories of genesis or creation in the Rig Veda which prove the existence of Feminine Deities of same-sex pairs of sisters, mothers or friends. 'The dual deities, also referred to as twins (jami) maintain their generative feminine kinship through their connection with earth (prithvi) and form the leading principle of this cosmological feminine philosophy.'(p. 20). It was only later that the plurality of the feminine traditions ceased to exist and the 'Dual Feminine' principle disappeared, giving way to patriarchy. Popular queer tales from Hindu mythology, such as 'Mohini (Vishnu) and the Demons,' are also mentioned, which, quoting Judith Butler, Garcia-Arroyo contends indicate gender fluidity and performativity. She contends, the androgyny of God Shiva, too, subverts the notion of unified binary sexual identity. According to the Kamasutra, women can perform the same sexual action as men and thus, it hints at lesbianism. The Panchtantra mentions friendship between the same-sex birds and animals and suggests homosexual bonding between them—the story of intimate friendship between an ape and a crocodile much to the chagrin of crocodile's wife, who wants him to kill the ape, is offered as evidence. The word pandaka in Vinaya (monastic view) and Abhidharma (the metaphysics of the Pali and Sanskrit traditions) 'appears to refer to a much broader concept of the category of the homosexual' (p. 37).
  9. The third section is 'In Transition: Sexuality and Morality. A Complex Fine Balance'. Colonialism and nationalism curiously worked to achieve the same effect: erasure of the homoerotic traditions in the Indian culture. While the colonial rulers, steeped in Victorian sexual morality, rooted in Puritanism found homosexuality offensive and even evil, quoting Giti Thadani, Garcia-Arroyo says that the Indian nationalists, wanted to construct an Indian identity, based on the glorious 'Aryan heritage' which privileged the patriarchal Vedic, brahamanic and khsatriya traditions and provided the 'Hindu' civilization with racial superiority and a return to a 'heroic warrior manhood' (p. 67). It also provided for a form of cultural nationalism that affirmed the masculine identity of the 'Hindu man'. Garcia-Arroyo appropriately sums up the disjuncture in the homoerotic traditions in the words: 'The heterosexualization of the ghazal, the suppression of Rekhti poetry and the introduction of Indian Penal Code with sections 292 and 377 against obscenity and sodomy, transform the Indian cultural panorama into a powerful heteropatriarchal system dominated by colonial nationalist representations of homophobia and gender differentiation' (p. 67). It may seem ironic that on the point of homosexuality, the coloniser and the colonised concurred—though their political agendas were opposite and inimical to each other.
  10. The nineteenth and early twentieth century colonial disjuncture notwithstanding, the author maintains, and rightly so, that there is a 'Queer Continuum' in India as during these years, though homosexuality was sought to be made invisible by criminalising it and by heterosexualising the homoerotic literatures, it does not mean that the same-sex love ceased to exist.
  11. Section Four: 'Contemporary Politics and Art,' links up the present queer resurgence with the homoerotic traditions of ancient Indian culture and reiterates the 'Queer Continuum' in Indian history. Garcia-Arroyo joins critics, such as Ruth Vanita and Salim Kidwai, and Giti Thadani,[11] and often goes beyond them by offering her own observations on and interpretations of the emerging queer sensibilities and identitarian politics.
  12. For Garcia-Arroyo the beginning of the debate on homosexuality in the twentieth century is made with Shakuntala Devi's book The World of Homosexuals published in 1977. However, I would like to point out that this debate could be traced to the 1920s, with the publication, in 1924, of a collection of Hindi short stories titled Chocolate and Other Writings on Male-Male Desire by the nationalist writer Pandey Bechan Sharma 'Ugra.'[12] Though Ruth Vanita, the translator and editor of the volume, ascribes to it value in terms of its contribution to removing 'irrational prejudices and absurd ideas about homosexuality,' the collection, in fact, demonised the queer by representing them as mad, obsessive, cunningly manipulative who seduce young boys to their beds, eventually earning the opprobrium of the narrator/author. Nonetheless, paradoxically the anthology served the purpose of queer visibility at a time when they were not known to exist. Chocolate was followed by a lull, till Shakuntala Devi's (the famous mathematician) book appeared. This book went almost unnoticed, and did not contribute to queer discourse or movement.[13]
  13. In the 1990s, as mentioned earlier, the 'queer landscape' in India changed noticeably. A boom in books, both critical and creative, films, television discussions, and panel discussions contributed, albeit in a small way, to greater acceptance of sexual difference. Garcia-Arroyo misses out on an important writer, Firdaus Kanga, who is the pioneer of gay fiction in India. In his Trying to Grow (1991) he not only explicitly portrays gay desire, but also explores gay sexuality intersecting with another kind of marginality—physical disability. However, Garcia-Arroyo mentions in detail how in the nineties, queer activism established networks, communities, newsletters, NGOs and the queer people have begun to speak out against the injustices and deprivations they have to contend with in a predominantly heterosexual homophobic society, with both the law and the State prejudiced against them.
  14. This section also contains an extensive discussion of Deepa Mehta's film Fire, which further strengthens the view that the film transferred the issue of lesbianism in India from the private/personal to the public space. Fire had provoked violence and frayed tempers, particularly in the metropolises, on its release. Taking an inclusive view of the lesbian discourse that emerged in the wake of controversies between the pro and anti lesbianism groups and the points and counterpoints about the same-sex love, the writer makes her own incisive comments on the film. For instance, she appropriately points out that the film resulted in greater visibility of lesbians in India, as the Parliament discussed the film and the leading English newspapers carried headlines that caught the eye. At the same time, it blazed a trail in the world of lesbian cinema. Not long after Fire, another lesbian film, Girlfriend, directed by Karan Razdan, was exhibited. Even in a mainstream commercial potboiler, Kal Ho Na Ho (Tomorrow is Uncertain), a queer suggestion was made, though in passing.
  15. 'R. Raj Rao: A Subversive Spirit' constitutes the fifth section of the book. It is incontestable, as pointed out by Garcia-Arroyo, that Rao, an out gay, academic, activist and creative writer, together with other writers and activists, is an important 'pioneer' and 'landmark,' (read the sub-title of the book) who has made significant contribution to the emergence of queer discourse and queer visibility at a time, when gay was a dreaded word/label in India. His poetry especially brings out poignantly the anguish of being queer in India and at times forcefully hits out at the paternalistic attitude of heteropatriarchal majority whose self-assumed righteousness and moral superiority oppresses the queer in India. But Garcia-Arroyo pursued her Ph.D. with Raj Rao as her supervisor and mentor (the present book is the expanded version of her thesis) and sometimes one gets the feeling that she is excessively adulatory of Rao and his writings and in the process loses out on her objectivity and criticality which otherwise characterise the rest of the book.
  16. At times, one comes across in the book linguistic infelicities: 'India has experimented a considerable transformation' (p. 105) or 'Rea in She is Her Children's Mother also recurs to the metaphor of being in the light ') (p. 156) which obstruct the flow of ideas and militate against the articulation of her arguments, which otherwise seem substantial and forceful, backed as they are by meticulous research. But we need to remember that Garcia-Arroyo's first language is Spanish and she has had the courage to write in English on a subject which is at once complex, and without adequate commonly shared vocabulary. Besides, I affirm unhesitatingly that this does not detract, in any measure, from the value of the book, which by itself constitutes a landmark in the emerging Indian queer discourse. I am confident The Construction of Queer Culture in India will be useful to scholars/academics and also the lay readers who have the desire to know about the queer and their inner and outer struggles.

[1] A version of this book has also been published in Spanish under the title, Sexualidades alternatives en el arte y la cultura de la India, Espana: Ellas Editorial S.L., 2006, ISBN 84-934973-1-2, viii + 195 pp.

[2] During my interaction with Ms. Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a hijra from Mumbai, she insisted on her feminine gender and informed me that hijras all over India have been struggling to claim feminine identity. The audible male voice and visible appearance prevent them from being categorised as women.

[3] Arvind Narrain and Gautam Bhan Because I Have a Voice: Queer Politics in India, New Delhi: Yoda Press, 2005.

[4] Some time back, NDTV's popular Talk Show, We the People, took up for its subject the issue of homosexuality. A visible change in the attitude of society was reflected in the audience poll. An overwhelming majority admitted, they were comfortable with the idea of homosexuality. The Public Service Broadcasting Trust organised a festival of award-winning films from around the world on 'Gender and Sexuality,' from 12–15 May, 2007 in Delhi. Then, a queer festival was organised by Nigah—a Queer Forum from 25 May – 3 June 2007, which included films, theatre, photography, and performances by queer artists.

[5] The Supreme Court has directed the High Court to have a second look at the petition filed by the Naaz Foundation Trust seeking decriminalisation of homosexual relations between consenting adults.

[6] Sumanyu Satpathy, 'Ethics of represeNtATION: media and the Indian queer,' Paper presented at the 1st International Conference of Asian Queer Studies Bangkok, Thailand, 7-9 July 2005 on Sexualities, Genders, and Rights in Asia and published in their On-line Anthology of Selected Papers, ca. 2006, online:, accessed 28 January 2008.

[7] Even though gender has come to be conceptualised as construct, fluid and continuum, not a single NGO fighting for women's rights in India has ever joined the Naaz foundation or Voices Against 377's petitions to decriminalise article 377.

[8] The division of sections is my own. The book has only two sections.

[9] The traditionalists and cultural purists believe it is an import from the West.

[10] Women's oppression does not figure on the nationalist agenda of the Hindu Right.

[11] Giti Thadani, Sakhyani: Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India, London: Cassell, 1996; Ruth Vanita and Salim Kidwai (eds), Same-Sex Love in India: Readings From Literature and History, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

[12] Pandey Becham Sharma 'Ugra' Chocolate and Other Writings on Male-Male Desire, trans. from Hindi and Introduction by Ruth Vanita, New Delhi: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006.

[13] The reason for this book not making its mark was because Shakuntala Devi was famous for her mathematical wizardry and nothing of substantial import in the field of homosexuality was expected from her. Another factor for the indifference meted out to the book could perhaps be a calculated silence because the cultural situation in India was inhospitable for an open and elaborate discussion on this issue.


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