Photographer Sunil Gupta Captures the Essence of Gay Life in 1980s India

A Subtle Perspective of Gay Life"Men holding hands or lying in each other’s laps is not an issue — it looks very romantic from the outside, but they’r...

A Subtle Perspective of Gay Life

"Men holding hands or lying in each other’s laps is not an issue — it looks very romantic from the outside, but they’re usually just hanging out,"

"I was creating more interest than them, because I was standing there with a tripod and a camera, so everybody was focused on me."

To passersby, the sight of two men embracing beside New Delhi’s India Gate in 1986 might have seemed unremarkable. However, photographer Sunil Gupta garnered more attention at the time than the subjects themselves. Capturing the moment in a creative and subtly subversive way, Gupta introduced a different perspective within the repressive atmosphere of 1980s India.

Gupta treated his subjects as collaborators, emphasizing the importance of trust and rapport in his photo series. He carefully selected the images that would be showcased, considering the comfort level of the men involved. Explaining the purpose and process of photography to his subjects posed an additional ethical challenge, as they were unaware of the medium's potential beyond magazines.

In a time when homosexuality was still considered taboo and criminalized, Gupta navigated the informal networks within Delhi's gay scene to find his subjects. The location of the photo shoot, chosen by the pair involved, was the war monument's gardens known for its reputation as a cruising spot. Gupta, drawing on his personal experiences from living in New Delhi, knew the area well and understood the dynamics of the gay community during that era.

Revisiting Gay Life Through "Exiles"

Today, Gupta's photo series "Exiles" offers a historical glimpse into the lives of gay men in India before the advent of dating apps like Grindr and the internet. It portrays their everyday interactions and showcases the joy and freedom they experienced amidst a society plagued by prejudice and discrimination. The series has piqued curiosity about a time often misunderstood as solely bleak and tragic, demonstrating that gay individuals had the capacity to lead fulfilling lives even then.

Gupta fondly recalls the India Gate photo shoot as being filled with leisurely pleasure, abundant sunlight, and camaraderie. The atmosphere of the day was characterized by the carefree enjoyment of the moment. This sentiment resonates strongly throughout the "Exiles" series, ultimately becoming a testament to the resilience and vibrancy of India's LGBTQ community during that era.

Recognition and Changing Attitudes

The significance of Gupta's work has grown over time, finding its place in contemporary photography as New York's Museum of Modern Art acquired several of his photographs for its permanent collection. Initially, the series did not receive immediate recognition when it debuted, possibly due to the prevailing social norms and mindsets of the time.

However, by the 1990s, the increased visibility of art created by and for people of color within the LGBTQ community garnered greater interest in Gupta's work. Now, displaying his photographs in India reflects the changing attitudes and broader acceptance within the country, particularly since the decriminalization of gay sex in 2018.

Gupta's contributions to LGBTQ experiences in artistic representations are not limited to India alone. His celebrated photographic exploration of race, immigration, and identity includes a landmark series of images capturing New York's gay scene in the aftermath of the Stonewall Riots and ahead of the AIDS epidemic. Gupta's intent has always been to create a legacy for future generations, ensuring that gay individuals are represented and their stories acknowledged within the canon of art.

As Gupta's "Exiles" series takes center stage at the India Art Fair in New Delhi, viewers are invited to delve into the rich tapestry of gay life in 1980s India, appreciating the beauty, resilience, and courage of the individuals who paved the way for progress and acceptance.

Editor’s Note: In Snap, we explore the profound impact of individual photographs, delving into both contemporary and historical images and their unique stories.

"Exiles" is currently being showcased through Vadehra Art Gallery at the India Art Fair, running from February 9th to 12th in New Delhi, India. Additionally, a book featuring outtakes from the series, published by Aperture, is now available.

04 Oca 2024 - 15:25 - Lifestyle

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