On Saturday afternoon, at the opening session of the first ever Rainbow Lit Fest at Gulmohar Park, New Delhi, acclaimed mythologist and writer Devdutt Patnaik spoke about what Lord Ram had to say about the queer community. He quoted a verse from Ramcharitmanas while addressing the crowd:
“Purush napunsak naari va jeev charaachar koi, sarve bhaav bhaj kapat taji mohi param priya hoi.“
In this verse, Tulsidas says that for Ram, whoever – man, woman, queer, plant, animal – comes to him without malice, is very dear to him. Hence, the popular belief that queer people are not part of Indian tradition is ill-informed, Patnaik said.
Along with him, 75 other exponents from the world of prose, art, music, dance and cinema have come together to share a common space for over two days – December 7 and 8.
The festival is the brainchild of former journalist, communications consultant and LGBTQIA+ activist Sharif D. Rangnekar, the author of Straight to Normal – My Life As Gay Man. Making up the second half of the organising team is Pankaj Malhotra, the managing director (India, South Asia and CIS region) for Pulse Universal – a global event firm.
“The fest essentially aims to engage with the truth of identity and diversity, and while drawing on the distinctions, we wish to address the common ground of humanity. There is no better way than literature, art, poetry, music and talk to bring such topics to life” Ragnekar said.
During his session, Patnaik showed several pictures of cross-dressing gods and goddesses from across India, “unusual families” in the Indian epic tradition, and narrated a story on Gurunanak having a long conversation with a Sufi cross-dressed man.
“The queer has been a part of our tradition for over 2000 years. Those who deny, don’t pay attention to temple walls, pillars and the inscriptions. It is not random, it is not revolutionary. It is part of life,” he said.
There is a need, he said, to have a samvaad (conversation) over this rich history to bust popular beliefs.
In another session, ‘Harmony and Harmonising’, eminent vocalist of Hindustani Classical Music Shubha Mudgal spoke about the vaadi, samvaadi and the anuvaadi – prominent notes in classical compositions – and how they interact to produce to a melody, a Raag. The anuvaadi (loosely translated as an aberration), she says, is not an outcast in a Raag, but an embellishment which enhances its beauty.
Indian society, she said, is similar to a Raag which thrives in inclusion of queer and other minority communities.
“Today, we desperately need to join hands and come together to fight violence, hatred and justice,” she said. She ended her talk on a melodious note, singing, “Rasiya ko naar banao ri, rasiya ko”
— Rainbow Literature Festival (@RainbowLitFest) December 7, 2019
The post-noon session at the fest explored the multiple strands of identities within the queer movement. In one of the panel discussions, Sukhdeep Singh – founder and editor-in-chief of Gaylaxy (magazine for LGBTQIA+ community) – elaborated on Guru Nanak’s conversation with a Sufi cross-dressed man named Sheikh Saraf.
“Our Sikh gurus often raise objections to LGBTQIA+ community when our granth (holy-book) makes no commentary on the same. However, the story of Sheikh Saraf and my conversation with some non-regressive Sikh gurus is testimonial to our inclusive tradition,” he said.
Similarly, Rafiul Alom Rahman, founder of Queer Muslim Project, spoke about how he deals with both Islamophobia as well as queerphobia from within his community and outside it.
“I identify as queer and I am also Muslim and I face discrimination because of both. Although I am not a very religious person, Islam is part of my identity which I can’t deny,” he said.
Kumam Davidson, the co-founder of the Chinky Homo Project – a digital and print anthology from northeast India – spoke about identity politics and the futility of discarding one’s own regional or religious identity in the LGBTQIA+ movement.
“You would not see a lot of faces of people from the northeast in the pictures of Pride Parade in Delhi. What does that say? Our movement needs to be more inclusive,” he said.
Nemat Sadat, Afghanistan’s first openly gay author, spoke about having to navigate complex layers of identity while living in the US. He also spoke about facing discrimination while teaching university students in the US because of his identity and political views. Despite the obstacles, he said, he continues to speak up.
“If I don’t speak, who else will? As a sub-culture, we need to challenge the dominant narrative which rejects the idea of homosexuality,” he said. Saadat published his first book The Carpet Weaver in June this year.
The President of India Ram Nath Kovind has signed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019, which was recently passed in the Rajya Sabha. The Bill, the trans-community says, deprives them of their basic right to self-identification and self-dignity.
Zainab Patel – director, diversity and inclusion at KPMG India – rejected the Bill saying that it doesn’t take into account what the community has to say. She also said that there is no need to be politically correct anymore from now onwards.
“This Bill has not been made by us so it is not for us. It is not going to serve any purpose and the community strongly oppose this draconian law, ” she said.
Mohul Sharma, who works at the Lalit Hotels and identifies as transman, said that the Bill makes no mention of documentation process. “What about those who have undergone sex re-assignment surgery and have changed their names? They can’t use their previous certificates and identity cards bearing their old names. What about them? Nobody is talking about that,” he said.
Within the queer community and elsewhere, inclusivity, as many at the fest said, has to be made a part of everyday conversation – a part of everyday life.
“Inclusivity is not just about being invited to a party, but also being able to dance at the party,” said Anuranjita Kumar, the author of Colour Matters.
Featured image credit: Twitter/@RainbowLitFest