In 1981, in New Delhi, artist Bhupen Khakhar displayed his painting ‘You Can’t Please All’ in what was later hailed as a definitive show — not just for the artist or for Indian art, but for Indian society at large.
Khakhar came out as gay to the public in this exhibition, which was praised for its art that moved away from symbolic and abstract imagery towards contemporary and personal subjects. Today, that same painting hangs at the Tate Gallery in the UK.
(Check out Abir Pothi’s tribute to the artist here for his birthday this year.)
Khakhar’s often openly homosexual themes in his art were startling, as LGBTQIA rights and identity and expression had barely gathered any mainstream notice in this era. Exactly 40 years after this iconic moment, two decades into the 21st century, one may be surprised to find that being openly out of the closet as an artist is still not very widely in practice. If one indulges in even a cursory search on the internet, even today, one will find probably a handful of artists who have publicly embraced this aspect of their identity.
On a slightly more positive note, though, times are a-changing, albeit slower than expected. The advent of social media and the natural habitat it provides for Gen Z has also led to more young artists finding a voice for their queerness and their talent coalescing on buzzing avenues like Instagram.
We list out some of the Indian LGBTQIA artists, both emerging and established, whose work we love.
Indian-born Canadian photographer based in London, Sunil Gupta, has made an iconic career out of “making work responding to the injustices suffered by gay men across the globe, himself included”. His photos traverse themes of sexual identity, migration, race and family, and his collections have been shown at prestigious locations like the Tate and MoMA. According to The New Yorker, “whether shooting couples in Britain or covert queer life in India, the photographer has found fine distinctions of identity”.
Touted as India’s first-ever transgender artist, Kalki Subramaniam — besides being a visual artist — also runs the Sahodari Foundation, a pioneer organisation in India working on social empowerment of the transgender community, raising funds for their empowerment via art. Her visual art mostly comprises portraits awash with colours of the rainbow, featuring figurative art meshing with pop art.
Born in 1991, Uttam Chitrakar is a unique artist who comes from West Bengal’s Midnapore. He is known for revolutionising the street-side pat paintings of Kalighat by introducing queer and transgender elements into the traditional art. From the depiction of Hindu gods to mythological characters, Kalighat paintings also reflect a variety of subjects, including everyday life — the representation brought into them by Uttam is an important step towards larger LGBTQ acceptance.
Durga Gawde is an artist, sculptor activist, and self-professed as “India’s first drag king” — genderfluid, nonbinary, and pansexual. Chronicling their own journey with their body and identity, their art is an honest and pathbreaking insight into queerness. They are known for performance art and undertake various interactive initiatives to educate people about gender and sexuality.
Photographer Sandeep Tk can be found @t.k.sandeep, and this timeline is a celebration of the natural beauty of Kerala, of the human body, of race, of region, with a slice of life shining through in seamlessly appealing compositions, and trans community representation captured beautifully — in one most known photo project, members of the hijra community were gathered and photographed dressed for their dream professions. The artist’s photo and video stories have the haunting lilt of loneliness to them often; Sandeep has professed that queerness has contributed to the artistic trajectory immeasurably.
Known for being crowned Mr. Gay World India 2016, Anwesh Sahoo has since carved a name for himself as an artist, blogger, writer, model, actor and a TEDx speaker. He prides himself as a visual artist and designer, and goes by the Insta handle @the.effeminare, sketching fashion-oriented sketches that defy sartorial gender norms. His latest art series, Mermen of Colour, has also been creating a splash.
Bengaluru-based artist T Praveen Kumar goes by the Insta handle @koncham_artsy and has a gritty take on the artistic depiction of queerness. These sketches and watercolours tend to take on darker hues and veer often into the territory of contemplative portraits of a diversity of individuals; themes of sexuality are also explored with power and grace.
Queer Indian artist Priya Dali has been in the news for exploring sexual identity through the uncommon mechanism of a comic book. The art by the graphic designer and illustrator veers distinctly towards the comic book territory, all the while busting stereotypes, addressing sexuality, and remaining super-accessible for viewers.
Artist Veer Misra, 24 years old, can be found on Instagram @veermisra (formerly @v.eird). The young illustrator in many of instances takes up a rose-tinted look at the world of queerness in art, quite literally awash with shades of pink, depicting unabashed love in all its glorious avatars. But, along with intimacy, the illustrations also explore themes of loneliness, self-discovery, contemplation, companionship and more.
Hailing from Kolkata, Opashona Ghosh is an artist and facilitator now in London. According to their website, “their work explores feminist approaches to mental and sexual health, and club culture, locating the intersections of body, community and ritual”. The art in unapologetic and has a modernist pop culture vibe meshing with surrealist depictions.