‘Bound to be Free’ is a travelling exhibition of exquisitely shot personal and professional photographs, making its way from New Delhi to Bangalore, Kolkata and Chennai this winter. Carefully crafted by members and supporters of the underground Kinky Collective, it is both a visual treat and a powerful step in the direction of building respect and understanding for BDSM (Bondage & Discipline, Dominance & Submission and Sado-Masochism), a subset of the broader realm of sexual kink.
The New Delhi version of the exhibition is housed in an unembellished art gallery in Lado Sarai. The photographs on display are intimate and playful, pushing bounds that blur the lines between the sacred and the profane. As you walk in, black and white portraits of the senses being heightened with an assortment of play,leap off the walls and take charge. An intricate dance of sensory rituals and smoke – the images have you relinquishing control on the sheer strength of the erotic power they possess.
In the centre of the room, sheets of literature on the principles of BDSM are neatly stacked, ready for consumption. The idea is for visitors to nibble on factually accurate content as they relax into the inventive, unstructured, freewheeling quality of the exhibition. Simply put, bondage employs the use of restraints for erotic pleasure, the writing offers. Bondage often works hand in hand with discipline where self-styled rules and punishment are the implements that parties agree upon while exercising control over the other.
The literature describes the essence of dominance and submission as the voluntary abdication of control by an individual to another – the handing over of the right of dominance over the self – for purposes of pleasure. It proceeds to talk about sadism or the act of deriving sexual gratification from pain upon another consenting to experience the pain. Sadism is balanced by masochism or the derivation of sexual pleasure from receiving pain.
A string of artists are on hand to share their perspectives with those who stop by to engage with the space. Jaya Sharma, a member of the collective, talks about the levels of trust and respect necessary for self exploration through experiences as compelling as vulnerability or as potent as power. The safe spaces that such interactions enable are seldom bereft of compassion or the rewards of receptivity, she underlines. Jaya is committed to creating a tangible sense of community while confronting the misguided notions that attach themselves to how kink is received in popular culture and mainstream media. In her view the more accepting, communicative and open one is about sexual desire the less there is to be feared, condemned or misconstrued.
Negotiated consent is the very backbone of sexual kink.“…We think people outside the community have much to learn from us…there is a high degree of articulation, and chains of communication are far more refined…” she explains. “In BDSM, consent is proactively sought and offered, and can be withdrawn unconditionally and instantly with the use of a single word or gesture.”
Captivating portrayals of masculine compliance and malleability offsets visions of female sexual authority. “In contrast to the construction of BDSM as anti-women … it is important to know that BDSM enables space for women dominants to be completely in control, and for submissive men to be vulnerable. It is also important to challenge the typical imagination of a male dominant and a woman submissive…” Jaya explains. As you make your way down the room, the exhibits continue to challenge the one – dimensionality of fantasies as ‘gendered’. Look even closer and you can actually feel the racing pulse of a context where ‘yes’ means ‘yes’. Censorship and erasure have no place here. Banishing assumptions and quieting the impulse to judge are the clear way forward.
An impromptu discussion spills onto the floor, with visitors to the gallery beginning to express their feelings around the experience. One such visitor mentions how liberating it is to leave behind assumptions about what someone else might want. Another talks of how humanizing the act of pushing past one’s limits with the help of a trusted few can be. The artists present describe how uniformly crushing the sense of unease is – across cultures – when it comes down to asking for what one wants. How defining that moment then is, where one feels able to appreciate how pleasure and pain could work together when lifted by consent.
BDSM triumphs in the practice of sound ethics and the unconditional acceptance of the many forms and shapes desire takes.“…The act of surrendering can take you to very raw, primal places inside you, it centers and heals you in a way that not much else can…” Jaya reflects. “None of this is meant to convert non-believers into followers. It is an argument for acceptance…” she adds. “…Even for this exhibition, members of the collective are quite scared about coming out so publicly. But it is essential to break the silence and talk about the strengths of the community…”
The artists invite suggestions. ‘Is there anything we could do differently the next time?’ Jaya inquires warmly. Ideas are offered. The exhibition is home to a poignant shot of the simple thrills of grains of rice being pressed against skin. Perhaps including more photographs along those lines would serve to endear the community to those without easy access to fine wine and stilletos, thereby broadening its reach? Similarly, widening the canvas of sexual identities, gender identities, body types and abilities being represented could go a long way in terms of strengthening inclusivity.
With that said, ‘Bound to be Free’ is unafraid to collectively imagine shedding inhibition and opening the door. It demystifies and celebrates sexuality as authentic expressions of choice and agency. It is truthful in its illustrations of desire, isolation, pleasure and power. It deftly side steps the pitfalls of diluting what motivates transcendent human exchanges. At its very core, it seeks to illuminate and empower. Asking difficult questions in the kindest possible way, this labour of love or lesson in craftsmanship is poised to scatter in the wind and touch a very many.