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Snippets from the Indian LGBT Movement: Extracted from Records in SAATHII Calcutta’s LGBT Support Centre Reference Library

Photo from an Indian LGTB festival. Several people carrying together a big placard that reads, "The rainbow festival, Kolkata - Walk on the rainbow." One of them also carry a rainbow-coloured umbrella. The sun shines above.

The Indian lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement is truly a rainbow of many fascinating hues. This movement is gradually bringing to light, documenting and representing the rich diversity of genders and sexualities that have existed in our cultures since thousands of years. It is advocating that this diversity should be respected and discrimination against LGBT people should be stopped.

As an organized political movement the Indian LGBT movement is still quite young, having taken its first steps only in the early 1990s. However, it is not as if the movement started overnight. Rather it was a result of several visible and invisible developments taking place over the years in the world and Indian contexts.

As of current knowledge, these developments in modern-time India can be traced back to the early 20th century, though even this boundary is likely to be constantly pushed back. Till perhaps categories such as modern-time and earlier India blur and merge with each other. As some people argue, developments whether in the past, present or future are all part of a single continuum and linked in both obvious and unexpected ways!

We present here a chronological account of milestones, big and small, achieved so far by the Indian LGBT movement. But these are only the more political milestones and involve either well-known individuals, or groups and organizations of LGBT people.

There are many other developments taking place in the form of day-to-day social networking among LGBT people and their influencers all over the country. Even unknown individuals (whether LGBT or not) all over the country taking a stand on sexuality issues contribute to the movement.

It will always be our endeavour to document as many of these developments as possible through various means at our disposal, or facilitate their documentation by other individuals and organizations involved in the Indian LGBT movement. Here, however, we focus on the political and closely related milestones of the movement.

Picture: Dr. L. Ramakrishnan.

The second issue of this column highlighted developments in the late 1970s till 1981 in the sphere of theatre. Before we proceed further into the 1980s, this third issue takes a look at some of the developments in the literary field since as early as the 1920s till the early 1980s. Arguably, these developments were not strictly part of the organized and political Indian LGBT movement that took off in the 1990s. But their influence on the consciousness of those who initiated the movement in the 1990s cannot be ruled out:

1922 – “Poems Written in Prison” by Gopabandhu Das, a freedom fighter and a Gandhian, is published. Gopabandhu Das wrote these poems while in prison for nationalist activities. At least two poems address male friends and co-workers, and the author describes these relationships in terms that are intense and erotically charged though not overtly sexual. The poems became an accepted part of Oriya literature and are included in Oriya school text books till date.

1924 – “Chocolate”, a short story in Hindi written by nationalist and social reformer Pandey Bechan Sharma (under the penname Ugra) is published in the nationalist newspaper “Matvala”. In this and subsequent stories, Ugra launches a veritable crusade against the prevalence of male-to-male sex among urban, educated men. However, his efforts backfire when other nationalists (notably the litterateur Pandit Banarsidas Chaturvedi) attack the stories as titillating and indecent, despite the author’s stated intention of censuring same-sex relations. A large-scale controversy results in Hindi newspapers and magazines, in what is perhaps the first public debate in Hindi on homosexuality. The controversy dies down only when Pandit Banarsidas Chaturvedi evokes the authority of Mahatma Gandhi himself, claiming that Mahatma Gandhi has said he opposes such literature as Ugra’s.

1929 – Mahatma Gandhi enters the debate on same-sex relations once again with a letter in “Young India”, in response to queries on “unnatural vices” in schools. In the open letter, he puts the blame on general social apathy, on the neglect of religious education in schools, and the lack of dedicated teachers. However, he does not single out homosexuality and instead locates it as but a symptom of a larger disease affecting society. For him the “solution” is not in “sitting in judgment of others” but individual reform.

1936 – Firaq Gorakhpuri, an important Urdu poet of the 20th century, writes an essay defending the Ghazal form of poetry from charges brought against it by a critic – notably that Ghazals are depraving as they praise the beauty of young boys, and that such writers deserve penal sentences. Firaq Gorakhpuri responds with a long essay that includes an eloquent defence of homosexuality, citing renowned philosophers, poets and other luminaries across the East and the West who were homosexual or had expressed homosexual desire in well-known works. He argues that great art cannot be subject to pedestrian prejudice and that homosexuality is intrinsic to the greatness of venerated figures like Sa’adi, Hafiz, Mahmud Ghaznavi and Babur.

1945 – Ismat Chughtai publishes her semi-autobiographical “Tehri Lakeer” (“The Crooked Line”), an Urdu novel that is pioneering in the way it treats the lives of Muslim women. Like her other controversial story “Lihaaf” (see first issue of the column), this novel also does not shy away from sexuality in both its oppressive and liberatory aspects. The book contains a significant depiction of same-sex attraction in the relationship between the protagonist Shamman and her teacher Miss Charan. Though less than “Lihaaf”, this novel, too, ruffles many feathers and is followed by protests after publication.

1962 – Rajendra Yadav, a leading Hindi novelist, publishes his story “Prateeksha” (“Waiting”). The story depicts a homosexual relation between two women without censure and in detail, and as such is notable coming from a leading literary figure.

1968 – Bhupen Khakhar, a well-known painter and writer of Gujarati fiction, as well as one of the few openly homosexual luminaries, writes an untitled story depicting bisexuality in a quotidian, lower middle class context. It gives an interesting insight into how alternative familial arrangements often exist masked by an appearance of conventionality.

1974 – The Malayalam novel “Randu Penkuttikal” (“Two Girls”) by noted writer V. T. Nandakumar is published. The novel gives a positive picture of lesbian relationships in Kerala and becomes hugely popular, especially with women and girl students. In the foreword to the second edition of the work, the author opines that “lesbianism . . . is likely to be widespread among women of Kerala . . . such relationships have some positive and healthy potential, hence they are important”. The author concludes “by praying for the growth and prosperity of lesbianism”.

1979 – The story “A Double Life” by well known Rajasthani author Vijay Dan Detha is published. It depicts a romantic-sexual relationship between two women “married” to each other. The story is in a folk tale format and locates the relationship deep in rural Rajasthan.

Other key developments – publishing of “The World of Homosexuals” by Shakuntala Devi and the journal “Gay Scene” in the late 1970s, and Marathi plays “Begum Barve” in 1979 and “Mitrachi Gosht” in 1981 – have already been written about in the first and second issues, respectively, of this column.

All these developments and several more not written about here, when seen in a totality, seem to indicate that the 20th century, till the 1970s and early 1980s, was not an uneventful one in relation to LGBT concerns in India. The events in the mid and late 1980s (to be focussed on forthcoming issues of this column) only strengthen that impression. The main catalyst to the politically organized Indian LGBT movement in the 1990s may have had Western origins, but the stage for the movement was being set right here in India !


(1) “ Humjinsi – A Resource Book on Lesbian, Gay & Bisexual Rights in India , 2002 Edition”, India Centre for Human Rights and Law, Mumbai, 2002

(2) “Same Sex Love in India : Readings from Literature and History”, Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, Macmillan, New Delhi , 2001

These books are available in the reference library of SAATHII Calcutta LGBT Support Centre.

Please visit the archives for previous issues.

This article was originally published here.