DR RUTH VANITA (b.1955), is a renowned academic and author specializing in lesbian and gay studies. Some of her acclaimed books include Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society (2002), Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West (2005), and Gandhi’s Tiger and Sita’s Smile: Essays on Gender, Sexuality and Culture (2005).
In this interview she answers questions about the representation of LGBT issues in the English media, mainstream cinema, Indian literature and the women’s movement.
Meena Kandasamy: The pride parades in Bangalore, New Delhi and Kolkata have garnered a fair share of media representation. How do you view this development?
Ruth Vanita: This is not a new development as far as the Indian national media in English is concerned, as they have been largely positive and sympathetic towards LGBT issues. They covered the early protests by ABVA and others in a supportive way and have also been instrumental in bringing same-sex suicides and weddings to public attention over the last three decades. If the Indian language media has also reported the pride parades sympathetically, that is a great development.
Meena: A historic moment for lesbianism in India was the Deepa Mehta film Fire and the frenzy it evoked from Hindu right-wing fundamentalists. How do you, in your experience as a scholar on sexuality in India, perceive their allegation that same-sex love is ‘foreign’ to Indian culture?
Ruth: As Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History (2000), co-edited by Saleem Kidwai and me, has unequivocally demonstrated, same-sex love and sexual relationships have been represented and discussed in Indian literatures for at least two millennia. We collected translated texts from 15 Indian languages written over a period of 2000 years, which depict same-sex relationships. The attitudes range from disapproval to non-judgmental depiction to celebration, and the languages include Sanskrit, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi, Bengali. So the myth that homosexuality is a Western import has been laid to rest although some people may still be in denial about it. An updated edition of this book will appear from Penguin India this November.
Meena: How do you find mainstream Indian cinema’s depiction of the LGBT community? Transgenders are almost always mocked or shown as ridiculous; homosexuality has become a butt of jokes in films like Kal Ho Naa Ho; and lesbianism seems to be something that does not figure in their imagination (even in Love Story 2050, Harman Baweja wants to take rebirth as man for the only reason that he can love a woman, because in his understanding, if he were a woman he cannot love another woman).
Ruth: My Brother Nikhil depicted a gay male relationship with sensitivity, and was well received. Also, Hindi cinema, by depicting close male friends as inseparable and willing to live and die together (e.g. songs like “Yeh Dosti” in Sholay) has provided a space for non-heterosexual relationships to be seen as exclusive, even primary. In my book, Gandhi’s Tiger and Sita’s Smile (Yoda Press, 2006) I wrote an essay on this kind of depiction of exclusive, primary, male-male relationships in the films Dosti and Tamanna. Tamanna also depicted the hijra community very positively, as saving the life of a girl child from her wealthy, upper caste, biological father who wants to kill her. In numerous films, cross-dressing scenes, where a woman dresses as a man and sings and dances with another woman, are highly suggestive of lesbianism. More importantly, as both I and film studies scholar Shohini Ghosh have argued, Hindi cinema’s celebration of love as socially defiant and the most important element of life (think of the long cinematic history of depicting positively intercaste, interclass and inter-regional love such as widow remarriage etc.) has helped the public imagination become more sympathetic to disapproved kinds of love. It is not coincidental that Indian pride parades have used the film song line “Pyar kiya to darna kya” (from Mughal-e Azam) as a slogan.
Meena: From Chennai to Chattisgarh, there has been an alarming increase in the number of lesbian and gay suicides in India, and these have been taking place in the backdrop of the pride parades. Do you feel these people are pushed to their deaths in the same manner in which inter-caste, inter-religious lovers are? Is homophobia indicative of the Indian society’s general unwillingness to accept people who are breaching conventional and sanctioned social codes (of caste/ religion/ gender)?
Ruth: In my book Love’s Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West (Penguin India, 2005), I analyse in detail the legal, political, social and historical dimensions of both the couple suicides and the same-sex weddings that have been reported from all over the country over the last 30 years. There is no evidence that the frequency has increased; rather, it is the reporting that has increased. Yes, the opposition that same-sex lovers face is basically the same kind that heterosexual lovers face for inter-caste, inter-religion, cross-class, inter-regional, international and many other kinds of disapproved relationships. However it is very important to remember that there have always been and still are supportive forces within Indian society as well. While many families drive couples to suicide or forcibly separate them and push them into arranged marriages, many other families also come to accept these relationships and even participate actively in the weddings including female-female weddings.
Negotiation and compromise are important elements of Indian family life. I have found stories in the eleventh-century Sanskrit story cycle, the Kathasaritsagara, showing how families negotiate with children and finally accept radical cross-class, cross-caste marriages (such as a marriage between a princess and a Chamar), arguing that the couple must have been wed in a former birth. I analyze such stories in Love’s Rite. Similar arguments about gender and rebirth (the soul has no gender and marriage is a union of souls; people fall in love because of their attachment from former births and it is therefore futile to oppose such attachments) have been put forward by Hindu priests who have conducted same-sex weddings in recent times.
Meena: How would you rate Indian feminist movements and their engagement with queer rights? Do you feel that this is yet another aspect that has been ignored along with questions of caste and disability? As somebody who co-founded Manushi, and who is assocated with Indian feminism for over three decades now, you could enlighten us on this aspect.
Ruth: In the 1970s, although lesbians were among the leading activists of most women’s organizations, there was almost no open discussion of the issue, and if it ever came up, it was dismissed as symptomatic of Western decadent self-indulgence. This was largely due to the strong Left wing ties of Indian women’s organizations. The Left party in India has not yet shed this unrealistic approach to homosexuality. However, the non-party women’s movement has grown and changed dramatically -– lesbianism is now openly discussed and taken seriously as a political issue.
Filed under: Books, Culture, Morality, Sex and Sexuality, Society Tagged: | bollywood, cinema, feminism, homosexuality, India, Left, lesbianism, LGBT, pride parades, queer rights, same-sex love, suicides, transgenders, women's movement