“In general, sexual minorities are not well accepted by mainstream Indian society,” 35-year-old photographer Bishan Samaddar tells Queerty in an exclusive interview. “Here, there’s always tremendous pressure on men and women to marry each other and produce children.”
Samaddar was born in Ranchi in the Jharkhand state of India. He currently lives in Calcutta, where he photographs the daily lives of ordinary people and their surroundings. One of his series features photographs of men working out in a gym. The images offer a rare glimpse into the every day routines of Indian men.
Samaddar shared the story behind the photos, as well as his personal experiences of being an openly gay man in a country where the Supreme Court recently reinstated a colonial-era law making gay sex a crime.
Varanasi in North India, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, a holy place for Hindus, hugging the banks of the holy River Ganga. It’s a chaotic city brimming with life, infinitely interesting, and incredibly photogenic. The photos were taken in two different akharas, traditional gyms for bodybuilding and wrestling, very basic, with only a few tools for exercising. Men from the neighborhood come there regularly to exercise and sometimes practice wrestling, mostly in the early mornings.
The akharas were close to the hotel I was staying in; I suddenly saw some menexercising and took a photo. They were very eager to have their pictures taken; so I spent a lot of time with them over the few days I was in Varanasi. They were some of the friendliest bunch of guys I’ve ever met, and they loved the photographs when I showed them.
Even though you say the men in the pictures are not gay, there is something very homoerotic about the images.
I think the homoeroticism is primarily in the eyes of the beholder (including the photographer, of course). The men photographed here are very aware of their bodies and entirely comfortable with them, not in an ostentatiously self-conscious way that a lot of gym freaks are. They’re comfortable with one another, and with strangers (like me) admiring them. The particular kind of traditional Indian underwear they don seems very minimal, but all the men are perfectly relaxed being seen in them while exercising or bathing in the river — so they have an enviably easy relationship with their bodies, which in itself is sexy. It is a world of men that they inhabit, a homosocial world. For these men, their bodies are autoerotic. It is clear from how much they enjoy having their bodies admired by the camera. So perhaps that autoeroticism comes across in the photographs too and makes them sexually charged for male (and female, too, perhaps) viewers.
How does your sexuality influence your photography?
When I began seriously taking photographs, I think my sexuality was really evident in the way I looked at men, in the subjects I chose. I realized that photographs were a great way of capturing my imagination about men and the fleeting desire I would have for them. Freezing of that fleeting moment was crucial.
This helped me — a very shy person at that time — to open up to people with whom I’d never thought I’d have a conversation. The camera helped me mingle with people. It was a medium of contact. The photos featured here are from around that time. Of late I have moved away from taking pictures of people. I am not sure how exactly my sexuality influences my photographs now — that is perhaps for others to see.
What is the general attitude towards LGBT people in India?
It is impossible to make a general statement on this, to be honest, because India is too vast and varied a country and the LGBT population is as diverse as it can get. I am not an expert or a scholar on this subject; I can only speak from my life experience … Man-to-man contact and sex is rampant in all sections of Indian society but generally undercover and not always seen as “gay sex” or as aspect of a sexual identity. Urban middle-class India is screwing on Grindr or Gayromeo all the time. In small towns and villages, different networks exist for sure. Yet, there is a sense of secrecy overall. India is a kind of society where if you don’t talk about something, it doesn’t exist. Needless to say, things are much more difficult for women.
Have you personally experienced discrimination?
Actually, in my particular case, I have had to struggle very little. I grew up a sufficiently privileged person in a big city in a laid-back, liberal family, and have always had supportive friends. Also, I grew up in the era of economic liberalization in India, when sexuality issues were finding their way into the media — and Internet happened too; so there was greater awareness of gay issues. My journey, then, has not been difficult so far. It’s not the same with everyone.
What do you think the future will be like for LGBT people in India?
There’s a law banning gay sex that needs to go, but I am not sure the present government will do anything about it. It is not a priority. Apart from that, I think things will become more open and easier for LGBT folks. They will surely see more acceptance in society. Though the process will be quite slow. However, I am optimistic.
Published for one-time use only with permission from Bishan Samaddar. Photographs may not be saved, copied or republished on any other website.