gender & sexuality photo essay Sexuality

Hide and Seek

A psychological exploration of the LGBT community in eastern India

By Soumya Sankar Bose | 1 April 2018

IN AN IMAGE from Soumya Sankar Bose’s photographic series, two bodies are locked in an embrace, with only their silhouettes visible. Despite being in the shadows, their intimacy is palpable—in the tilt of their heads, the tenderness of the embrace and the intensity of their gaze.

In Bose’s composition, light entering through the window falls on a crown of flowers worn by one of the individuals, perhaps to suggest to the viewer the nature of their hidden identities in real life. This play of light hides as much as it reveals.

Immersing the viewer in a surreal universe is crucial to Bose’s project “Full moon on a Dark Night.” By way of these portraits, Bose conducts a psychological exploration of a community of individuals who have been relentlessly persecuted by society because of their identities and their gender or sexual orientations. The work looks closely at the LGBT community in eastern India through a fantastical lens, often projecting a world devoid of restrictive laws and social taboos that the community regularly comes up against. Other images in the work are responses to these very constraints imposed by the state and society. It is here that Bose makes use of visual metaphors—a gas mask, a tiger in the wild, a choppy sea engulfing a man struggling against the current—to evoke notions of censorship and surveillance and feelings of suffocation and anxiety.

Bose, a Kolkata-based photographer, started researching his project in 2015, in which he began to “listen to the dreams, desires and nightmares” of his friends and acquaintances. With a preference for making work in familiar territory, with people he knows and places he belongs to, Bose hoped to “tell a story of our generation and the issues it faces everyday.” Using the anecdotes and fantasies that surfaced during his conversations and interviews with the people he photographs, his staged portraits tease the boundaries between truth and fiction. For a community whose voice is often marginalised, this imagined reality offers a rare refuge, one where desires and aspirations are free to be explored and expressed.

While making his work, Bose spends a considerable amount of time with the people he photographs—whom he terms as his “collaborators”—in an attempt to understand their psyches and visualise their vulnerabilities. The act of performance central to the process of constructing these images can be empowering and cathartic for the actors. As authors of their own scripts, they define their representations away from the tyrannical gaze of society. Bose mentioned that a friend he had photographed was toying with the idea of inviting his father to his ongoing exhibition at Experimenter gallery in Kolkata. He said, “He was never able to tell his father about his choice of love, but he now thinks that this exhibition may be a good way to let his father know.”

Bose’s photographic practice has previously explored the realm of performance as well. His first project, “Let’s Sing an Old Song,” was about Jatra, a musical folk-theatre form dating back to the sixteenth century. He worked with individuals who were previously Jatra artists and had a large fan-following in the 1960s but struggle to survive now because of the decline of the art form. Both his previous and current work strays from the present moment, with the Jatra performers reminiscing about their forgotten glory and those in “Full Moon” imagining the possibility of a time free from societal judgment and taboo. Noting the similarity between his works, Bose said, “In every work I always try to create a space where people can express their personal experiences and feelings, outside of their lived reality. Because we live in a society that prevents us from living a ‘normal’ life, and my work imagines a world in which there is freedom to live according to one’s own desires.”

A recurring characteristic across the images is Bose’s manipulation of light. With large parts of the frame shrouded in the shadows, he finds a fitting aesthetic to represent intimate situations and build a space where “viewers are privy to my subjects’ personal experiences, but are restricted from violating their privacy.” Light, which conceals and reveals the subjects in a photograph, can be seen as an allegory for the LGBT community in contemporary India, as it is compelled to navigate around the legal and moral codes of a heteronormative society. In a country where section 377 of the Indian Penal Code—an archaic law criminalising sexual acts “against the order of nature”—is still in existence, individuals who identify as LGBT have to carefully tailor their lives, keeping in mind societal anathema. Bose’s work deliberates on these questions of identity and visibility.

Responding to my question about whether his use of light was a commentary on the reality of the LGBT community, Bose said, “Giving a comment is a major responsibility for me and also I don’t think of myself as an activist. Rather, I try to create work which tells a story about their subconscious.” He agreed, however, that the title itself is a nod to the centrality of symbolism in the work: “The full moon here is my friends and the dark night is the society they live in.”

Text by Tanvi Mishra.

This photo essay was first published in the April 2018 issue of The Caravan, which contains the complete selection of images from the story.

Soumya Sankar Bose earned a diploma in photography from the Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, Dhaka. His project Full Moon on a Dark Night was awarded the Magnum Foundation’s Photography and Social Justice Fellowship in 2017. In 2015, he received the India Foundations for the Arts grant for his project Lets Sing an Old Song. 

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