Tell Me a Story… Panel Discussion on Queer South Asian Art

On February 10, 2009, The
South Asian Women’s
Creative Collective (SAWCC)
joined CLAGS in presenting
Tell Me a Story…, a panel
discussion on queer South
Asian art.
Even before the panel discussion began,
the room was buzzing. Many of the 100 plus
attendees, mostly queer South Asian folk
in the art and activist movements, found
themselves at an impromptu reunion.
About ten years ago, these same people
were creating a movement. Over time as
everyone settled into her career and began
pursuing individual paths, their shared
histories fomented a significant queer
presence in the South Asian Diaspora. As a
result, over the course of this evening, the
worlds of art and activism intersected again.
This panel served as a step towards generating
a pedagogy of this nascent but fierce queer
South Asian artistic community.
Natasha Bissonauth from the SAWCC
Board of Directors curated Tell Me a Story…,
a panel discussion that juxtaposed the
often overlapping narrative threads of
practitioners dedicated to diverse mediums.
Ashu Rai, Chitra Ganesh, D’Lo and Sonali
Gulati—scholars /activists /artists/cultural
producers reviewed their practice over the
past decade and shared the progression of
their individual works.
Ashu Rai (a founding SAWCC member)
discussed Sholay Productions and their
seven-year commitment to creating a space
for queer South Asian acceptance, imagination
and entertainment. Ashu is the resident DJ
and co-founder (with Atif Toor and Rajesh
Parwatkar) of the monthly dance party,
Desilicious. Influenced by Bollywood as
well as the likes of Studio 54, Sholay
Productions has witnessed everything from
the complexities of queer love/heartbreak
on the dance floor to drag queen asylum to
artistic photo-documentation. Desicilious
has taken on political stances as well such
as hosting occasional all-girl, anti-Bush and
pro-Obama themed events.
Visual artist Chitra Ganesh followed with
an overview of her oeuvre as it pertained
to her interest in recovering and fleshing
out erased moments in history or mythology.
For Ganesh, a former board member of
SAWCC, the collective has been integral
to her artistic growth as a community of
like-minded peers interested in exploring
similar imagery. She chronicled her practice
in painting, photography, installation and
animation, illustrating her fluid approach
to media. Ganesh ended her presentation
with new work from her solo exhibition at
Chatterjee + Lal, Bombay (Jan. 2009), which
used the alluring pull of animation to
disseminate her politics.
Academician and filmmaker Sonali Gulati
screened excerpts from her work
underscoring the work as consciously
political and queer as a matter of necessity,
not choice. While referring to societies
that adhere to institutional and communal
adversity towards queers, Gulati pointed to
the privilege and subsequent responsibilities
of being ‘out.’ Her short film, Sum Total, takes
the form of a matrimonial advertisement
which reveals the miscalculations between
an Indian lesbian and her family imposing
the prescribed norms. It addressed issues of
identity, self-representation, and heteronormativity—
the nature of prejudice itself.
D’Lo introduced her work through a single
performance, an enactment of her mother.
True to form, her spoken word was wildly
comedic, while clearly political and always
poetic. Within the mere ten minute time
limit assigned to each panelist D’Lo brought
up the hilarities of the Sri Lankan diasporic
home alongside her sister’s death and coming
out as transgendered.
The panel was moderated by Gayatri
Gopinath, Associate Professor of Gender
and Sexuality Studies, NYU, who analyzed
the presentations focusing on theme, form,
and ultimately a narrative developed by the
evening’s presentations and interactions.
Gopinath emphasized that while everyone
had chosen their specialized mode of
expression, all panelists were essentially
participating in the same narrative: the
politics of queer South Asian art production
in the diaspora. The Q&A following the
presentations was equally insightful with
questions addressing the common theme of
death in panelists’ work, queer representation
in the media, and the politics of owning an
Using varied spaces of artistic expression—
canvas, film screen, page, dance floor—
this panel dismantled and re-envisioned
imaginary borders between personal
history and mythology.