Being Indian and gay 

Sunil Gupta's work from the series The New Pre-Raphaelites

Spanning five decades, Sunil Gupta’s works exploring sexuality, representation, and cultural differences seek an answer to the question of what it means to be a gay Indian man

Subversive, impulsive, personal and political – that is how artist Sunil Gupta’s work is best explained. His socially engaged practice has focused on themes of identity, family, race, migration and the complexities and taboos of sexuality.

Born in New Delhi, relocated to Montreal, Canada, before studying at the Royal College of Art in London, Gupta has been using photography as a critical practice since the 1970s the ongoing exhibition ‘From Here to Eternity: Sunil Gupta – A retrospective’ marks the first major retrospective of his works.

Giving us a run-through of his career, the exhibition gives us a timeline of his works right from Greenwich village to New Delhi. Spanning five decades, the exhibition brings together all the key series from his pioneering photographic practice for the first time, as well as presenting never-before-exhibited works.

Working as a photographer, writer and curator out of London and Delhi, Gupta seeks to promote a greater understanding of questions regarding representation, sexuality, access and cultural differences.

A committed activist, his work has been instrumental in raising awareness around the political realities concerning the fight for international gay rights and making visible the tensions between traditional and contemporary societies, public and private bodies and body politics. This retrospective is a timely reflection and overview of his politically engaged work that continues to tackle these ongoing issues.

This retrospective brings together works from sixteen of his series from across his divergent and extensive career which started off in the 1970s. In the series Exiles (1986-1987), commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery, Gupta returned to Delhi to visualise the hidden realities of gay men living in India before the decriminalisation of homosexuality, which was punishable with up to ten years in prison until September 2018.

“What does it mean to be a gay Indian man? This is the question that follows me around everywhere I go and is still everpresent in my work,” says Sunil Gupta.

Sunil Gupta’s work Jama Masjid (1987)

Some of these photos are made more intriguing by the inclusion of quotations from the men themselves. ‘I love this part of town. It’s got such character and you can have sex just walking in the crowd’ reads the caption of a photo taken right outside Jama Masjid.

The series includes several such carefully composed large-scale images of gay men against the backdrops of famous ancient monuments. He started out by taking documentary pictures, but it seemed highly unethical to him. So he made a compromise to become very theatrical about it, where he set up these pictures to look like documentary pictures.

A more recent series included in the exhibition is ‘The New Pre-Raphaelites’ (2008), which was created to support the legal battle against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.

The exhibition has been put together by The Photographer’s Gallery, London and is on view till January 2021

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