Tag Archive for 'Ismat Chughtai'

Homosexuality in India: A literary history

Nilanjana S. Roy at India Ink / NYT:

“Some men like Jack/ and some like Jill; / I’m glad I like them both; but still…/ In the strict ranks/ of Gay and Straight/ What is my status?/ Stray? or Great?”

When Vikram Seth wrote “Dubious” many years ago, he may not have realized how long his poem would live. “Dubious” has become an anthem for Indians unwilling to be straitjacketed into heterosexuality, unwilling to accept the argument often put forward that being homosexual, lesbian, transgendered or transsexual is against Indian culture.

Seth had a long line of predecessors, as the scholar Devdutt Patnaik and the academics Saleem Kidwai and Ruth Vanita have noted. The “Markandeya Purana” carries the story of Avikshita, the son of a king who refused to marry because he believed he was a woman.

Gender was fluid, for yakshas and humans alike, in ancient and medieval Indian culture. The Mahabharata famously tells the story of Amba, the princess who was abducted by Bhishma but rejected by the warrior, who had taken a vow of celibacy. Praying to avenge the insult, Amba is reborn as Shikhandini, daughter to King Dhrupada, and then prays for a further transformation into Shikhandi — as a man, she can fight Bhishma, and becomes the cause of his death on the battlefield. More:

Gay but not quite happy

Jawed Naqvi in Dawn:

AN apocryphal story told by the late Prof A.M. Khusro when he was vice chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University goes thus: in 1603 James VI of Scotland became England’s first Stuart monarch.

Within 10 days of arriving in London, he demanded that Shakespeare’s troupe come under his own patronage. So they were granted a royal patent and changed their names to the King’s Men, in honour of King James.

One day, waiting for The Merchant of Venice to begin, the king asked his senior aide to inquire into the inordinate delay in the show. ‘Sire,’ said the official after a visit to the green room. ‘Portia is being shaved.’ Good-looking boys played female roles in Shakespeare’s England. In India, upper-crust women in Maharashtra would, as recently as the early 20th century, choose their exotic nav-waari saris according to the fashion of the day.

The legendary Bal Gandharva, who depicted many famous female characters from Marathi stage plays, set the standards. Bal Gandharva is still deified as an essential cultural grooming in upper-crust homes. He was of course a handsome man who sang beautifully in the Natya Sangeet format of old Maharashtrian theatre. More: