Talking ‘Beyond The Colours’ With Diya Ullas

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”

Audre Lorde

As this quote gets a social media revival by my feminist friends, I browse my way through Diya Ullas’s Instagram series Beyond the Colours ? narrating stories of queer India through illustration and poetry. Combining myth, history, and present of queer India, Diya’s project birthed from the need of relatable queer desi content. Like many stories that take shape when they have been forcefully shut by the powerful, Beyond the Colours also comes from a need to see lives as queer as they are experienced by gaysians ? without the dominating heteronormative gaze, with all the intricacies weaving the past, present, and future.

I had an opportunity to talk to Diya about her art, what it entails, and how she sees it. And after talking to her about this project, Lorde’s words become more relevant. This is what she had to say.

Q. What was your inspiration for Beyond the Colours?

Beyond the Colours came at a time when I needed something more. I felt suffocated in the silence surrounding my sexuality. I felt lost in the years that I spent attempting to suppress this thing that made me “different”. I found comfort in the voices of those that shared their stories of coming out on Youtube. I could never find too much Indian content. This led me to believe that if I let myself feel what was going on within, I’d never find someone like me.

I’ve drawn for all of my life and I joined Srishti back in 2015. I still didn’t talk about my sexuality until a year ago when I came out to the humans that matter to me. So, this year, on the last day of January, in the final semester of my college life I decided that, “it is time!” like Rafiki from the Lion King said. I was terrified. TERROR-FRIED, but I went ahead and got shot down the very next day as I pitched my idea for my final project. I continued anyway and that is why this series, that is still very much a work in progress, exists today.

It was a very difficult project to pursue for a multitude of reasons. I was not out as bisexual to my parents or most of my peers, but this project had to come to life because I knew that talking about my community was something that I so badly wanted to do through my art. Growing up, I needed to hear more LGBTQ+ stories from India. There is a vast magnitude of stories that exist, but hide away in our land that’s coated in an inherent heteronormativity. These stories need to reach the surface. More LGBT content is always necessary to have. I wanted to contribute to it.

People need to know that we exist. It’s not to normalise us, but “authenticate us” as Faraz Arif Ansari would say.

Q. The series is a combination of (Hindu) myth and contemporary. How do you decide what to pick for the series? What does your research look like?

When I first began, I read. A LOT. My project was meant to last about 4 months. I spent an entire month and maybe a tad more reading which I still don’t believe was enough. I tried to find whatever sources I could online and I came across a history that I knew nothing of. I was so ignorant. It was something we were never taught. I’d lived in the dark for so long and I realised that I knew more about the movements in the West than the ones that had happened on home soil. The stories that led us here were immensely powerful. Our community never stopped fighting the consistent oppression caused by prevalent archaic, homophobic views. The realisation that so many queer people have existed before me, before us was amazing. I realised the importance of sharing these stories as well, because I’d never really heard of them until I actively looked for them. There were multiple references in many articles to the book by Saleem Kidwai and Ruth Vanita, ‘Same-Sex Love in India’. It consists of writings about same-sex literature in India over the last 2000 years. Someday, I hope to read the real one.

For now, I survive on the excerpts. I couldn’t illustrate all of India’s queer history in 3 months. In fact, I don’t think I’d be able to in three years. So, after I gathered my information, I picked stories that resonated with me and illustrated as many of them as I could. As for the myths, the reason I believe that it is important to include them as well is because we’re a country so moved by our faith. It was important to tell the queer stories that live in our mythology, something that’s integral to us because there’s such a strong belief that homosexuality is a foreign, western concept. It’s not. There are countless stories that also bend the barriers that limit gender. All of these tales come from India and need to be heard.

The contemporary stories, I gathered through conversations with people that are a part of the community. They shared their stories with me and it has been one of the most moving experiences of my existence. It opened my eyes to the number of us that exist here. There’s so much more to us than just our labels, pride parades and flags that represent us. That’s also something I wished to share through this project. Hence the name, Beyond the Colours.

There are still many stories to be illustrated. I’m looking forward to working further on it.

Q. What kind of impact do you envision on the LGBTQ+ community and others through this series?

For a world that’s highly prone to heteronormativity in all of the content it creates, I believe that it’s crucial to have any bit of content that’s queer and defies the “norm”. I just wanted to add to the queer content out there. I don’t really know what kind of impact it can make. I just hope that somebody that comes across it can relate to it and know that being them is perfectly okay. As for people that aren’t a part of the LGBTQ+ community, I hope that it gives them a different perspective on the community. I just want people to see us for us. Just as a straight person is more than just straight.

Q. Lastly, as an artist who has researched on the community’s history and present, what do you think are the next steps for the community now that Section 377 is out of the way?

Despite having done my research for this project, I’m still learning. I’m no expert on this, but I’ll try my best to answer this question. The community has fought so long for the decriminalisation of Section 377. 1860 to the 6th of September last year. At present, yes, being gay isn’t regarded a crime by the law, but in terms of legal rights, we still have a long journey ahead of us. We lack basic civil rights, we can’t even marry yet and we still need laws that protect us from discrimination. Hopefully, it’ll be included in the constitution someday like South Africa did.

In terms of society, there’s a vast amount of information coming to the forefront due to the uproar and excitement caused by the Supreme Court verdict that decriminalised homosexuality. This is great, but just because it’s not a crime anymore it doesn’t immediately alter minds fermented with the thought that “the LGBT community is bad.” The law can change but society takes longer to catch up.

I think the best way for minds to change is more content coming up, through television shows in regional languages as well as English, films, art, music, poetry, things that touch people. I know that there is content out there, but we need more ? of us just being human, brushing our teeth, chilling with our friends, having lives, dreams and goals. We need sex education in schools that teaches children that there’s more to sex than its confining heteronormative definitions and it doesn’t have to be just about a penis and a vagina. This momentum mustn’t be lost. We need people to see that gender isn’t just a binary. We need trans representation and for the sake of all the queer people out there in the world, WE NEED HAPPIER QUEER FILMS.

In terms of politics, I worry, but I know that if more of us say what we need to say, we’ll be allowed to just be someday.

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