Documenting Queerness of Premodern India: A Conversation With Vinit Vyas

Two Princesses in a Fond Embrace. Source: Saffron Art.

The famed author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a stirring address on the danger of a single story at Ted Talks last November. She began her speech recounting her childhood days when all the books she laid her hands on were the works of Western writers. She went on to emphasize the need for multiple stories that could reveal the cultural diversities beyond the West. This powerful thought holds true, especially for queer narratives, which have been largely dominated by Western voices. Fortunately, the works of Ruth Vanita, Devdutt Pattanaik, and Shakuntala Devi offer a much needed South Asian perspective by situating queerness in an Indian context. Today, queer writers and scholars are using social media to present alternate stories that struggle to enter the mainstream.

Vinit Vyas is one such voice. A self-described happy-go-lucky person with a fondness for research, block-printed shirts, Vyas hopes to carve a niche in the world of visuals. The 24-year-old wears many hats, as an art historian specializing in South Asian art and religious studies, a translator, an author, and a visiting faculty at NID, Ahmedabad. Gaysi sat down with the ever-so-chatty-ever-so-inquisitive Vinit to discuss the queer side of Indian heritage one wouldn’t find in your history textbooks. 

Q. Hi Vinit! Tell us a bit about yourself.

So I finished my graduation in art history from MS University, Baroda in 2018. I primarily work on South Asian art, with a specific interest in studying paintings from the 16th-19th century. In these works, I examine the dialogue between court, religion, and visuals as well as how gender identities function. I have cataloged collections and worked with collectors on lesser-known artistic traditions. At NID, I teach South Asian Art History to both undergrads and Masters students. I am also a translator of Gujarati, Marwari, and Braj Bhasha. So my plate is as full as a Gujarati thali at this moment!

Q. What inspired you to become an art historian?

So the funny thing is I wasn’t exposed to art as a child. There was barely any reading practice at home nor any appreciation for aesthetics. All I remember is being fascinated by the visual of Ajanta paintings, flipping through it in my accounts classes! Sometimes I would visit local museums or paint. But these were enough to kindle my interest in the field. My parents were hell-bent that I pursue accountancy but I eventually convinced them out of it and enrolled in the Art History programme at MS University.

I have been drawn towards Indian paintings since the beginning. One of my all-time favorites is the Rajput work Bani Thani by the Nihal Chand. It has very distinctive portraiture compared to traditional paintings of women. The subject was the ideal lover yet with a distorted appearance, a long nose, and arching eyebrows.

Radha and Krishna Dressed in Each Other’s Clothes. Source: Lacma.

Q. It seems like you were drawn towards the non-typical since the get-go.

Absolutely. And the visual vocabulary of pre-modern Indian art is abundant with body types that buck the norm. Take the early depictions of Lord Krishna or Ram, where they adorned slender figures with arching brows and were still considered ‘masculine’. Likewise, Lord Ganesh was technically this chubby boy with the head of an elephant. Or even look at the Goddess Kali, who stuck her tongue out to traditional notions of beauty. She had this fabulous otherworldly energy and wore a skull garland and had hands as a garment.

A variety of bodies, from androgynous to anthropomorphic existed in South Asia, so it’s funny how we are at a stage where everyone desires 6 packs.

Q. How very queer indeed! It’s also interesting how the land of Kamasutra now balks at the mere thought of non-traditional desires.

Indeed, it is. A lot of kings embraced and encouraged the idea of Kama or desire as a way of life. Besides Kamasutra, there is a 15th-16th century erotic treatise Ananga Ranga by Kalyana Malla. In several temples, especially Khajuraho, you will find carvings of couples having sex. Tibetan Buddhism also had sexual aspects to it. There are multiple homoerotic depictions in Mughal India, such as Sa’di with a Young Man in a Rose Garden by the painter Govardhan. Similarly, in Sufi traditions, language isn’t gendered as such. A beloved can be a man also or woman also or both or maybe someone else.

Sa’di with a Young Man in a Rose Garden. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Q. So one could say the concept of gender and sexuality was more fluid back then.

We didn’t label people as such.  We always had these blurry boundaries where we did not always feel the need to define desire. There’s a whole spectrum in Indian art starting from the 5th century or even earlier which includes homoerotic or gender non-normative elements. Court paintings are fascinating in particular. I have come across at least two homoerotic paintings of Shamsher Sen, the raja of Mandi. In one he is holding hands of men dressed as women while in the other he is fondling a young man. Then there’s this famous tomb of Jamali Kamali where two men are laid next to one another. What is their relationship? Are they teacher-student? Are they husbands or lovers? You also had Mughal paintings of khwajasarahs such as Khawas Khan, who were usually gatekeepers and helpers of the women in the zenana. They had a lot of political power.

Khawas Khan, The Eunuch of Bahadur Shah. Source: Christie’s.

Q. So how do we make such works more accessible to common folks? 

Art can be very elitist and prohibitive to most, and it is my academic space which offers me a great degree of access. Nevertheless, I’d like to add that a lot of the material is available freely online. Museums in the West have done wonders in this regard. Many of our institutions, unfortunately, do not encourage such a culture under the fear that it might be stolen. You can still find a good deal of Indian works on the site or simply by knowing what to search online.

Q. Broadening access also leads to fear of censorship.

True, especially because many of the works happen to be erotic and challenge the status quo. We don’t know our past well enough so we end up shouting ‘blasphemy!’. People need to unlearn and question things rather than fear the new, or in this case, the old!

Vinit Vyas.

Q. Okay, so a final question. Where do you see yourself in the coming times? 

So I’m currently applying for further studies abroad and working on an essay on transgender identities in court paintings. If it all works out well I’d love to have a curated exhibition on Gender Identities in Premodern South Asia. I am also endeavoring to make my works accessible for non-English audiences by translating my articles into Gujarati or Hindi. I am up for public talks too if I get an opportunity!

To know more about Vinit’s works, check out his Instagram Handle _citraseva.

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Career-wise, I am passionate about media and education. My inspirations include Meryl Streep, Joan Rivers, Nicki Minaj, and the movie Singin’ in the Rain. I walk the tightrope of being serious, kind-hearted & optimistic while at the same time I can be wreckless about laughter, be critical of things around and cry ‘f*** the world’ aloud from rooftops.

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