Hiten Noonwal: Exploring Gender Identity Through Self Portraits

Hiten Noonwal is barely recognizable in their self-photographs. Angel-like despite the makeup, and the coloured wigs. Their own hand-made artistic clothes tenderly unfold the Hiten within.

Hiten is an artist and a piece of art themselves, and their gender identity is a Universe of diverse constructs never fully revealing who they are.

Their body of work comprises a compelling and complex archive of selves and objects that are multiple and express strong emotions. Always fluid — masculine and feminine, flying and buried, repressed and expressed, life and art, seeing and hiding, self and selves — their photographs explore the spaces between the binaries.

We got talking with Hiten about their life, their gender identity, and what guides their actions and thoughts.

Included below are some self-portraits of Hiten, along with a few photographs that were shot by Supriya Soni. She found Hiten at College of Arts, Delhi and shares that her experience of shooting them was extraordinary. To live and let live is the philosophy she arrived at during their time together.

Q. Isn’t it complex to not identify with any gender?

No, because “Art, as well the artist has no gender”. That doesn’t mean that the artist is gender-less, instead, It’s about how their narratives are no longer defined by gender. I see gender as the Universe; it’s so vast and wide with so many options that you can’t really contain it to a small scale.

Credit: Supriya Soni

Q. How long have you known this about yourself?

I’ve known this since I’ve collected my senses as a kid. I always knew I’m gender fluid. I’m performing as a gender fluid artist since I was in 6th standard at school.

Q. You are an incredible artist and your art speaks of gender in a very sensitive and inclusive way. How did that happen? Is it necessary/difficult/important to do?

Loneliness and depression! In my school, I was left alone and often aloof. My classmates used to say, “You are strange. You are neither a girl nor a boy. We will not sit, eat and play with you. We will become strange like you.”

They used to call me by various names and slangs that were humiliating and depressing. I had no support system and even the teachers were not interested. I started expressing myself through paintings and poems when I’d sit alone beneath a tree in the school’s playground during the games period and lunchtime. I was very interested in art. Later in 11th and 12th standard, a few of my teachers started appreciating my artwork. I started participating in inter – school level and other creative competitions, and won many awards.

I’ve studied fine art in my bachelor’s. From there on I started expressing myself through photography and performance art. Fashion has found its way in my artworks since I joined NID, M.Design, Apparel design.

My work speaks about gender in a very sensitive and inclusive way because of my identity, which isn’t accepted easily. The times of depression and loneliness propelled me to create art and to release my anxiety and loneliness. All those years I was simply expressing myself; I didn’t know I was creating art. Art healed my soul.

Credit: Hiten Noonwal

Q. You do self-photography, i.e. you shoot yourself. Do you perform for yourself? What or rather who do you see when you are the one behind the camera?

I don’t perform; I simply express myself. I don’t see anyone behind the camera. I see the camera as a part of my soul, which is supporting and setting me free from all the depression, humiliation, and loneliness. I have a very good chemistry with my camera. It seems my camera knows what I want and I know what camera desires to click. The motive of both my camera and myself is self-expression. Whenever I work there is a kind of energy that flows through my veins. This energy is super strong. It just grabs all the concentration I have, hypnotizes all my senses and I simply express myself through the medium.

Q. Would you describe the way that you have to think through expressing your gender simultaneously with negotiating beauty standards as dysphoria?

 Everyone talks about inner beauty but appreciates outer appearance. This world is a world of physical identity. Most of the people judge you on the basis of your outer appearance. It is unfair. When I was in 5th standard, I read a quote on the notice board… “Sundar wohi h jo sundar karya kare”. From there on, I started working on my passion. My art! My mother told me that to be beautiful one should be happy and working hard towards their passions. Hard work polishes the talent one has and everyone will find me beautiful. So, I don’t believe in any beauty standards outside of this. I believe in hard work and passion. I always find myself content with my work. People with a positive aura and a beautiful heart stay beautiful life long. No age can destroy their beauty. That’s the kind of beauty we all should chase to achieve.

Credit: Supriya Soni

Q. How do you see other people? Always fluid? Does it help form closer bonds with them?

I believe everyone is genderfluid. Some accept it and many don’t. Forming close bonds is a consequence of understanding each other. Being genderfluid plays no role here.

Q. What about romantic interests? What kind of people do you find yourself attracted to?

People with a good sense of humour attract me. People with dreams in their eyes attract me.


Photographs by Hiten Noonwal: Hiten Noonwal, a performing artist and a fashion designer, an alumnus of National Institute of Design (NID) performed at the 2017 Puri Beach Carnival, Odisha and KIPAF’17 in Kolkata. Recently he is listed in the ‘Vagabomb magazine’ among the top 7 amazing genderfluid male dancers who are shattering stereotypes through dance. Hiten’s journey has been a wonderful mixture of Art, Fashion, Design, Drama, and Aesthetics. He has explored gender and aesthetics at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad and College of art, Delhi. He learned a minimal and effective way of self-expression.

He wants the world to be a place where everyone is treated equally despite their sexuality and not be discriminated on the basis of their gender. Using his own body as a medium, and various techniques of photography, makeup art, costume design, fashion styling, and performing arts, he tries to raise his voice against sexual abuse and inequality. His performances are more about self expression than any particular traditional dance form.­ His photography and performances are also introduced by German embassy and Alliance francaise in India and Abroad.

Photographs by Supriya Soni: Completed Masters in Applied Arts with specialization in Illustration. Is keen on experimenting with various art mediums. Currently working on building up her Instagram page (@colorful.headed.munia). Strongly feels for the LGBTQI initiatives, straight…but not narrow.

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