Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalised “unnatural” sex between consenting adults in India was successfully challenged in 2018. It was not of indigenous origin as a piece of legislation, its origins lay in the period of British colonial rule. A consequence of this is that there is no visibility for homosexual relationships in the sub-continent. What the court ruled was that there was a difference between constitutional morality and private morality, and that the human rights of the individual to choose his or her own partner were being violated.

In this series of pictures I wanted to address the problem of the lack of an easily accessible iconography of same sex desire involving women and men in India. Indian history has only just begun to recognise the contributions of same sex desire in literature. Co-editors Saleem Kiwai and Ruth Vanita produced the first anthology of texts sourced from across the subcontinent in a variety of languages and historical periods. Art history has yet to produce such published research. Therefore one looks for subjective interpretations amongst the examples of art in the public realm which historically have been sculpture and painting. Classical Indian art, particularly before the Islamic period (12th C onwards) referred to gay sex. But the later 19th C and 20th C produced no schools of discourse. And very few known examples. Itʼs only now in the fledgling arena of post-modern queer film and video that a body of work is emerging that takes on this subject.

Fuelled in part by the Diaspora experience. Politically the very identity of same sex desire is contested in India. The notion of “gay” used very casually by urban men across the country doesnʼt seem to fit the wider extent of actual practice bound as it is to western social norms. The term “kothi” has come to be used to refer to the indigenous Indian homosexual man. This is now widely used in the literature to fight AIDS. Literally it describes an effeminate man in search of an ideal masculine (heterosexual) partner. So by definition itʼs a search that cannot be fulfilled. This idealised unfulfilled desire then is the subject of these pictures, set in the wider context of the current struggle for human rights and a continuing change in the Law. (This project was originally commissioned by Autograph – ABP, London.) © Sunil Gupta

Artist website:

Sunil Gupta is a Visiting Professor of Photography at UCA, Farnham, and Visiting Tutor at the Royal College of Art, London. He has been involved with independent photography as a critical practice for many years focusing on race, migration and queer issues. He was an active participant in the ‘Black Arts’ movement in the UK in the 1980s and a co-founder (1990) of Autograph-Association of Black Photographers, London, and a holder of one of the two founding curatorial franchises of INIVA in London. Operating under the name of OVA he researched and produced a number on international exhibitions of contemporary art focusing on post-colonial issues from 1993 to 2004.

His latest show (with Charan Singh), “Dissent and Desire“ will be at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Kochi, India 2018 and his last book is “Christopher Street 1976” Stanley Barker 2018. His work has been seen in many important group shows including “Paris, Bombay, Delhi…” at the Pompidou Centre, Paris 2011 and is currently on show at the Tate Modern, and Tate Britain. He i He was Lead Curator for the Houston Fotofest 2018. His work is in many private and public collections including; George Eastman House (Rochester, USA), Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Royal Ontario Museum, Tate, Harvard University and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. His retrospective show will open at the Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto in January 2020.