On a cold December weekend amid rainbows and fairy lights, Delhi welcomed its first, one of kind, queer literature festival, the Rainbow Lit Fest. Spread across two days, the festival lived up to its name to express the multi-hued nature of the LGBTQ experience and community in India.
The event saw an explosion of colour and cheer with people from across the gender spectrum turning up in hordes wearing bright rainbow mufflers, flowing scarves and distinctly non-binary garb. "It's amazingly freeing," said a 21-year-old who despite being born a man identified as a woman and came draped in a beautiful saree for the event. In fact, the venue was littered with members from across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, from trans-women and trans-men/boys, homosexuals, pansexuals, transvestites, drag performers and more.
"The idea was to express the diversity and culture of the LGBTQ community in India which has only recently started coming to mainstream limelight," festival director and author Sharif D Rangnekar said.
The two days saw some insightful panel discussions such as author and historian Devdutt Pattanaik's musings on the fluid LGBTQ identity within the religious sphere of India in the provocatively titled session "What Ram would say to queers of India" in which he extolled on the history of transsexualism in the country. actor and filmmaker Nandita Das was also among the speakers and recollected the homophobia she endured during and after the making of Fire, one of the first Indian films to depict a homosexual relationship between women set among a conservative, rural Indian premise, during her address.
"With Fire, I realised how deeply prejudiced and hypocritical we are as a society. We are not giving space to each other to love, to be themselves. We are fighting each day for ourselves. I have been actively supporting the LGBTQ community at every possible forum," Das said during her panel which took place on Day 2.
Through the innumerable sessions, members from the queer community, artists, authors, filmmakers, policy experts and activists took to the stage to explore the various aspects of the queer experience including its representation in pop culture and art. Amid a discussion on the impact of queerness in Urdu erotica and shayari, journalist and radio presenter Pervaiz Alam said that "99% of Urdu Shayari is not gender-specific".
The idea of polygamy as a way of life among the queer community was also discussed, as well as the various levels of discrimination a member of the LGBTQ community faces at superficial or insidious levels. The panels paved the way for discussions on "othering" and the use of language in laws, mythology, literature and other avenues to restrict gender to binaries of him and her. Speaking to Devdutt Pattanaik on ‘The strange relationship between law and literature’, celebrated Section 377 lawyer Maneka Guruswamy said, "If you cannot find yourself represented in the language of the masses, you will never be able to change people's thinking".
At the lit fest, however, many identified as "they" or the reverse of the biological gender they were born with. In fact, some even wanted to be addressed by the gender-neutral pronoun 'ze'.
For yet others, the festival opened up several exciting new avenues. "This is a great opportunity, especially for queer artists and activists to not only network but also highlight our work not just to a niche community but to a wider audience," Mumbai-based filmmaker and LGBTQIA+ collaborative QKnit founder Sumit Pawar said. His first directorial debut 'Khwaish', a film that explored the experience of love beyond the gender binary, was screened at the festival along with a host of other acclaimed and even unreleased films such as Bomgay, the 1996 film directed by the late filmmaker Riyadh Wadia starring Rahul Bose and Kushal Punjabi. Incidentally, it was India's first 'gay film'.
The lit fest also saw the launch of several books such as Pawan Dhall's 'Gulabi Baghi' and ‘Out Of Line And Offline - Queer Mobilizations in 90s Eastern India’ along with Vikram E Kolmannskog anthology "Fearless Love" among others.
Among the celebrations, however, many such as activist Anjali Gopalan, Nazariya founder Ruth Chawngthu, 377 lawyer Menaka Guruswamy and others like Nemat Sadat, the first person to come out as LGBTQIA+ in Afghanistan and transman activist Mohul Sharma raised contentious issues that face the LGBTQIA community in India today including prejudice and discrimination, equal rights, access to healthcare and legal aid as well the problematic aspects of the Trans Bill 2019.
But perhaps the sharpest socio-political commentary came from the performance of drag artist Saransh Sugandh who took to the stage as the resplendent "Avatari Devi" and floored audiences with every turn of the wrist and witty dialogues, especially with regard to the Trans Bill, which became law over the weekend.
Nevertheless, the heavy-weight discussions were peppered by music performances from the likes of Shubha Mudgal (who delivered a keynote speech) and the famed Traditional Nizami Brothers, the qawali set from Delhi's Hazrat Nizamuddin, among others. "What was wonderful was they reached out to us," Sharif D Rangnekar said, adding that there could be no better message of the Rainbow Lit Fest, which will be back for its second edition next year, than the bridging of cultural gaps to come together in love.