‘The New Pre-Raphaelites’ – Sunil Gupta

Sunil Gupta
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Now I’m not sure about you but I count myself pretty lucky. Admittedly I haven’t won the lottery, found enlightenment, nor am I particularly lucky in love. I am god awfully awkward on occasion but stick with me, I’m getting somewhere. Sure every now and then I crawl under the desk & run around exclaiming how hard life can be, but all things considered, I figure I’ve had it pretty easy. Much of this I place down to being born when I was and to being surrounded by the people I have met along the way. Without being sentimental about it, and with a sigh that I’m even using it as material, I’ll confess that I had a fairly easy coming out experience. A few awkward questions here and a learning curve there, but in general nothing I couldn’t handle. Since then each time I ‘come out’ to someone it seems just that little more ridiculous that I ever worried at all.

I came out whilst being in a relationship and I’d argue that the psychology of thinking I had somewhere there to support me made everything that little bit easier. The relationship didn’t last and from it I learnt a few things. Which were my lessons to learn and not yours, so sorry that I’m not dishing the dirt! But one thing which I will talk about is the issue of how to show affection in public. Being my first proper relationship I was very much like a toddler running into walls and occasionally committing a social faux pas. One of these was when to be and when not to be affectionate. Being quite a shy little thing I often found hand-holding, public hugs and even kissing (with a boy, ewwh!)  really awkward. I think I thought everyone in the entire restaurant would suddenly take up their steak knives and carve the gays in a good, old-fashioned style lynching. How ridiculous was I, right?

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If you’re still with me I congratulate you. I’ve meandered but my point is this. Holding hands and being affectionate in public always felt to me strange, like as two men we were not allowed to do this. As I grew in confidence I began to feel this was a liberating experience, it’s best to summarise this as some form of pride. You know, the one minus the guys in hotpants. With much of his work Sunil Gupta tackles the representation of homosexual relationships in private and public spheres. Being at the forefront of the gay rights movement in India, Gupta’s work photographs from the gut and uses his work to make socio-political comment.

Making homage to the Pre-Raphaelite period, a time Michael Foucault dates as the birth of modern attitudes towards homosexuality, ‘The New Pre-Raphaelites’ (some nude but not explicit content) deals with the truths of posturing gay Indian people, including couples.  Combining symbolist and realist elements, Gupta’s imagery alludes to past romantic mythologies with models who were committing, under section 377 of the Indian penal code, a crime.

Using a photographic technique which appropriates the compositions of master paintings, Gupta includes himself amongst a canon of photographers who allude to the past. Such as the contemporary work of Jeff Wall or Maisie Broadhead with comparisons that can be drawn to ‘The Two ways of life’ by Rejlander. This being of a similar style to Thomas Couture’s ‘Study for Les Romains de la Décandence’ dating from 1847. However with his work, Gupta remains faithful to his political intent of acknowledging the void between current Indian gay culture and contemporary representations of homosexuals in the country.

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Typifying the sense of mythology and realism that is pitched to the viewer, an image titled ‘Untitled #8’ features two men laying on a bed in the style that has traditionally been reserved for very innocent looking nude women. Using the scene to create a sense of myth with plush bedding and a fairly nondescript background, Gupta forces the viewer to confront the reality that this is a couple of gay males. These men, who have not been idealised for the camera – I’d argue that using two younger and physically fitter models would actually be detrimental to the project – show the normality of a gay relationship. In a subtle, yet controversial way Sunil Gupta liberates gay people arguing that they are just like everyone else.

And that’s exactly what we are, just like everyone else. We may pertain to dress better and have unhealthy levels of ‘Sass’ to cling onto some collective identity, but essentially we want the same things as our straight counterparts. Thankfully section 377 has been repealed, although ironically it was a surviving piece of legislation left by the colonisation of India, and the representation of gay people in India is on the rise.  So next time you want to hold hands with your partner just go for it, if India can liberate itself then so can you.