Art and freedom of expression were again under attack in Dec 2011 when artist Balbir Krishan was attacked by goons in the name of morality. Agnivo Niyogi talks to the artist about his tumultuous past and paintings
Agnivo: We have heard that your full name is not Balbir Krishan. Krishan is the name of your partner. How did this idea of using both partners’ name strike you?
Balbir: Yes, my friend’s name is Krishan. My original name was Balbir Singh and his name was Krishan Pal Singh. But we legally changed our names in 2002 to Balbir Krishan. We wanted our identity to be entwined with each other. Also, that act was a way to let the world know that we were a couple.
Agnivo: How did you meet your love?
Balbir: We were both teachers in the same school. It was a public school in my village. That is where we first met and fell for each other.
Agnivo: How was the reaction of your family when they came to know that you love a man?
Balbir: India is yet to mature to accepting same sex relationships. When people in big metros are not comfortable with a romantic relationship between two men, imagine what reaction we must have faced in our small village. My family, specially my father was very averse to our companionship. He believed it is against the order of nature. We have been through rocky times trying to convince our families. But finally the power of love prevailed. My father accepted our relation because he loves me a lot.
Agnivo: Has your sexuality in any way influenced your art?
Balbir:My sexuality has had a bearing on my art. Just like I am different from others, my sensitivities are different too.
And that reflects in my work. As a child when I started realising that I am not like everyone else, I used to find solace in my paintings. The subjects I chose to vent my feelings were varied too – from women exploitation to poverty, I painted it all. But the satisfaction I drew from drawing nude male figures was unmatched. But since I belonged to a rural background, it was really difficult for me to pursue this passion.
When I was 20, I made some male nude figures. Some of my fellow villagers saw those paintings and virtually ostracized me. I was shattered and heartbroken. It made me very insecure and I hid my emotions in my heart, in silent oblivion. I was pushing my talent towards an unnatural death because of the fear of the society. My self esteem was at a low when I came across some homo erotic paintings by world famous artist Bhupen Kakkar. It was then that I realised I was not being fair with myself. I was cheating on me. I decided to give up all inhibitions and do what I felt was best for me. Gradually, even my family started taking my art seriously and got over the idea of nudity being vulgar.
Agnivo: How did you cope up with the attacks on you at the exhibition in Delhi?
Balbir: My exhibition was inaugurated at Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi on 30 December 2011. My paintings were praised by one and all. Art connoisseurs as well as public in general were amazed with the work that I put up. However trouble began on 5 January 2012 when a group of people (backed by some artists) started demonstrating against “vulgar” content on display at the exhibition. They damaged a few paintings and also physically attacked me. I was beaten up mercilessly by the mob. This left a deep scar in my psyche. It was impossible to reconcile to the fact that some people can be driven crazy to the extent of beating up a handicapped person.
The response of the administration was equally indifferent. Neither did I get any help from the Lalit Kala Akademi, nor did the police cooperate with me when I went to lodge an FIR. I was made to wait till midnight before they even recorded my story.
I was so scarred from this incident, that I was in a dilemma whether to continue the tour of my exhibition. The paintings were scheduled to be exhibited at Triveni Kala Sangam, and I was mulling calling it off. But the support from artist community overwhelmed me. They stood by me like a rock and gave me immense mental support. The story of attack on me at Lalit Kala Academi made it to the news channels and media pressure made the authorities conscious. Finally balls started rolling and action was being taken. The support and love from the fraternity of artists made me strong. I realised, it would be cowardice if I call off my exhibition just because a few goons tried to mob my show. I decided I have to stand up for artistic freedom, hence continued with my exhibitions at Triveni Kala Sangam.
Agnivo: What message do you want to give people who consider nudity as vulgar and not aesthetic?
Balbir: I have only one question for those who say nudity is not aesthetic and is vulgar:
Why does God create us all in the nude? Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. It is all in our mentality whether we treat something as art or aberration. People who find a nude painting offensive have zero artistic bent of mind. It is they who need to reform their thought process to more liberal outlook.
Agnivo: Do you think religious leaders should interfere in the work of art?
Balbir: Who are religious leaders? They are part of our society, one among us. Just because they are well read in the verses and scriptures does not mean they can interfere with the daily lives of people at large. Freedom of expression should be set high on a pedestal, at par with God with no interference from either religion or the state. We live in a democracy, and just like religious leaders have the right to censure someone/something, any citizen of this country can return them the favour.
Agnivo: Where do you see yourselves ten years from now?
Balbir: Ten years is a long time and I seriously have no idea about the future. But since you asked, well, I guess I would like to see myself as a world famous artist ten years from now. We live in troubled times and art is constantly under attack from forces of regression. Hope we tide over this crisis. I hope to become a more confident person in the next one decade, get over my fears and live with my identity with pride.
Agnivo: How do you wish to help the LGBT community in India with your art?
Balbir: My work is not just for the LGBT community. In fact, I have never created any work keeping only the queer community in mind. My work is for all. But I am sure members of the LGBT community can draw inspiration from my paintings and also learn a lesson in pride. We must all be proud of our identities and never feel bogged down by what a few people from mainstream think about us.
Agnivo: What would be your message for our readers?
Balbir: I do not think I am worthy enough to give any message to your readers. Still since you insist, I would like to tell that we must be honest with ourselves as well as with anyone we enter into a relationship with. We must not cheat on feelings, be it in pursuing a career or a companionship. There is no alternative to hard work and must believe in the power of the Almighty to achieve success. Above all, we must dare to be different.
Agnivo: Thank you Balbir for giving us your time. It was a pleasure talking to you. I must tell you, talking to you already makes me feel energized and motivated.
Balbir: Pleasure is all mine. I am lucky to have been able to put my thoughts across to your readers. I will be looking forward to reading your magazine in the future.