By documenting the experiences of 20 out and proud people, Project Bolo is the first of its kind project that tries to reconstruct the gay rights movement in India. In a candid interview, Sridhar Rangayan tells more about BOLO.
Tell us about Project Bolo
For the first time in India, 20 LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) persons in four cities open up in a candid manner to offer an inside view into their lives, views and accomplishments in PROJECT BOLO, meaning ‘Project Speak Up’. These in-depth video interviews walk us through their lives – their growing up years, sexual explorations, coming out to family/friends/media, their romances and relationships, their fearless career paths and their pioneering accomplishments.
Project Bolo Vol1 contains interviews with 20 LGBT persons from Mumbai, Pune, New Delhi, Lucknow & Hyderabad:
Aditya Bandopadhyay, Ashok Row Kavi, Betu Singh, Bindumadhav Khire, Dalip Daswani, Gauri Sawant, Geeta Kumana, Giti Thadani, Hoshang Merchant, Jehangir Jani, Lachi, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, Manvendra Singh Gohil, Nisha, Parmesh Shahani, R Raj Rao, Ruth Vanita, Saleem Kidwai, Shivananda Khan, Sunil Gupta
Each of them bring a different slice of life experience, a different piece of history, a different tile of India… to form a rich mosaic, a rich tapestry of Indian LGBT life, history and movement; that is ‘Project Bolo’.
How was the project conceptualised?
In 1990, when we started publication of Bombay Dost, the general perception was that there are no homosexuals in India and it was a Western concept. In fact, it was even alleged that gay men existed only in the head of one ‘out’ gay man – Ashok Row Kavi!! When we went asking for facilities, services and rights for LGBT persons, the constant question was – where are they, we don’t see them. The LGBT community themselves were still fraught with doubt and anxiety, ‘What happens if I come out?’ So, a majority of LGBT persons have largely remained in the closet and, till recently, people who were out could be counted on one’s fingertips.
Most of the time people would ask who are the LGBT persons in India? All we see are a couple of activists. I wanted that to change. I wanted to show that there are writers, filmmakers, lawyers, sculptors, potters, historians, dancers, outreach workers and even corporate white-collar professionals who are queer! And each one of them lives a successful life interweaving his / her sexuality with their professional life with dignity.
Who all are associated with the project?
What do you hope to achieve/highlight via this project?
This multi-generational, pathbreaking Indian LGBT Oral History Project also flagposts important milestones of the Indian LGBT movement from the early 60s to today – where did people meet, cruising places, the early efforts at forming groups in Mumbai and New Delhi, the first gay newsletter, the first lesbian book, uncovering historical evidence of same-sex literature and iconography, the formation of LGBT organizations and various advocacy efforts leading to the historic Delhi High Court verdict on July 2nd 2009 decriminalizing homosexuality.
I want Project Bolo to serve as an inspiration for the younger LGBT persons who are trying to come to terms with their sexuality and sexual orientation. I want to demystify and deshroud homosexuality and highlight the fact that being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender is not a fashion statement, but they- their hopes, happiness, anguish and agonies- are as real and human as anyone else.
I want Project Bolo to also be used as an archive, a repository for anyone doing research on Indian LGBT topics.
What did you look for in the persons you interviewed?
One of the first criteria is that they have to be Out & Proud as gay, lesbian or transgender person. They had to have a sense of history of the LGBT movement because they were not only telling their personal stories, but through them we are able to reconstruct the historical progress of the movement and the flagposts. The other important aspect was that everyone who agrees to become part of Project Bolo becomes part of history. They are speaking loud and clear out to the world that they are queer and there is no erasing that part of them anymore. Project Bolo is the ‘final and definitive coming out’ process. Coming out cannot be a revolving door, where one day you speak out about your sexuality and the next day you go back into the closet.
What were the hurdles that you faced during the project?
One of the first hurdles was finding funding for the project. I conceived this project in March 2009. It was selected as one of the 25 ‘projects for change’ from South Asia for the International Programme on LGBT Rights conducted in Stockholm by SIDA alongwith RFSU and RFSL. The project was developed in consultation with experts from UK, USA and Sweden. But the project still remained unfunded till Vivek Anand, CEO of The Humsafar Trust stepped in as Producer. He got UNDP India on board and they have been extremely supportive of LGBT issues – both health and rights – in India. They granted us a small seed fund.
However this funding was just enough to take a small crew of 3 persons to shoot the interviews. So everyone had to be a master of multi tasking! What was good about it was that it made the interviewees comfortable and the interviews intimate.
I hope that through Bolo we will be able to empower more people to come out and speak the truth.
Are these 20 people the only one that would be in Project Bolo or do you plan to interview more people in the future?
Vol 1 consists of 20 interviews. I plan to start working on Vol 2 which will cover interviews with LGBT persons in Kolkata and eastern India as well as Bangalore and Chennai. Some of the early footprints of LGBT activism can be found in these cities. I would love to talk to Pawan Dhall to document the making of Pravartak, the fantastic gay newsletter that used to be published in the 90s. Also talk about the first gay pride march ever in India held in Kolkata in 1999. Of course they had to call it ‘Friendship Walk’ because everything was so underground then! The mission of Project Bolo is to unearth these wonderful brave initiatives and document it as part of Indian LGBT movement history.
Any personality/activist you would love to interview for the Project, whom you haven’t interviewed yet?
A lesbian couple in Bombay who were part of the earliest LBT activism. They are amazing and would be able to provide a fantastic insight into the struggles of lesbian women in the 80s and 90s. They have sort of totally gone underground and quiet. I just have to charm them into talking to Project Bolo.
And I would like to interview Hoshang Merchant all over again… he is not only a laugh riot, but he has a fantasticworldview and a sense of global LGBT history with all his travels – from US to Palestine to Iran! Do you know he has actually been part of the legendary Mattachine Society meetings in the US in the late 1960s!
Share with us some special moments/memories while being associated with the project.
Every moment with the Bolo interviewees was magical. It was a trip down several memory lanes – from the closeted hurried encounters in parks and buses in the 60s to 80s to the first attempts at organizing in the 90s to the euphoria of liberation post reading down of Sec 377 recently- it is a rollercoaster of emotions. While Dalip Daswani’s highly charged narration of the empowering Red Rose meeting in a café in Delhi brought gooseflesh and Hoshang Mechant’s sexual dalliances on the streets of San Fransisco made me giggle, Gauri Sawant’s loss of family and her longing for her father brought tears to my eyes.
Going to Lucknow and talking to Saleem Kidwai was very special. His large old-fashioned house stocked with books and posters gave us a sense of history and culture. He has, over the years, painstakingly collected books, newspaper cuttings and photographs of writings and art on same-sex topics. It is mindboggling.
Another special moment was to meet the reclusive Giti Thadani, the first out lesbian woman in India who has also traveled the length and breadth of India documenting sculptures, paintings and murals in her amazing study of Indian same-sex iconography. She talks about how history has been modified, altered and twisted by people over the years. That is a sad testimony of the havoc wrecked by colonialization.
How has been the response till now?
Project Bolo has just gone live online and we are now inviting people to the website www.projectbolo.com to watch the videos, rate and comment. I want people to join the Bolo group on Vimeo at http://vimeo.com/groups/bolo/ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/Project.Bolo.LGBT to share their views and strengthen discussions.
Project Bolo will be screened at conferences and wokshops and taken to colleges and universities across India.
I want Project Bolo to become a movement towards higher visibility of LGBT persons and greater acceptance of us by the society.
Aditya Bandopadhyay being interviewed for Bolo
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