Friday, January 22, 2016

Salt, pepper and sex – on the table!

Creations, Jan '16
Pawan Dhall in conversation with advocate Kaushik Gupta, 44 and physician Dr. Archan Mukherjee, 33, both photography enthusiasts and creators of Colours of Love in . . . Monochrome, 2016, somewhat plain-sounding but easily the ‘hottest’ calendar in town – displaying it on your table may well call for revisiting and confronting your ideas about gender, sexuality and sexual pleasure

Photographs courtesy: Colours of Love in . . . Monochrome, 2016
Pawan: Before we flip through the calendar, let’s hear something about the creators.

Archan: I’m a photo artist and a doctor (Master of Public Health) and teach in a medical college – I travel between Kolkata and Durgapur for work.

Pawan: How did the combination of doctor and photo artist come about?

Archan: Photography happened when I was modelling on the side during my MBBS days. I developed a liking for it as I had to work closely with the photographers to give proper poses. Many leading fashion photographers taught me the technicalities of clicking.

Kaushik: A lawyer by profession, photographer by passion! I’m also associated with NGO Sanjog’s anti-trafficking efforts, and linked to Kinky Collective and Varta Trust as a gender-sexuality activist.

Pawan: The calendar too is all about passion! How would you describe it, if you have to?

Archan: It’s the third in a series of queer-themed calendars. The first two were A Silent Saga – Colonial Calcutta Caught in a Camera, 2014 and A City in Love, 2015. This third calendar portrays diverse forms of sexual practices and expressions between consenting adults. It essentially celebrates the freedom of sexual choices.

Kaushik: I was a model in one of Archan’s earlier calendars, and was toying with the idea of a calendar that highlighted lesser talked about queer sexual orientations like kink, if I may use the expression ‘sexual orientation’ a little flexibly. Then Archan came up with the basic idea that we built up on together.

Pawan: Are you satisfied with your creation? What’s your top-of-the-mind feeling?

Archan: After addressing the queer historical angle and queer love Utopia in the first two calendars, it was high time to address the ‘core issue’ of queerness in sex! I’ve never been fully satisfied with any of my works, but this is a decent production I guess.

Kaushik: I think it has served the purpose – it was not a money-making venture, but the idea was to talk about pleasure and not just intellectualize sexuality or indulge in intellectual masturbation – we wanted to reconnect sex with sexuality. As an artist, there is a certain sense of satisfaction. The earlier apprehensions that the prints were not looking as good as the LCD impressions on our digital cameras were finally allayed. All the struggle paid off. Maybe not all the frames are photographically brilliant but the stories they tell are more important.

Pawan: And what has been the public response?

Archan: That has been an interesting issue! It generated a negative response from people who were expected to react positively, but it created a huge positive vibe among people who we thought would be put off.   

Pawan: How so?

Archan: We expected that people who were in the gender and sexuality movement would be more liberal in their views regarding the spectrum of sexual practices portrayed in the calendar. But in many cases the reaction was otherwise. Perhaps this shows the extent of taboo around talking about sex as sex!

Pawan: Do you think the reality presented in the calendar threatened people involved in the gender-sexuality movement?

Archan: No, I don’t think it threatened anyone, but on a personal basis our upbringing that teaches us that sex is a forbidden, dirty thing is so strong that some people were in a state of discomfort when they saw something that celebrated all kinds of sexual practices even though they were between consenting adults. I expected the activists to be more liberal, but I suppose I forgot that they grew up in the same society as the others with the same narrow mindsets towards any discussion on sex.

Kaushik: A respected senior colleague of mine, after a media review of the calendar, texted me his appreciation. Other colleagues did so too, but they said since they lived with their parents and kids, they couldn’t display the calendar. The fact that we have parents or kids is because of the act of sex, but now we’re pretending to act as if sex doesn’t exist!

Archan: The reactions from my friends and family were mixed – happy, thrilled, shocked but happy . . .

Pawan: Why the monochrome?

Archan: Using monochrome was partly a technical and partly an emotional decision.

Pawan: Emotional?

Archan: Not a single photograph was shot in a studio environment. We improvised the light sources and so black and white helped make the photographs look uniform. And emotional because we thought that when you take away all the grandeur of colour, the only thing that remains is the soul in the frame. The emotion comes through more genuinely.

Pawan: How were the models recruited?

Archan: As in my previous projects, they were all known people, and we selected those who were comfortable working as a model.

Pawan: Did you follow a formal, written consent process?

Archan: Yes, since we were dealing with sensitive issues. All the models were above 18 years of age.

Pawan: Do you anticipate any legal troubles?

Kaushik: We don’t anticipate any trouble, and even if there is, we will take it up. What is important to note is that all that is erotic is not necessarily obscene, and American actor and model once famously said “The only difference between porn and art is the lighting”. Even the Honourable Supreme Court of India has ruled time and again on this matter, one memorable case being that of complaints of obscenity against Samaresh Bose’s Projapati. In this case the conviction by a lower court was overturned by the Supreme Court.

Pawan: What was it like to work with the models? Were there any issues of discomfort during the shoots?

Archan: We had extensive discussions with the models before they appeared for the shoots. So only those models were chosen who were comfortable with what was supposed to be done. Rather on the floor we had many light-hearted moments, quite contrary to the mood visible in the frames!

Pawan: Did the models provide any inputs for the shots?

Archan: At times, yes.

Pawan: How did you go about the visualization? Did you have a preset idea of what you wanted to shoot and include in the calendar?

Archan: Well, interestingly Kaushik and I had very different ways of approaching a shot. I’m more calculative, while Kaushik is spontaneous. So there were differences as well – we discarded almost three times the number of photographs that went into the final product. Sometimes when we could not arrive at a unanimous decision, we asked other people involved in the project for suggestions. That was how it worked.

Kaushik: Ultimately, I think we managed to present a spectrum of queer erotica, with blurring of gender roles in many places.

Archan: Yes, and it has a mix of both kink and non-kink visuals.

Pawan: In my opinion most of the models seem so shapely. Isn’t that a sort of stereotyping?

Kaushik: No, there are at least two photos which were based on a conscious decision to move away from stereotypes. To me all bodies are beautiful – we wanted to show body positive images.

Pawan: Archan, Kaushik has given his take on legal issues. Do you want to say anything as a doctor?

Archan: I really can’t comment anything special as a doctor on erotica. But yes, this 'no talk' attitude around sex does a lot of harm to society at large.

Pawan: So what next? The calendar has a lot of potential, any plans around that?

Archan: The main aim was to get people talking about issues considered forbidden. The release of the calendar has made that possible. In addition to that, Kaushik and I have been taking sessions on the issues portrayed in the calendar. There is also a plan to organize a panel discussion.

Pawan: That would be something to look forward to. Thank you both for spicing up 2016 and the very best for future projects!

Pawan Dhall aspires to be a rainbow journalist and believes in taking a stand, even if it’s on the fence – the view is better from there!

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