Saturday, August 22, 2015

To CC with love!

From the Archives, Aug '15
If Counsel Club were functioning today, it might have celebrated its 22nd birthday party this August 15. Pawan Dhall, one of the founder members, rummages through Counsel Club’s archival material and jogs his memory to look back at some of the ‘CC birthday parties’ through the 1990s and early 2000s. These series of articles intend to create an archive of the queer movement in Bengal and India – not a chronological narrative of the movement, rather anecdotal histories capturing the little voices that are often lost in general historical accounts – voices from thousands of letters received by Counsel Club, one of India’s earliest queer support groups (1993-2002), and from the group’s house journal Naya Pravartak.

Counsel Club logo
Ice cream, junk food and antakshari were the highlights and delights for around five Counsel Club members, who braved the rains and slush at Vivekananda Park in South Kolkata, to celebrate the group’s first birthday on August 15, 1994. This is from what I remember, as I did not find any reports or photographs of the occasion in the Counsel Club archives with me. But by the time the group turned two, its documentation had improved. The May to December 1995 issue of Naya Pravartak reported: “When only 11 of the invited 20 turned up for CC’s birthday party on September 3, it appeared that the event would be a damp squib . . . The party should have been on August 15, but had to be postponed for a number of reasons. Anyway, the merry-making by the 11 present surpassed all expectations. Games, discussions (even on that day!), singing, dancing and even a ‘gay quiz’ sent the hours flying.”

The report continued: “Perhaps the most special moment was when two huge candles were blown out in unison, and the yum cake cut by the eldest CC member, Mrs. KG.” But Ashim and Pawan (yours truly), the reporters, couldn’t help signing off somewhat on a sour note: “Many of the members (including some founder members) were sorely missed. But then they too missed the party of the year! Serves them right for seeking greener pastures away from the oasis that Calcutta is!” What the report didn’t mention was the extra food that the party host, a group member in Tollygunge, had the pleasure of relishing over the next couple of days.

Birthday Cheers! was how the third birthday party of Counsel Club was reported in the July to December 1996 issue of Naya Pravartak: “About two dozen members and friends gathered at member Shanky’s place on August 15 to celebrate the group’s third birthday. Fun and games marked the occasion, with ‘hot’ pictures, post cards, colourful condoms and ├ęclairs to be won as prizes. Everybody chipped in with food, though the alur dam and ghoogni were especially yum!

A blindfold game in progress at Counsel Club's 7th birthday
party in 2000 at a guest house in South Kolkata
Photo courtesy: Counsel Club 
“Amalendu’s yoga display was outstanding, while Ranjan and Shanky’s singing was heartwarming. Sudarshan and Chiranjeev provided a glimpse of The Alien Flower ballet enacted at G. D. Birla Sabhaghar on June 1 . . . It was one party people are not likely to forget – until perhaps the next one!” Not only had the idea of birthday parties seemed to have caught on, the party revellers had no qualms about their photograph being published in Naya Pravartak, which was for “private circulation only” but also then available at Classic Books in Kolkata and People Tree in New Delhi. Unfortunately, the print quality of Naya Pravartak doesn’t allow for the photograph to be reproduced here.

The positive mood generated by Counsel Club turning three was also reflected in the Periscope (editorial) column of the July to December 1996 issue of Naya Pravartak. Headlined Tasting ‘Threedom’!, it said: “Turning three had coincided with CC taking some unprecedented steps. Not all of which can be recounted on these pages – not as yet, at least. But the ones which can be mentioned include participation in a radio programme in Bengali . . . initiation of a legal helpline and the launch of an employment scheme.

“For CC, more than ever before, it’s time to challenge the limits imposed by fear, ignorance and lack of imagination. It’s time for it to establish its identity as a support group clearly and confidently.

Counsel Club's logo was developed with
design support from partner agency
Thoughtshop Foundation, Kolkata
Photo credit: Pawan Dhall
“One small step taken towards establishing that identity can be seen on the cover of this issue. It’s the CC logo. Some might wonder why it took three years for the group to have a logo. The reason is simple: CC believes in an evolutionary process. And a truly representative logo . . . can only evolve out of a sense of direction gained over at least a few years of work.”

The fourth birthday party on August 15, 1997 was an even more evolved affair. As reported in the August 1997 to May 1998 issue of Naya Pravartak, the “birthday party with a difference” was “bigger than ever before in terms of attendance” and “more boisterous too in terms of the games played”. It witnessed much humour around the fact that “a slight miscommunication between members led to four cakes being ordered instead of one!” But “what made it unique among all the Counsel Club birthday parties celebrated so far was the raising of funds for the daughter of a group member’s maid-servant. A bright student, the girl needed help to pay her school fees and buy the text books. Fortunately, the funds raised at the party did help her tide over the crisis, at least partly.”

Counsel Club's 5th birthday cake being cut by a long-time friend
of the group, a lawyer, who attended the party with her husband,
an academic with Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan, and her
infant daughter. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall     
The fifth birthday party in 1998 was not documented in Naya Pravartak, but by the looks of the one photograph I could locate in the archives, it was much in the same vein as the previous year, probably bigger in terms of attendance and held at the same venue as 1997 – George Bhawan, the venue for Counsel Club’s monthly, later fortnightly, meetings from mid 1997 till 2002. And this time there seemed to be only two cakes, one of them baked and gifted by my mother Usha Dhall.

A year later, there was a major break with tradition. There probably was a birthday gathering as usual, but the main event was a cultural programme organized on August 13, 1999 at Aban Mahal, also known as Children’s Little Theatre, in South Kolkata. The January-February 2000 issue of Naya Pravartak (the only one that was all in Bengali and also the last issue of the journal) reported that the event focussed on breaking myths about queer people through recitation, dance and a sruti natak (audio play). Not everyone was happy with the performances, and half the audience was rather distracted by the sudden opportunity to ‘network’ in a ‘public yet safe space’. But this was one of the first ‘public’ events of its kind in eastern India (even if most in the audience were queer), and together with South Asia and India’s very first rainbow pride walk that preceded the event on July 2, 1999 in Kolkata, it set a significant precedent.

There were more precedents in store later in the year. On December 31, 1999, Counsel Club organized probably the first ever paid queer party in a rooftop guest house in the heart of Kolkata. This was one part of its 'Network East' programme, a bi-annual networking event for sexual minorities in eastern India. An unexpected 60 people paid Rs.100 each to attend the overnight party and ushered in 2000 with much cheer. More about this party another time, but it set the trend of Counsel Club birthday parties also turning into paid parties, which helped greatly in financing the parties and then saving money for the group’s other activities.

The first paid party also threw up some not-so-pleasant aspects of the urban queer scenario that perhaps still persist. There were arguments that the party was divided along certain lines. Those from Kolkata, conversant in English or attuned to western music didn’t quite mix with people from other places and with other tastes, and indeed there seemed to be ‘two parties in one’ going on after a point of time. There were no complaints of an outright rich-poor divide, but associated issues might have played a role. For instance, who was it that was able to access alcohol (it was a bring-your-own-booze party and not everyone could afford to do so); or who experienced negative sexual tension at the party (even a couple of instances of ‘rich guy sneers at poor or feminine guy’s proposal’ could have triggered polarizations within the party).

The ensuing debate within Counsel Club led to a middle ground for the next few paid parties, including the seventh birthday party (in 2000) held at the same guest house as the first paid party. It was agreed that a party was not the best of forums to ‘enforce’ social equity or even to judge people’s personal preferences. And yet, if a support group for queer people like Counsel Club was to organize a party, there had to be some emphasis on ‘being together’ and ‘building bridges’ within the party itself – this apart from making the party open to all queer people and their supporters. The ‘winning solution’ was the inclusion of a ‘community dinner’ in the party agendas – the one hour that the party organizers insisted all participants gathered around for a meal and chat together, irrespective of their ‘differences’ (see the draft invitation card for the eighth birthday party at a wedding house in Park Circus area on August 14, 2001).

There were other efforts as well made at inclusion. While the paid parties were crucial for Counsel Club’s fundraising, there was a realization that charging an entry fee could well exclude some people. Records of the group’s preparations for the eighth birthday party show that budgetary provisions were made for students and those unemployed. However, with regard to participation of women (queer or not) in the birthday and other parties, the group’s record was not quite as successful. This was mainly a reflection of the numerical imbalance of women within the group’s membership and friendship circles. Similarly, while trans women in general were a growing presence in Counsel Club parties and events (even if the identity term ‘transgender’ was yet to catch on), Hijras in particular were not present at all; neither were trans men (even if the group had links with some individuals).

By the time Counsel Club turned nine in 2002, I had left the group because of irreconcilable differences. That seemed the only decision possible at that time. But as I conclude this article, I’m overwhelmed with a sense of ‘incompletion’. There seem to be a million things that could have been done differently. If it were not for the following messages received from Counsel Club friends on the group’s ‘22nd birthday’, it would have been that much more difficult to reconcile the loose ends and move on.

Pia (and Kiki), both based in Kolkata, who contacted Counsel Club in 1995: Kiki and I were among the first lesbians to come out looking for other lesbians in Kolkata. We were frantic in our search when we came across the name of a gay magazine called Naya Pravartak. There we found a few phone numbers and gay people expressing themselves. Calling the numbers, a meeting at the Drive Inn, Middleton Street was scheduled. There we met up with Pawan and a few others. It felt so good to meet gay people and also to be understood. We immediately shared warmth, a bond, openness hitherto unknown. It felt good to be accepted at last by people. Then we got to know that Counsel Club existed and it was open to lesbians and bisexuals. We immediately joined up and started meeting more gay people at their regularly held meetings. It was liberating to share same-sex jokes between cups of tea and snacks. Unfortunately, not many women were out and we didn’t manage to reach them in spite of having Counsel Club as a safe space. But in those days Counsel Club provided for us a refuge and space where we could meet and communicate without fear. (WhatsApp message)

Rajarshi Chakraborty, now based in Ranchi, became a member in 1997: I joined Counsel Club in 1997 . . . I don’t remember the exact date, but it was the day on which Counsel Club meetings started taking place in George Bhawan. It was the platform where I was first able to find people like me . . . a great experience which I am unable to express in words. I never missed any meeting, there was such an intoxicating attraction of the meetings. It was here that I made friendship with Pawan, Sanjib, Santanu, Abhra, Aniruddha, Suman, Arun, Biswa, who are still my closest friends. There are certain painful memories also. It was in Counsel Club that I first entered into a relationship with another member, but it soon broke. It is how life proceeds  we get many things and don’t get some. (Facebook message)

Santanu Giri, based in Kolkata, joined Counsel Club in 1999: Those were the golden days in my life. CC provided us the platform to get like-minded and lovely friends. CC helped us in laying the foundation of Dumdum Swikriti Society. (Text message)

Note: Names and other identity markers have been hidden or modified in some places for reasons of confidentiality.

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!


  1. Reminiscing old days. I still remember the CLT shadow dance done by me and trained and conducted by Ranjan.

  2. As discussion, research and documentation related to the Indian queer movement grows, hitherto unknown aspects are emerging. According to some sources of information, the 'Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk' organized on July 2, 1999 may not be the first ever queer pride event in the city, India or South Asia. It may well have been preceded by other similar events in Kolkata or elsewhere. We will share information on this as and when more is known in this regard - Editor.

  3. Correction: Counsel Club's cultural programme organized at Aban Mahal, Kolkata on August 13, 1999 as mentioned in the article was earlier presented as an event titled 'Bhul Bhanganor Pala'. This event too was organized by Counsel Club at Aban Mahal, but on April 13, 2001. A photograph from 'Bhul Bhanganor Pala' was also erroneously assigned to the August 13, 1999 event. We apologize for the mix-up. Errors in the article text have been corrected and the photograph concerned removed - Editor.