One Gay Artist vs. India's 'Moral Police'

Balbir Krishan's celestial artwork still shines even after censorship in southern India.

BY Christopher Harrity

January 03 2014 6:00 AM ET

This Is Not Dark Life
Acrylic on canvas
25” x 55”

Mike Giangrasso continues:

Balbir’s 2010 solo show, "The Bonding of Spirituality," was his debut as a professional artist, but his second solo show was his artistic and personal coming out story. The homoerotically charged imagery in 2011’s "Out Here and Now" drew attention in a society opposed to the open expression of sexuality of any kind. A masked intruder stole into the gallery while Balbir was being interviewed, attacked him, and destroyed a painting before fleeing. The act was captured on video. The LGBT community, which he hardly knew at the time, rallied around him when news of the attack broke in the media, and offered him and his artwork protection, and friendship.  

Balbir’s most recent exhibition, "My Bed of Roses," premiered in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad several weeks ago, at a queer-friendly gallery housed in a major hotel. A triumphant opening was followed by the show’s cancellation the next morning by the gallery curator, who stated that threats were made against him by regressive social and political forces, which to date have neither named themselves, nor been named. The date was December 1, Balbir’s 40th birthday.

Two days later, the United Nations-promoted International Day of People With Disability followed. Observed worldwide on December 3, local Hindi newspapers often wrote about, and sometimes featured within their pages the village celebrity artist they’d known since childhood, but whose artwork they’d never seen. But word travels, eventually, even to small corners. One widely read gossip paper put him back on its front page this year, but this time took aim at his brazen homosexuality and engagement to marry an American man.

Balbir’s life in the villages of India, with weekends home with me in Delhi, thus came to an end that day. His family disowned him. Violence was swiftly threatened by the families of his students and by the village council of elders, the enforcer of medieval codes of “honor” in rural northern India. On his way home from what would be his last, menacing day at school, a confidential informant let Balbir know that the council was moving against him. He may have saved his life. Balbir fled. We lost communication for an agonizing evening. When I got his call, he had found haven with the family of a former student several towns away. The student’s father took him to the police, where he was laughed at and dismissed. Always the fighter, he wanted to return to his foes and defy them. I told him that it was time to give up, to get himself back to Delhi, to me, alive, and to stay.

Eight days later the Supreme Court of India recriminalized homosexuality when it restored “Section 377,” the colonial-era law that the Delhi High Court had struck down as unconstitutional in 2009. The December 11 judgment was a severe blow to the country’s LGBT communities, and to us personally. The old regime of terror, new again, has brought out new enemies in civil and religious society that hadn’t been heard from before. The mood of the country seems changed. We’re not ready for the possibility of having to leave, but reality weighs on us. Should living in India as gay men and Balbir working as a free artist become too dangerous, we’ll go. For now we’ve receded to the relative safety of our home, behind closed doors. Balbir is currently planning a new series of paintings.