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
18” x 40”

Something was amiss. I felt it from a distance. The blue painting, the largest of the 45 and one of the more provocative, was covered with a sheet. I told Balbir to stop. Sudheer spotted us and approached for handshakes. Balbir asked right away about the painting. Sudheer explained that he wanted to unveil it at the right moment, after more guests had arrived. We sensed trouble. Balbir requested that the sheet come off right away. Sudheer led us into the gallery, pulled it off and bundled it up. Heads turned, and we moved into the crowd. We heard applause. We put on our best smiles, but stepped cautiously.

Our doubts receded. Sudheer called the exhibition a hit. We also felt it. That made finding his post on social media just after our late breakfast the next morning all the more shocking. In three lines he stated that due to “social pressures and other unwanted calls,” Muse was “pulling down” "My Bed Of Roses." He apologized for the inconvenience and thanked in the air.

We were appalled. Balbir called him immediately and had a two-minute conversation. Sudheer told him that influential people had pressured him into shutting down the show. He would not name who they were, or their affiliation. He said he was busy, but would meet us at the airport. We had to head out there in an hour for the trip back to Delhi. We didn’t see him.

Balbir got on the phone with Apuurva Sridharan, the journalist at The Times of India who had interviewed him two days before. The article she wrote denounced the latest episode of moral policing in the city, but she also cast a wide net of doubt, quoting Sudheer as stating that around 11 p.m. the night of the show’s opening, right-wing activists paid him a visit at the gallery and demanded he take it down. Their reason? The artist and his artwork stood against Indian culture. When questioned why he hadn’t approached the police, he answered, “The people who paid me a visit are extremely well-known and influential. I don’t want hassles. I had no option but to cancel the show.” The same article had the hotel’s general manager declaring that he’d received no calls or threats from anyone. But he was also quoted as stating that some guests were uncomfortable with the artwork, and that “we have to take everyone’s sentiments into consideration.”

We stopped by the gallery before we left the hotel. The artwork was down and another artist’s work was going up. Sudheer wasn't there. Balbir asked the gallery assistant for information but his answer had holes. He pressed him, and was told that political people had shown up the previous night and made demands, and threatened protests.

Though the many journalists and bloggers who’ve written about the events of that weekend have decried the rising wave of intolerance in India, and the activities of the country’s agents of censorship, the “moral police,” curiously, not a single one has called out any individuals, groups, organizations, or political parties by name.

Ultimately, Kaali Sudheer surrendered to threats and closed the show, but the true story of who actually forced its closing, who did the moral policing, is a story we don’t think is getting told.