Balbir Krishan, courtesy of the subject.
One Gay Artist vs. India's 'Moral Police'

By Christopher Harrity

Originally published on Advocate.com January 03 2014 6:00 AM ET

On December 2, The Times of India reported that artist Balbir Krishan's exhibit, "My Bed of Roses," at the Muse Gallery in Hyderabad had been closed down by the "moral police." The censorship coincidentally foreshadowed the reinstatement of Section 377, a colonial-era law banning gay sex, little more than a week later.

Krishan's partner, Mike Giangrasso, responded to our inquiries about the exhibit with some of its images, which are included here on the following pages, and with an account of what happened at the Muse Gallery.

Because we were concerned for Krishan's partner's safety as well, we asked if he could give us permission to use his name in the article, as that would subject him to possible arrest. On December 18, he replied:

"Recent and still unfolding events in India make things less secure. Homosexual relations are now illegal in India, as of one week ago, December 11. This is after the cancellation of the exhibition in Hyderabad. Because some of Balbir's artwork contains homoerotic images, he would now be liable to arrest, and these are now basically unexhibitable in the country.

"You may have heard about the deepening diplomatic row between India and the U.S. Today's latest news reports suggest that gay American residents in India may also be subject to arrest and visa cancellation.

"I'd like my name attached. I'm not used to hiding, and not prepared for regressive steps. We have to weigh philosophy vs. personal safety and security."

During our communication with Giangrasso, what became equally striking about the exhibit and the courage of two gay men who want it shown is the remarkable story of Krishan's life. Here is a gay man who overcame internalized shame and realized his life's mission only after surviving a suicide attempt, in which he was run over by a train.

This Is Not Dark Life
Acrylic on canvas
39” x 84” (triptych)

Continue reading for more artwork, the remarkable story of Balbir Krishan's life as told by Mike Giangrasso, and the closure of the exhibit at the Muse Gallery >>>

This Is Not Dark Life
Acrylic on canvas
Size: 37” x 37”

Mike Giangrasso writes:

Balbir Krishan is from and of the villages of northern India. He has spent the last several years at odds with a culture and society unwilling to allow him to live freely as a gay man, and to express himself openly through his art. With threats mounting against him, he fled his village in December. Today he is in refuge in Delhi at a location he can’t disclose.

To listen to the tale of Balbir’s 40 years of solitude is to fall into a Garcia Marquez novel of twisted plots, dubious characters, catastrophes, and conquests. That’s me, the reader. Balbir, the artist, sometimes looks at his improbable life as if he were a figure stretching across one of his surreal, cinematic canvases, too strange to be believed.

I don’t know his entire story. Balbir defers the scariest parts to another day. One terrifying chapter we survived together unfolded just recently. Some closet doors swing open with barely a squeak. Mine did. His blew off the hinges.

Like Balbir, I’m an outlier. An unusual kid, I paved a road to India from the United States at a young age, 35 years ago. Several years back I made the country my home. I met Balbir, and he became my lover.

This Is Not Dark Life
Acrylic on canvas
37” x 37”

Mike Giangrasso continues:

Balbir Krishan had a troubled childhood in his home village and was forced to run away to Delhi to scratch out a living. He sold everything from trinkets at intersections to his own body on some of its meaner streets. Numbing hunger and homelessness drove him to submit to servitude as a cargo boy with cross-country truckers and, after a brush with death, to opt for a return to his village. He was 17. Hardened, but emboldened by his misadventures, he dictated the new terms of his life there. He finished school and then did what few farming families expect of their sons and daughters: He went on to higher education at the provincial center of Agra and excelled at his studies.

At Agra he confided to a friend his emerging sexuality and was promptly outed. Devastated by the ensuing public shunning and humiliation, a feeling that he was “done” took root and grew. One day he laid down his life on the railroad tracks outside the city. When he regained consciousness in a hospital, he was stung by the fact that he was still alive, and still gay. That was the beginning of his awakening. Of those events of almost 20 years ago, Balbir says, “I lost my legs, but I won my life.”

All these years since, whenever asked to tell about what happened, Balbir has spoken of his suicide attempt as a train accident, and that became official. He carefully managed who would learn the staggering truth, and they were three people, until now: a friend, a former partner, and me. Mercifully, the news of his outing didn’t travel with him on the long road back to his village from Agra. Though an open secret, Balbir kept his homosexuality at home carefully tucked away in the closet, away from the village’s prying eyes.

A teacher from his college took him under her wing and arranged for him to finish his degree from his bed by sending him a steady supply of books. When he was able to get up a year later she located a charity that gave him a hand tricycle, and he managed to get himself back on a train to Agra to sit for exams.

From his bed Balbir also taught himself how to paint. He found a job as an art teacher at a village school without running water or electricity and was paid $30 a month. He taught by day and painted at night.

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.

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

The Advocate: How was it that the exhibition at the Muse Art Gallery in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad came to be censored?
Mike Giangrasso: Like many of us, my partner, artist Balbir Krishan, had a rough time growing up gay. That his life was acted out in rural northern India made for some added drama. By his late 30s he was like a caged cat pacing against a glass wall. He opened "Out Here and Now" in the big-four city closest to home, Delhi. It was his artistic and personal coming out story. The paintings covered the male body, enigmatic fantasies, erotic mayhem, ennui. The detachment of sex from self. It opened on the second to last day of the year in 2011, in a city and country inexperienced with stuff like that.

It’s not the way he wanted to achieve fame. Notoriety arrived when days into the show, a masked intruder entered the exhibition hall as he was rehearsing for a gallery walk, attacked him, and destroyed a painting before fleeing. The stunned former student who was filming him snapped to, dropped his camera and gave chase, while Balbir, who walks with a cane on prosthetic legs, lay on the ground injured. The gallery administrators were in their offices having tea.

The police accused him of asking for trouble and refused to take a report until they were called out by the media, which had picked up the story and reported it as an act of fanaticism and an assault on free expression. Artists and civil libertarians rose in protest. The LGBT community, which Balbir didn’t yet know, rallied and convinced him to keep the show going. They provided him and his artwork round-the-clock protection, and friendship. To meet, for the first time in his life, people who identified as gay and proud was a revelation. He’d spent his life in a Jat village in western Uttar Pradesh, teaching art in a school with no running water or electricity by day, and painting at home at night. He’d had no experience with the urban gay scene. He got into Delhi when he was able to scrape enough money together, but only to peddle his paintings at the galleries around town.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack. In India there are groups, organizations, and religious and political parties that routinely move against conduct and expression they judge offensive to traditional Indian cultural and religious values, or of being of Western import. These self-appointed censors hand down condemnations, sometimes under threat of violence, and try to force, often successfully, shutdowns of artistic expression. They are derided as the “moral police” by civil libertarians and the liberal press, but are not always called out by name. They’re often spoken of and written about euphemistically. But some wear their intolerance as badges of honor. We see that in the United States all the time, don’t we? I came across a post this week on social media from the “Islamic Center for Peace and Prosperity” announcing that a Brother Ilyas would debate a gay rights activist at their cultural center in Delhi on the question of whether homosexuality is good for humanity or not.

Balbir had no idea that any real-life performance of the homoerotic stories his paintings told in Out Here and Now had been illegal in India prior to 2009, when the Delhi High Court struck down as unconstitutional Section 377, the colonial-era law that criminalized all but missionary-position sex, but was used by the police to target, harass, and persecute gays. Balbir had never heard of the law until its dismantling made the news. He’d kept his homosexuality to himself. He’d suffered severe abuse throughout his youth and survived it. He wanted to live his adult years quietly in his village at his family home. He’d succeeded in resisting family pressure to marry. He taught and he painted.

Over a period of several years the conflict between innocence and experience within Balbir mounted, and ended with the disaster at the gallery, in favor of the latter. Today he understands plainly what 377 meant before 2009, and what it means now. Only weeks ago, on December 11, the Supreme Court of India reinstated Section 377. Homosexuality is once again illegal in the country, and once again punishable with penalties of up to life imprisonment.

It wasn’t long after "Out Here and Now" closed that Muse Art Gallery curator Kaali Sudheer found Balbir on social media and “liked” his artwork. He and the gallery sent “friend” requests, which Balbir accepted, and the courtship began. Sudheer wanted Balbir to exhibit at Muse. He assured him that its location in the conservative southern Indian city of Hyderabad wasn’t an issue. The gallery was housed in a five-star hotel, and security would be in place. People would not be able to walk in off the street. The artwork might not be embraced by the average Hyderabadi, but there were plenty of progressive, queer-friendly people in the city who would celebrate it. They would be specially invited, and they would make a show at Muse a success.

Balbir was interested in the proposition, but he had reservations. He’d spent the last year regaining strength and confidence, but the attack in Delhi was still fresh. Conversations between artist and gallerist continued for more than a year, further reassurance was given, and an agreement was reached. The exhibition would open on a Saturday night, November 30, 2013, and run for two weeks. Balbir sped up work on paintings that were in progress and began new ones. The show would include these, and several which remained in his personal collection, pieces he’d painted over the last three years, including a number from "Out Here and Now."

"My Bed of Roses" began to take shape. We shipped 45 paintings to Hyderabad. Muse put together a 12-page brochure with an essay written by a historian highly regarded in Indian art circles. The gallery offered us rail tickets and to put us up somewhere in the city, but Balbir doesn’t get around easily without a wheelchair, so we decided to splurge on a stay at the hotel itself, in order to have quick and easy access to the gallery. Neither did we have the time to travel 24 hours each way on the train. We bought air tickets. Balbir was excited. It would be his first time on a plane. The flight to Hyderabad was full of the awe and wonder one sees in first-graders. I’m a teacher, and I know what that looks like.

We settled into our hotel room on the sixth floor and over the next two days visited the second floor gallery to work out framing details with an assistant. Sudheer wasn’t at Muse either day, and we didn’t get a call from him, which we thought unusual. We let it drop. On Saturday afternoon the assistant let us know that all was well. We stopped by to see how things looked. The artwork was nicely hung.

We approached the gallery at 7 sharp holding hands, as always when we’re out. Though it’s far less common than it once was, one occasionally still sees close friends of the same gender hand-in-hand in India. But Balbir and I had other reasons for holding hands. We were lovers. He also needed me for support while walking on his clunky legs of wood and plastic. The sight of him struggling as he walks often evokes concern and sympathy in people, and we’ve never been questioned about it.

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.

This Is Not Dark Life
Acrylic on canvas
18” x 40”    

This Is Not Dark Life
Acrylic on canvas
18” x 40”    

Silent Conversations
Acrylic on canvas
26” x 27”

Silent Conversations
Acrylic on canvas
17.5” x 17.5”

Man Machine
Acrylic on canvas
17.5” x 17.5”

Transfer Station
Acrylic and ballpen
11” x 28”   

Transfer Station
Acrylic and ballpen on paper
10” x 10”   

Transfer Station
Acrylic and ballpen on paper
10” x 20”

Transfer Station
Acrylic and ballpen on paper
9.5” x 12”

The Bonding of Spirituality
Acrylic on canvas
11” x 12”   

The Bonding of Spirituality
Acrylic and ballpen on paper
10” x 10”