‘For The Love Of God’: A Zine Exploring Queerness in Indian Mythology

Gaysi Family is releasing the seventh edition of their annual Gaysi Zine! It is being unveiled on 1st September, 2018, at Gaysi Zine Bazaar (Mumbai Edition).

This issue, entitled “For the Love Of God”, draws upon stories of queerness within the realm of Indian mythology. The stories are refreshingly represented through graphic adaptations. They tell the stories of characters with queer narratives who often tend to fall through the cracks of mythological narrative, even in modern retellings. Curated by a dedicated team of illustrators, designers, writers, and editors, “For The Love Of God” features more than fifteen stories that highlight queerness and non-conformity of sexual orientation and gender identity in varying degrees. A majority of readers might not have even heard of some of the characters or stories that Gaysi has brought out in this zine. They include Ganga Survanti, the princess who never married, Bhagiratha, “he who was born of two vulvas”, amongst many others.

Retakes and modern outlooks on Indian mythology have seen a sharp rise in popularity over recent years. These, however, tend to ignore or brush over traditional mythology’s (not overly-represented, but definitely present) queer characters in an interesting parallel to the real world. When it comes to the “pillars” of “Indian culture” that various self-proclaimed experts clamor to uphold, mythology is possibly one of the most revered, sacred ones. With society at large having a severely myopic outlook towards queer people (and thus by default their representation) it will not be surprising to see an outpouring of cultural conniptions at the content represented in the zine.

Qitaab got in touch with Pooja Krishnakumar, member of the editorial team behind “For The Love of God”. One part of our conversation was the question of why queer representation in mythology, specifically? Pooja took us through the entire debacle of critics claiming that sexuality and gender identity variations are a Western concept. They claim there’s nothing to support our ideas and our identities in our (massively heteronormative) cultural frameworks, which is just not true. There were lots of online and offline sources consulted, and the general realisation was that stories revolving around queer narratives are actually very easy to find if you know what you’re looking for! There are stories not just of little-known characters, but well-known ones like Krishna that are simply not spoken about in the general narrative surrounding mythology.

Another interesting idea that emerged in the making of this zine was the use of the term “queer”. Queer is not limited to simply LGBTQ+ identities. In fact, anyone away from the idea of “normal” can technically be classed as “queer”. Indian mythology is concerned with all kinds of people. In the story of Ganga Survanti, she doesn’t necessarily have to be “queer” in the LGBTQ+ sense of the word. She just didn’t want to get married, something that was unheard of for women at the time, something that could be considered a different sort of queerness. Bonbibi is another very feminist tale. She stood up for people she believed in and wanted to protect. She is “queer” because she stood up when women were not encouraged or expected to stand up for anything.

Gaysi has always been a very visual storytelling platform.  Their aim was to see how they could take stories from mythology and make them a lot more illustrative and easy to understand, hence the medium of choice. All the stories were well-sourced, edited and refined to make them fluid, easy to understand and therefore illustrate. In turn, the illustrations make the stories more colourful and easier to understand.

Pooja goes on to talk about some of her favourite stories from the collection. Brihannala is the story of Arjuna living as a trans woman when he was in exile. The story is, in fact, quite popular. What’s fascinating about it is that in the entire story, the identity of Brihannala as a trans woman is completely respected by everyone in the story. There is nobody in the entire story using slurs or misgendering her, she is respected her for who she is. According to Pooja, this is what our society needs to be at this time. This is what we should be learning from these mythical characters. Perhaps at one point, society was actually pleasant towards queer people in the way it is depicted in these stories, and perhaps it is time to go back there.

Another fascinating story is that of Ratnavali & Brahmini, a princess and the daughter of a priest at the palace. The princess was supposed to get married and was rejected by the man on grounds of “impurity”, so she decided not to marry. Brahmini, her best friend, decided not to marry with her, and they happily ran off somewhere and lived together.

On the topic of the possible backlash the zine could face, Pooja had some very clear thoughts.

“We live in the kind of India where dissent is a problem. It is possible [to face backlash over this]…but it is also possible that people can go to jail for doing nothing. We’re also willing to take that risk, because that is the point of Gaysi, and the voice and the power of storytelling which we have always believed in if…let them try to silence us, we’re still going to be talking. That’s what is very important, especially in queer lives, if we all stop talking then it’s not gonna go anywhere.”

“For The Love Of God” is not an attempt at mocking or making light of culture, mythology or religion, but to celebrate it. The only difference is that the interpretations in it are aimed towards queer people and celebrate queerness. We constantly search for diversity and inclusivity in our films, books and present-day celebrities, and Gaysi has done a stellar job at pointing out the beautiful instances of inclusivity and belonging that we find even within our mythological texts.

Featured Image Source.

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