In its myriad forms, art has long been seen as a key part of social resistance and change. The work of seminal visual artists like Amrita Sher-Gil, Barbara Kruger and Frida Kahlo (to name a few) has long served to inform the greater public of the intricacies of social movements brimming under the surface of their consciousness. Poets and performers like Alok Vaid-Menon use both their art and their presence to spark conversations and build awareness about very real issues, such as what gender non-conformity is really like in the public eye. Music has, of course, always been a spark for social movements. Right from the “Give Peace a Chance” post-Vietnam wave in the USA to “Khoon Chala” from Rang de Basanti, which espoused the concept of candle marches as a form of protest, to the “Give Me Some Sunshine” wave that inspired solidarity in Indian students and workers of all ages as recently as 2009, lyricists and musicians have long been wielding the power of music as a tool to awaken camaraderie and cohesion across factions. Most importantly, songs have had as much of a place in protests across the world as slogans and chants.
Writers and storytellers have used the power of their stories (since possibly the beginning of time) to create tools of information, resistance and ultimately change. Whether it is Ismat Chughtai’s famous “Lihaaf”, which dealt with lesbian love in a time when censorship was rampant or anthologies like Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai’s “Same-Sex Love in India” that trace the representation of queer love through history, stories have been at the centre of revolution in many socio-political structures.
It is almost undeniable that stories are a form of art. A conversation with Shals Mahajan of the LABIA—A Queer Feminist and LBT Collective reveals an important point: it’s not just the stories themselves, but the details about their telling that make all the difference. Who tells these stories, or who has the power to tell stories? Whose stories are these? What language are they being told in, and to whom? There is a certain power held by the written word. As Shals notes, the history of both the written word and education as a whole have been governed by a highly Brahminical system. Education as a system has always lain in the hands of those with power, and the subtle (and not-so-subtle) ideas of patriarchy, the caste system, and classism have been leaching into the collective consciousness of everyone with the privilege to access an education. If this knowledge is in the hands of people with power, then the stories they tell will undoubtedly reflect it. History has always been written by the victors, or rather the hunters. What happens when the hunted start writing the stories? Shals reiterates: all stories are about structures. The vital questions of who, to whom, the purpose and the general context of the stories are relevant to what change they bring and to which spaces.
Shals also makes another important point: the kind of change that stories bring is different from the changes that movements bring. Movements are all about the uprising—fighting, going out on the street, protesting, fighting legal battles. Stories fight battles at the emotional level. As a medium, they are somewhat more open, connecting to people in different ways. The question of power is then linked to the idea of connection. Connect is not only important to industrious storytelling, says Shals, but also to stories that touch people and bring about change at a more personal emotional and thinking level. Power, then, lies on the emotional and thinking levels as well. Shals takes the example of the novel “Gone with the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell. They raise a vital question: when we read it, do we read it as the heartwarming story of a young woman who overcame many struggles and braved the odds to get her happy ending, or do we read it as a story that is pro-slavery in many ways? The way we perceive the story is where the power dynamics really come out and play. It’s not just the act of writing, but also the act of reading, and who is doing both those things, Shals says, that make stories complex and powerful.
So why stories, then? When there is so much nuance to their role in resistance, why stories? Shals has a simple answer: not only were stories an intimate part of their own life, the stories of people like us were never being told. Subtext and “reading between the lines” were a respite from a world that was inherently heterosexist and binary-normative. Scripts, the zine that was founded by the collective, was brought out in this manner. Shals spoke about the workshops the collective had organized for the women who were already writing to Stree Sangam (as LABIA was known before 2003) so they could write for Scripts with the simple, pure message, “Yes, you can write.” Anyone can write, whether they believe themselves to be a writer or not. While the work that LABIA has done has been groundbreaking and inspiring in its own right, Shals observed that their revolution, like all revolutions, has been building on history. Also, all movements are inextricably linked with other movements. Trans-exclusionary feminism is not feminism. Sex-worker exclusionary feminism is not feminism. Feminism that does not acknowledge caste-related issues is not feminism. The roots of any one movement cannot ever be traced to one singular person, organization or point, but are rooted in a deeper, more complex cultural narrative.
Working all these details into the fabric of any social change reveals that there is a deeper underlying narrative that shapes storytelling before it can shape peoples’ lives. A new consciousness cannot rise without taking into account contexts and narratives that have been present for millennia. In response to this, Shals notes that there are multiple narratives that usually exist together. There can never be one singular cultural narrative, but there is usually an overarching mainstream narrative which comprises of “what people want to hear”. It’s also important to note who the people who want to hear this narrative are. As Shals observes, when the LGBTQ+ movement takes to the streets and marches for visibility, are we saying “We are like you”? Or are we building the narrative of “Yes, we are different. And we want our differences to be accepted”? If it is the latter, then the existence of multiple narratives becomes even clearer. Our narratives are inherently shaped by our social position. To take a crude example, the narrative of a queer, urban, savarna person with an access to higher education will be wildly different from that of a queer person belonging to a marginalized caste living in rural areas with access to limited education, and that cannot be ignored when we unify them under the umbrella of “queer people”. Shals brings up trans issues in particular, noting that a lot of the mainstream narrative around these is “Oh, those poor people. They have such difficult lives. Let’s give them rights” which is, according to them, a highly “disturbing” narrative. According to them, everyone should question their gender. Trans people are not an anomaly that exists around the gender binary, the gender binary is an anomaly around which trans people exist. Poornima Sukumar of the Aravani Art Project also adds that the personal narratives of trans people are in themselves an act of resistance. In a sense, existence is an act of resistance, but the fact that they weave their stories into art and murals in the public eye has a huge bearing on the future of trans issues in particular and the LGBTQ+ movement in general.
This does bring about the question of accessibility versus appropriation. While it is important for these underrepresented narratives to be visible and present in the larger mainstream narrative, there is a difference between giving everyone a platform to tell stories and nominating yourself to be a “voice of the voiceless”, so to speak. Poornima has an interesting insight on this—while filming a documentary, she found herself being defaulted into being that voice. According to her, the experience of pulling people into the spotlight to share their story felt a lot like exploiting their suffering for your own profit (of course, when we think about profit in this context, it’s important to remember that it is not merely monetary, but also socio-political). She adds that when we try and give a voice to someone who does not have access to one, it’s important to ensure that you are not the one doing the talking.
Keeping in mind the context of today, what are the overarching narratives right now? Shals mentions that the most important narrative right now is the one where you change your own beliefs, and that is a narrative that does not come easily. For a lot of us who have only entered the world of activism recently, we may not be aware of the context in which we are placed. More specifically, we may not be informed of the struggles, trials and tribulations that went into making the arena of activism what it is today. It’s still an intense, uphill struggle with consistent learning and unlearning, but it’s important to look back and see how much of the hill has already been traversed by the people before you. Shals has been in the field of activism since the 1990s. In 1995, when Stree Sangam was founded, they note that while the journalists who gave them (and queer issues in general) a voice were helpful, the fact remains that there were very few of them. They go on to note the fact that for a lot of people today, the Delhi High Court judgment of 2009 is where their awakening to Section 377 in particular and LGBTQ+ issues in general began, but the first case against Section 377 was actually filed in 1994. The reason it’s important to not forget these struggles is a tendency that people have to say “Oh, but now it’s more accepted. Discrimination doesn’t really exist anymore.” Looking back is a reminder to ourselves that some of the battles have been fought, but the war is still waiting to be won.
The future of resistance depends on how we fight these battles. These narratives are always going to be uncomfortable. According to Shals, not only is it important to consistently ask difficult questions and lean into the uncomfortable narratives, it’s also important to “never lean on easy narratives. Our lives are complex, living is complex and we need to bring that into these narratives”. Surface work is always easy, but performative equity is still performative. At the end of the day, what’s really important is social resistance. What we need to hold close to our hearts and build our revolutions upon are the stories we tell and the narratives we endorse, both to ourselves and to others.
Our stories are going to change the world.
Written by Sanjana Mishra
Featured Image by shantanu.sharma