‘Society expects us to decide who we are. We can’t float in confusion’

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Photo: Ishan Tankha

What were your formative years like?
Baaraan: My childhood was spent at my grandmother’s house in Bhopal, which was a huge 150-year-old happy space with ponds, fish and trees in which you could lose yourself completely.

Saida: I also had a carefree, happy childhood. I used to ride a bicycle to the shop around the corner where I’d get the flour ground for rotis. I also used to chop wood like the boys around me.

Baaraan, what roles did you see your parents play? Were they homemaker and working person… or were some stereotypes broken?
Baaraan: The usual stereotypes didn’t exist really. My mother taught fine arts at a college, and so when I came home from school, she wouldn’t be there. My dad would. He was a history professor and his classes would get over before my mother’s. Right now, my father is writing a book of poetry. The foreword is written by Javed Akhtar, who is my uncle. He wrote that this man has his wife to thank for forcing him to write poetry. And my mother turned around and told Javed saáb, “When did you start seeing me as his wife? I see him as a partner. I’m sure I would hate him if I saw him as a husband.” I was 23 when I got married and I remember my mother telling me very clearly, “Ok, you like this guy. Marry him. But if it doesn’t work out, just remember you can walk out any time. There’s no social pressure. Just think of this marriage as something on paper.” That made it so much easier for me to get married. I loved my husband Shahid and still do, but this is the legacy I inherited from my mother.

Where did the idea for your paintings treating sexuality as fluid and breaking boundaries come from?
Baaraan: The germ of the idea had been sitting inside me for a long time. When I was 15, a group of transgendered people would come visiting the neighbourhood. One, in particular, was very pretty. She would wear a bright yellow sari and had flowers in her hair. My mother was very fond of her and always told her she was very pretty. To which she replied, “How does that matter? Things around me don’t change.” That stuck somewhere in my head. Recently, I started working with Nirantar, an NGO that works on gender and education and read case studies of police atrocities against homosexuals. There is this burden in our society for us to decide who we want to be, and decide fast. We can’t float in our confusion. That disturbed me and the first painting was the outcome. It’s a face that is both man and woman with a moustache and jhoomkas. It depicts how the confusion and fluidity for some people is too much for society to bear. I’m questioning that.

Saida, have you seen these works by your daughter? What do you think?
Saida: She sent me photos of them by email. Of course, I know them and the stories around them.

What do you make of the painting of the two men on a grey bed with pink flowers and a hotel key in the background?
Saida: Well, if these men could bring their partners home, the hotel keys would not exist.

Baaraan: The series is about the right of all kinds of sexual identity to coexist.

Baaraan, since you have grown up in such a free space, what does being feminine mean to you?
Baaraan: For one thing, I don’t put notions of sexuality or gender into convenient little boxes.

Like the painting that shows women at the bus stop holding hands…
Baaraan: I wanted these women to wear uniforms, so that they are school teachers standing at a bus stop and it’s time to part. And they cannot hold hands in public. Whereas the hand of the man that appears in the frame is one where he can obviously display his affection towards the woman very comfortably. I have also made the man inhabit a totally different time zone from these women. They are, in essence, galaxies apart. Baaraan: For one thing, I don’t put notions of sexuality or gender into convenient little boxes.

Baaraan, what’s the story in the painting with the kettles and revolvers?
Baaraan: That’s Ketli and Bandook Singh. Ketli is constantly being impregnated by Bandook. You can see her pregnant figure outlined in the painting. And Ketli, who is brewing tea, is also symbolised by the kettles. But she’s trying to kill Bandook and is stitching revolvers into his clothes. You can see the revolvers all over his pyjamas. But Bandook has no idea about what’s brewing. And Ketli confuses him by stitching neat little tea cups and saucers into the fabric as well.

Saida, clearly your daughter’s expression is about freedom. How important is freedom for a woman?
Saida: It’s more important than food.

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