Charan Singh

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Kothis, Hijras, Giriyas and Others,

India, 2013 – ongoing

Kothis (effeminate, underprivileged, homosexual men), Hijras (eunuchs), Giriyas (partners of kothis and hijras) are indigenous terms used by queer working class and transgendered men in their own dialect to define their different and particular sexual identities. 


I made these portraits because this sub-culture is rarely seen outside of its HIV/AIDS victim narratives. The photographs give their subjects an importance which contradicts the popular image of people from these social backgrounds. They also challenge the supremacy of images of the more middle and upper caste/class person from India, that we are normally used to seeing in the history of photography.


The work also interrogates their gendered and sexual life as a whole, covering a range of emotions, anxieties, concerns, dilemmas and dreams to depart from the narrow medical discourse within which they are bound. Around 1994, UN funding for the AIDS epidemic bought all these identities into one umbrella term, “MSM” (Men who have Sex with Men.) This term was conceived to overcome the variety of local cultural differences from Morocco to Indonesia. Although it may have fulfilled its purpose to describe a category of behaviour, however, it failed to provide dignity to the affected communities it refers to, even after its recent inclusion of the term “TG” referring to transgender communities.


When I look at the history of Indian photography, I am overwhelmed by portraits of princely India and the prevailing exoticism around them; these portraits were about class, caste and colonial hierarchies. When I make photographs I want to make something queer but also want to challenge these stereotypes about photography about India. Many of my subjects did not have a studio portrait made in their life-time. Therefore, I attempted to create a space where people could feel comfortable regardless of their class, caste, identity, gender, sexuality, performance; these are individual human beings each with their own nuances.


I made the portraits of my sitters in their community centre and have known some of them for as long as sixteen years. As models they are greatly influenced by Bollywood cinema and television soaps, perhaps because they are primarily Hindi speaking people and their main sources of visual references are popular media. Art galleries, museums and the internet in India are not easily accessible to people who are not from the English speaking middle and upper-middle classes. Consequently, many of my sitters have adopted poses from heroines of popular television serials, whilst others have modelled themselves on famous courtesans’ characters in classic Bollywood films from the 1950s and 1960s.


Charan Singh

London/Delhi 2015