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Being queer and sexual minority is not a choice, says Rainbow Lit Fest director Sharif D Rangnekar

“I wish for the Rainbow Lit Fest to be a lot more inclusive than it is and to offer a space and place for the community to engage with itself and its realities while brushing shoulders with the heterosexual world,” Rangnekar said on the two-day festival to be held from December 5-6, 2020

Written by Jayashree Narayanan | Pune | December 2, 2020 12:30:26 pm
Queer festival, rainbow lit fest, sharif D Rangnekar, lit fest, queer lit fest, indianexpress.com, indianexpress, literary festival, trans community, queer literature, shashi tharoor,Author and festival director Sharif D Rangnekar on Rainbow Lit Festival 2020. (Source: PR Handout)

The Rainbow Lit Festival 2020: Queer and Inclusive is all set to hold its second edition, named ‘Digital and One’, on December 5-6. The online festival boasts of a diverse line-up from the LGBTQIA+ space, including Maya Sharma, Sandip Roy, Dr Akhil Katyal, Saurabh Kirpal, Parmesh Sahani, Michiel Baas, Aditi Angiras and Raga Olga D’Silva, Onir, Gazal Dhaliwal, Faraz Ansari and Sridhar Rangayan among others.

The festival will also have economist Bibek Debroy and politician Shashi Tharoor as participants.

In an interview with indianexpress.com, festival director Sharif Dinanath Rangnekar throws light on why queer representation is necessary in the mainstream, how things have changed for the queer community in the last few years and more.

Excerpts:

How do you describe the Rainbow Lit Fest?

Most literature festivals and events are dominated by heterosexual content or mainstream ideas of existence and matters that impact their lives and emotions. There was also what we call a heterosexual gaze on the outlook of our lives as well as biases that stemmed from how they led their lives or the norms they followed, not being able to see life from our eyes, minds and hearts.

At the same time, from my experience as an author attending and speaking at a number of events and literature festivals, queer issues and that of gender and sexuality got a single session or at best, two. While in the overall programming, this may have been significant for the various festivals, I felt it was not enough for us in terms of our representation, voices, and stories – published or not. I also saw an appetite out there at some of these festivals with audiences almost filling the open tents or halls. And then there was always this ‘us and them’ in lots of conversations that took place at heterosexual-dominated platforms.

These factors made me think of organising such a fest – with the idea itself resulting from a conversation with my editor and friend, Dibakar Ghosh last summer. The sub-text ‘queer and inclusive’, of course, came from the reality of who we are, our understanding of being excluded and our ability not to ‘other’ heterosexuals.

How different will this year’s digital edition be from the physical fest held in New Delhi last year?

The digital series is a special series to mark a year since we took birth and is aimed at re-starting conversations, addressing issues that we have faced through the year including the pandemic and also making note of some significant literature that has been published this year. While we would not wish to compare the primary physical festival and a sub-event (2019), one of the differences comes from the digital advantage is that it gives us access to a variety of speakers from across the world and an audience that isn’t located in one place. Even as this is true, we have consciously stuck to speakers from India or of Indian origin. While the aim is not to dismiss the West or the East or Far East, there is a need to engage with the diversity within the nation and ourselves and to hear our own.

Can you share some interesting bits the audience can look forward to?

It is very difficult for me to spell out a highlight as every session carries a lot of weight and interest to different sets of people. Yet, what I hear from those who have seen the schedule, the session involving three couples with distinct backgrounds is something to look forward to. We have Sridhar Rangayan and his partner, Saagar Gupta from Mumbai; Raga Olga D’Silva and Nicola Fenton from London and Rituparna Borah and her partner, Amrita Tripathi from Delhi. This session is unique since we do not put out enough material on loving and long-lasting relationships.

Similarly, I am told a conversation between transgender activist Abhina Aher and her ‘daughter’ Mahi Gupta (who recently started working at the Noida Sector 50 metro station with four others) is another one. The reason is that we rarely see how the trans-community creates its own family or what it is to get a job in a society where you carry almost no dignity.

Queer festival, rainbow lit fest, sharif D Rangnekar, lit fest, queer lit fest, indianexpress.com, indianexpress, literary festival, trans community, queer literature, shashi tharoor, Rainbow Lit Fest was a physical event in New Delhi in 2019. (Source PR Handout)

How have things changed for the queer community in the last few years?

The fact that there are more conversations, more material out there to read or watch, is a positive sign. The fact that the courts have not thrown out petitions for same-sex marriage is important. Also, that some courts ordered state governments to provide shelter and food to the trans-community during the lockdown is a step forward.

Yet, there is rarely any discussion or debate on anti-discrimination, issues of suicide, the problems of access to medical health, bullying in schools and universities or denying children inheritance or rights within a family and home. Sadly, the media rarely jumps in to address these matters unlike when it is same-sex marriage or the flamboyance of queer individuals. There is this constant assumption that what we wear and how we look defines who we are. There is this belief that marriage is imperative to survive and not a choice. There is hardly any kind of realisation that being queer and a sexual minority, is not a choice. Anyone may choose to marry or not. You’ve to be extremely privileged to ‘own’ such a choice.

In what ways, according to you, do literary events help raise awareness about social issues?

I am a strong believer that every story matters. I believe that stories are not only in a book. After all, not everyone gets published. I believe stories can be told live by a person, it could be in a script of a film or a play, it could be in a painting or photograph or a song or a poem. It could be well the rarely discussed ‘writing on the wall’ too. To me, literature can’t be and shouldn’t be limited to what is published or studied in an education system not when the idea of literature and stories are thrust upon us as the only stories and the only lives that matter.

Therefore, the Rainbow Lit Fest – Queer and Inclusive, has not limited its discussions or content only to published authors. Therefore, we have film scriptwriters, young activists, archivers, drag artists and storytellers, singer-songwriters, scholars, corporate leaders, and so on. This is what I believe will and does add to the richness of content, the ability to share lived experiences and even relate to them.

What are your expectations from the two-day festival?

I wish for the festival to become a lot more inclusive than it is and to become a space and place for the community to engage with itself and its realities while brushing shoulders with the heterosexual world. I want to see a space that is somewhat unifying or creating oneness that recognises how similar we are, and yet, different. In a way, it is about finding and having a common thread that brings us together and stitches narratives that finds us all to be humans first.

I just hope society at large finds our content interesting enough to listen, imbibe and learn from. I hope they see or perceive us to be an inclusive space that makes them feel safe amongst an LGBTQIA+ majority.

Queer festival, rainbow lit fest, sharif D Rangnekar, lit fest, queer lit fest, indianexpress.com, indianexpress, literary festival, trans community, queer literature, shashi tharoor, Rainbow Lit Fest attempts to break the ‘heterosexual gaze’. (Source: PR Handout)

What do you feel needs to be done for the LGBTQI community to get equal representation in society?

Literature, art and music are amongst the softest and endearing ways to tell stories, engage with people and touch their hearts and souls. Of course, this cannot be the only way forward as we still need to engage with the law, the press, the film industry and so on. However, one of the primary reasons for the lit fest and the space it can create is to bring out issues referred to above and learn from lived experiences rather than imaginary ones where authenticity may be lacking. There is no doubt that this is one way of educating people but we can’t ignore the fact that schools and universities need to be more inclusive, be it in the treatment of people or that of its curriculum. That is where a lot of change can come, at least for generations that would carry an influence in the years to come.

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