Friday, March 04, 2005

Gay historians: Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai

To many Indians the idea of same-sex relationships is unknown, even alien. Forget the idea of homosexuality having a history in this country. This has been just one outcome of British imperialism and Victorian prudery; they obliterated our indigenous cultures and histories.

Fortunately, Indians like Ruth Vanita, Saleem Kidwai and Ashok Row Kavi have been helping us rediscover our lost gay heritage. Vanita and Kidwai have together and individually produced seminal works on "same-sex" relationships. At the end of this posting, you'll find a link to a recent interview with Vanita in Ego magazine, USA. Before that, here are brief sketches of Vanita, Kidwai and one of their books, which is the subject of the interview--the sketches were put together by the 'Bombay Dost' team for their traveling poster exhibition on gay Indian icons: "Queers Like Us".

Ruth Vanita

Ruth Vanita was educated in 1955 in Delhi, and taught at Miranda House and the English Department, Delhi University, from 1976 to 1997. Vanita has been professor of Liberal Studies and Women's Studies at the University of Montana since 1997.

She was founding co-editor of 'Manushi: A Journal about Women and Society' from 1979 to 1990. Vanita was also active in the Indian women's movement and human rights movement during those years. She has written widely on Indian women's issues, and has translated many works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry by and about women, from Hindi to English, several of which were published in Manushi. Among her translations are 'Strangers on the Roof' (a Hindi novel by Rajendra Yadav; Penguin India, 1994) and 'Dilemma and Other Stories' (fiction by Vijay Dan Detha; Manushi Prakashan, 1997). Vanita presented papers on same-sex love in Shakespeare's 'As You Like It' at seminars held in Delhi University, which were well received by her peers.

Vanita is author of 'Sappho and the Virgin Mary: Same-Sex Love and the English Literary Imagination' (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996). This book argues that far from being marginalized, lesbian energy and creativity figures centrally in the English literary canon, in works by both men and women, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. With Saleem Kidwai, she co-edited 'Same-sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History' (NY: Palgrave-St Martin's Press, 2000; New Delhi: Macmillan, 2002) More recently, she has also edited 'Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society' (NY: Routledge, 2002), a collection of interdisciplinary essays by different scholars.

Vanita married Mona Bachmann in June 2000 in Jewish and Hindu wedding ceremonies in New York. It was followed by a reception at India International Centre, New Delhi, in July 2000.

Saleem Kidwai

Saleem Kidwai is a scholar of medieval Indian history, and an activist. Born in 1951 in Lucknow, he completed his schooling there, and went to Delhi to study History in 1968. He took up teaching at the Delhi University in 1973 and took leave to study at McGill University between 1976-80.

With Ruth Vanita, he co-edited 'Same-sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History' (NY: Palgrave-St Martin’s Press, 2000; New Delhi: Macmillan, 2002)

Kidwai is also an Islamic studies scholar who undermines any straight monolithic view of Islam as homophobic and sex-phobic. He shows that there is a tension, sometimes creative and sometimes unbearable, between the censorious Islamic texts and institutions and the open same-sex celebrations of many Islamic poets.

Retiring from Delhi University in 1993, he has since been pursuing individual research and writing in Lucknow.

Same-sex Love in India
Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai have co-edited a momentous book titled 'Same-sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History' (NY: Palgrave-St Martin's Press, 2000; New Delhi: Macmillan, 2002). This is a collection of translations from texts written in 15 Indian languages over a period of more than 2000 years, accompanied by editorial essays analyzing and contextualizing the texts. This "enchanting collection is a tribute to an ancient civilization which has always cherished love that defies conventional ideas of sanity and normality." (Ashis Nandy). Vanita's and Kidwai's essays in the book have been hailed as works of outstanding scholarship by historians. The book challenges the cheap stereotype that Indian tradition has always been too conservative/puritan to allow any homoerotic exploration. Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai have done an exceptional job in uncovering gay texts throughout Indian history, from the ancient Hindu shastras to the present.

Here's the link to the Ego magazine interview with Ruth Vanita:
EGO Magazine: Love/Friendship/Desire


Anonymous said...

Your bio-sketch of Salim's leaves out the fact that he has translated
Malika Pukhraj's autobiography into English (Song Sung True)and is now working on a project that might become his biggest claim to fame in the years to come- a biography of Begum Akhtar.

Anonymous said...


Looking back at the silence which surrounds a gay teenager in his search for identity , the news about this book is heartening.

The silence is now a steady if subdued whisper in today's Indian society but it is encouraging to note that long ago this whisper was a cacophany .

This book and i hope more like it will make people in India realise that homosexuality is not a "western import" but has always been a part of Indian civilisation . It is a part of our heritage and we should be proud of it.

a great post !

Jalaj Vaivaswat

Anonymous said...

Now we all know that homosexuality was inverted in the west, or was it Russian. The point is India has a considerable history of gay love and it really wasn’t any big deal.

The British imported hatred of gays with it when they colonized India and unfortunately the India’s went for it even imported a British Law even though many British officials has an Indian boy on the downlow.

Many corrupt police officials have made a nice extra income by extorting local gays.


Unknown said...

Dear Nitin.
First of all let me hug you to show my profound gratitude for hosting this site. i am Arjun from Sri Lanka. i am a very humble documentary film maker. No major awards, no press reviews, no academic qualifications. A simple human being with absolutely simple needs. Have been following the Indian rights issues closely ever since i identified my own orientation. But it is pathetic that i am born to a country full of hypocrites, third class politicians and Buddhist monks we are unable to come out.
i am interested in making a full length documentary film on gays after fifty. Inspired by Israeli film maker Gideon Boaz's film Invisible Years.
i am doing research currently. Wish i can talk to you on a more personal basis over a coffee. i am planing a visit to India soon. But before that wish we can start exchanging views. Please drop a line to >

With blessings