It’s the 21st century and India’s Queer community has stepped out of the shadows. Though still bound by the inescapable bonds of social stigma, the LGBTQ community has taken to the streets — and the internet — with their message of acceptance and equality for all, and people are listening. However, a. little less than a mere 30 years ago, this freedom, however limited, was a distant dream and any interaction within this ambit was done with utmost secrecy. But human beings excel at evading restrictive policies and this was no exception. Under the cover of night, typed out on an ancient Remington typewriter, evolved India’s queer lifeline, Pravartak (Catalyst).
Running between 1991-92 and 1993-2000, the newsletter was a beacon of hope for people who felt isolated and abandoned for their sexual preferences. An initiative of Kolkata’s Counsel Club (1993-2000), Varta remembers, “The journal was always ‘private circulation only’ as it was not registered and mentioned only a ‘suggested contribution’ figure to make itself self-sustaining. It was distributed mainly through word of mouth among queer networks of individuals and support groups, Counsel Club meetings, community events and other connections. A number of copies were also distributed through Classic Books in Kolkata and People Tree in Delhi.” The Counsel Club would also host small meetings of five people or less in dhabas and bars for support groups. Young men gathered outside Kolkata’s metro station with red roses in their shirt pockets to guide new members to clandestine meetings. This private circulation newsletter was slowly gaining traction and the group was receiving more mail than they knew what to do with.
The Telegraph recounts, “It carried analytical articles, short stories, poetry, first-person stories and interviews – whatever was happening in the LGBT world. Its content was in English and Bengali (occasionally in Hindi as well). Sexual health work and gender, as well as sexuality and diversity, were its primary concerns. Counsel Club managed to bring together hundreds of people. One important discussion in Pravartak was on how Bengali literature reflected the LGBT world. In the pre-Internet era, Pravartak was like a connecting link for queer people spread across India and abroad.”
It made a quiet appearance as a journal in a few Kolkata bookstores but on the group’s fifth birthday, an unexpected number of people turned up to attend the celebration at George Bhawan. Their inconspicuous movement for inclusivity had clearly become a conspicuous one. By 1992, there were open protests against Section 377 and soon after, the Humsafar Trust for LGBTQ rights made its first appearance. The newsletter was relaunched as ‘Naya Pravartak’ (New Catalyst) but eventually folded. Its effects, however, were already rooted in society. It was this visibility that kickstarted the revolution, one where the community came out of the closet and realised that there was strength in numbers. They felt compelled to share their fight with the public.
In 1996, when India Today’s Ruben Banerjee had interviewed Kushal Gupta, who ran Classic Books in Middleton Street, Gupta had told him, “Enquiries for Pravartak never seem to end. ... It’s a much-needed medium for the region.”
What began as a simple newsletter for Kolkata’s queer community and the backbone of the movement today often finds itself forgotten at second-hand bookstalls. But, for the many people who found safety and companionship through its work, it will forever stand as a tribute to the progress we’ve made and the long way we still have to go.
Check out the digitised copies of the newsletter here.
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