Shakespeare was right when he spoke about the stage – we’re cast into a role when we are born, provided a script, put into costumes and told to play that part through life. As we grow up, we become viewers of other people’s plays, we pick up on when boys aren’t playing their ‘male role’ well enough, or when girls start to go too off-script. What we’re taught about gender as children are really just pieces of the picture, well, just two pieces – pink and blue from a rainbow umbrella. The more we grow, the more we learn and interact with each other, we realise that gender really isn’t that simple, and comparing it to a person’s sexuality would be like comparing apples to oranges.
Gender is relative. Gender can be cultural. And what gender means, and how it’s expressed, can change from person to person and over time. It’s who you know yourself to be, who you express yourself as, and that is only that person’s choice. Dipjyoti Banik observed the corresponding idea of gender as a performance, rather than something pre-determined and rigid –– “The internalizing of certain visual codes and behavioural patterns set in place primarily by major social tools such as cinema and commercials,” while working with the transgender community and cross-dressing in different states across the country.
“In my explorations, I was then acquainted with academic works of gender performativity, specifically Doing Gender, by Candace West and Don Zimmerman, from where I drew a few insights into this specific aspect of gender. This series was chalked out of a larger set of intimate images I keep taking for ‘M’. Apart from how alternative ideas of gender and their everyday negotiation with their social environments around them, the whole aspect of construction and projection of identity in the bid of finding oneself draws me to it, which is something a lot of us keep chasing all our lives,” the 27-year-old photographers tells me over email. The ‘M’ of whom he speaks is the central feature of his photo-series ‘Eye of a Little God’, a beautiful exploration of gender, identity, and self. A Hindustani classical musician and artist based in Kolkata, M identified as a woman for years before she underwent the transition surgery in 2016. Through the series, we watch her exploration and experimentation –– a presentation of the ‘societally-understood’ ideas of femininity as she comes to terms with, and creates her own identity.
Banik was 15-years-old when his father gifted him his Yashica Electro 35gsn, and becoming a photographer was just an organic process for him. “I try and work primarily with subcultures, alternative art, socio-political paradigms pertaining to gender and sexuality, urban spaces and dynamics, and the meanings associated with the many elements these areas broadly are about,” he says.
Below are excerpts from our conversation with the photographer about his series and his muse.
HG: How and when did you meet M? Was this a series that was put together with her in mind or the other way around?
DB: “I remember meeting her about six years back when she was still facing plenty of self doubts and anxiety regarding the major change of identity that she was about to undergo. Over the course of time we spent a lot of time together. She became a very good friend and since then we have shared many good memories.
To say the series was entirely constructed keeping her in mind would not be entirely correct. Over the course of our time together I have photographed her a lot. In a way my camera was a mirror for her. After a day of making images we would sit by the balcony in the evening and she would look at the images on her laptop. I vividly remember all the times when her eyes would sparkle and she would gleam when the images of herself fit perfectly with what she considered to be feminine, or the woman that she wanted to see.
Couple of months back, I was sitting in a cafe with my friend Bhavya and showing her the images of M when she pointed out the common thread which bound the images together and the series slowly took shape. Bhavya is my editor on this photo essay.”
HG: What was it about her, M, that made her the muse for a series?
DB: “I wanted this series to be a commentary on the gender identity and performativity from my perspective. I decided to work with M on this because of all the people I know from the queer and LGBT community I have known her for the longest time. I have observed her in close quarters and in the most intimate moments. I have witnessed the struggle and identity crisis that she had to face daily on the most basic level even with her own self. It would have not done justice and I would not have been entirely earnest in my approach to the essay if I portrayed anyone else. Having said that, hopefully this series would eventually be a part of a larger body of work that I am trying to put together working with the transgender and the drag communities across the country.”
HG: What can you tell us about her and her journey through life?
DB: “Well, she always wanted to keep her life before the transformation quite private and I respect that. The journey from what I have witnessed has been quite an emotional one. There have been turbulent times as there were good ones. From my standpoint her parents, especially her father has been a source of remarkable strength. He has stood by her throughout the journey and supported her in every decision that she has made. She is an excellent classical musician and I have often enjoyed long lazy afternoons listening to her compositions. She is a terrible cook though and in all these years I haven’t been able to get her make anything apart from Maggi.”
HG: Art and photography are incredible tools to start conversations and open dialogue on subjects we don’t normally wish to discuss or don’t want to highlight. Do you agree that it really has such a big impact? How would you encourage others to use art in a similar way?
DB: “Over the past few years, it has become important for me to use the medium to portray the intangible aspect of the subjects I am working with; the sentiment, the meanings, the interactions integral to the space-time of the context. In the past few decades, I have known nothing else that makes a deeper impact in terms of political narrative that impresses as deeply as an image. It has become very important for any politically driven visual narrative to engineer and integrate the medium and the message that delivers itself in an adequate manner. Documentation and beyond,
I think that a photograph is a small voice, but sometimes one photograph or a collective of them can move us and shape our thoughts and beliefs as a society. The visually-abled of humanity thrives on visual literacy their entire lives, and for them, visual arts dissolve linguistic, cognitive, spatial, and temporal barriers.”
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