They Called it Love, But Was it Love? depicts scenes from the lives of kothis living in India. Reduced to a “risk group” by public health campaigns and misunderstood through Western notions of gender and sexuality, these protagonists have real lives and inhabit unique worlds with their own quests for fulfilment and love.
Commissioned in 2020 as part of TRANSMISSIONS, a program of six new videos considering the impact of HIV and AIDS beyond the United States.
About the artist
Charan Singh lives and works in New Delhi and London. Singh’s art practice is informed by HIV/AIDS work and community activism in India. He is a candidate for a practice-led PhD at the Royal College of Art, London. In 2016, he earned a Magnum/Photo London award for his portrait series “Kothis, Hijras, Giriyas and Others,” which was featured in the 2017 Photoworks Annual. He was a 2017 resident at the Fire Island Artist Residency. His latest book and exhibition (with Sunil Gupta), “Delhi: Communities of Belonging” was published by The New Press 2016 and exhibited at SepiaEye, New York in 2017. A later iteration, “Dissent and Desire” was shown at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston, 2018 and also at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kochi, India in 2018–19.
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In the introduction to his ongoing portrait series Kothis, Hijras, Giriyas and Others, Charan Singh defines the words kothi, hijra, and giriya as “indigenous terms used by queer working class and transgendered people in their own dialect to define their different and particular sexual identities.”
In India, public health campaigns are often built around imported concepts like “MSM” (men who have sex with men), which fail to recognize the nuances and specificity of identities like kothi.
Charan explains: “Identity terms such as kothi only appeared in queer representational discourse in India after the arrival of HIV/AIDS prevention programmes that submerged a range of identities into the category MSM. The acronym MSM was coined in the early nineties, almost at same time as the emergence of contemporary queer theory in the West and the first queer protests in India. A population which was outside the lesbian and gay framework, MSM implicitly referred to poor men of colour throughout HIV programmes in developing countries. In India, for example, these programmes also brought hope and the promise of a dream for equality, empowerment and access to ‘safe spaces’. However, these programmes had very limited venues for self-expression, as they tended to rely on predetermined criteria for who their beneficiaries were. For numerous reasons, one often felt silenced in those spaces and unable to challenge such stereotypes.”
For more, read Charan’s text “Among Four Friends: Conversations Before and in a Hospital Waiting Room” in On Curating 42, edited by Theodore Kerr.
︎ Watch a conversation with the artists of TRANSMISSIONS