Museum stories
Researching LGBTQ connections in the South Asia collection

The work behind the scenes

Working collaboratively with volunteers, community partners and external interest groups is a central part to many British Museum projects. This blog highlights ongoing collaborative research led by some of the volunteers who deliver the Museum’s LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer) tours. These tours, inspired by Professor Richard B Parkinson’s award-winning book, A Little Gay History – Desire and Diversity Across the World, are a regular highlight of the volunteer’s tour programme. The research highlighted in this blog focused on objects from the South Asia and Himalayan regions. The LGBTQ tours highlight objects from deep history to the present day, span the globe and take visitors across the whole Museum. There are too many objects with LGBTQ connections to include in a single tour, so each volunteer makes their own selection from a larger group of objects. This means every tour is different and is partly informed by the volunteers’ own interests and experience.

Although the pandemic meant that onsite tours had to be suspended, collaborative research with community partners, curators and the volunteers who deliver the tours continued from home. This included consulting and taking advice from various Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning and Intersex (LGBTQI+) community organisations and advocacy groups. For example, the volunteers consulted with and took advice from Dr Kumud Rana, who is part of ‘Queer’ Asia, a collective of early career researchers, doctoral researchers, and activists who through their work aim to broaden representations of gender and sexuality. This ongoing research activity aims to focus on areas of the collection that have been underrepresented in recent LGBTQ-focused research and to add more non-European objects to the tours.

Inspired by our recent exhibition Tantra: enlightenment to revolution, volunteers decided to focus their exploration on collections from the South Asia and Himalayan regions. Research for the LGBTQ tours in recent years has resulted in a number of new objects being added to permanent gallery displays, including in the Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Galleries, so this research project focused on objects not currently on display, as well as those already in the galleries.

The chronological and geographical range of the Museum’s collection means that inevitably anyone who delivers an LGBTQ tour will frequently be talking about an object that is not part of their own cultural tradition, or that doesn’t relate to their own lived experience. The text for new LGBTQ tour stops is always reviewed carefully by specialist curators, partners from LGBTQI+ community organisations and external experts. By working collaboratively in this way, volunteers deepen their understanding of the significance of specific objects, including important historical and cultural contexts and then present them sensitively and with care to the public.

Objects in focus
Painting of Ashtavakra – Megan Massey, Volunteer

Interacting with objects in the South Asia collection as a queer person who embodies both British and Indian identities was challenging and exciting for me. It raised many questions – engaging with this collection also means engaging with colonial history.

This 19th-century Indian watercolour depicts the revered Hindu sage Ashtavakra, wearing a white loincloth, red bag and holding his walking stick in one hand, and a string of black beads in the other. His body is shown with eight bends, which represent the eight physical disabilities he was born with.

Ashtavakra is credited as the author of the Ashtavakra Gita, an early Sanskrit scripture. In one story about Ashtavakra, found in a 14th-century Bengali rendition of the Ramayana, the sage restores a child born with no bones to full health. The child, Bhagiratha, was ‘born of the mutual enjoyment between [the] two vulvas’ of two widowed and grieving queens when the husband they were both married to died. This union between female lovers who the text claims ‘lived in extreme love’ was not only blessed by Shiva but was also a powerful act that helped sustain a dynasty (which was usually maintained by a strict patriarchal system) that would have otherwise died out.

‘In the River Jamuna’ by Bhupen Khakhar – Peter O’Hanlon, Volunteer

‘one should not try to hide one’s own witness […] it is there, one can’t hide anything’ – Bhupen Khakhar, 1986

From the 1980s until his death in 2003, the Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar (1934–2003) put into practice his insight that ‘You Can’t Please All’, and that ‘we forget our duty to ourselves’ if all we ever do is ‘make social adjustments in order to please people around us’. Khakhar chose to ‘come out’ publicly through the medium of his art, and from his late forties onwards explored his sexuality in paint and print with striking openness and honesty. Khakhar’s determination to follow a ‘more open approach to body and sex’ was not without risk – but in taking this bold step Khakhar was a trailblazer for other gay artists.

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code came into force in 1862 during the period of British colonial rule. It speaks of punishment for voluntary ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ with man, woman or animal. To many, including Khakhar, the law was borne of Victorian and Christian values and had no basis in Indian tradition. Although broad in its potential reach, Section 377 was used mainly against gay men and trans women including hijras (a term to describe a person whose gender identity is neither male or female, though typically a person who was assigned male at birth but whose gender expression is female) and kothis (which refers to a man who takes the role of the ‘female’ in a same-sex relationship). In 2018, 15 years after Khakhar’s death, the law was repealed following a ruling by the Indian Supreme Court. The court considered Section 377 to be unconstitutional because it criminalised consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex.

In this etching, the shadowy figure of Khakhar in the foreground and his partner Vallavdas Shah, portrayed here as a seated sadhu, are floating in a dream-like space within and around the sacred River Jamuna – a major tributary of the Ganga. Among the many forms that surround the central pair are two men making love – Khakhar and Shah perhaps? Given the South Asian location we might also be surprised by the Satyr on the right, and a winged cherub or possibly the Greek god Eros top left, signifiers of love in the Western world, but not if Khakhar’s message to the viewer is that this ‘River of Love’ has no cultural boundaries and that we are all welcome to dive in.

Painting of Mohini and Bhasmasura – Chris Weston, Volunteer

The large figure in this painting from Tamil Nadu in Southern India is the Hindu goddess Mohini, depicted naked apart from a carefully positioned shawl. Mohini’s name literally means ‘delusion personified’ and she is a female avatar or form of the male god Vishnu. Disguised as Mohini, Vishnu uses her allure to defeat enemies, for example retrieving the food of the Devas (gods) from the demonic Asuras in the Mahabharata (an epic Sanskrit poem from ancient India)

In this picture, she is defeating an Asura called Bhasmasura, who had the power to reduce to ashes anyone that he patted on the head. Vishnu appeared before Bhasmasura in the form of Mohini and the demon fell so in love with her that he begged her to marry him. Mohini agreed, but only on condition that Bhasmasura proved himself an adequate dance partner by copying her moves. The dance concludes with Mohini patting her own head and here we see that when Bhasmasura imitates this, he bursts into flames and is consumed by the fire.

I love this witty utilisation of Bhasmasura’s own power to overcome him, but my interest in Mohini predates my awareness of this object in the Museum’s collection, because Mohini features in several narratives featuring gender fluidity and same-sex relations.

Adopting the appearance of Mohini is not restricted to the fooling of the gods’ enemies, it can also be enjoyed among the gods and their allies. According to a popular South Indian folktale, Krishna takes on her appearance to reward the doomed Lord Aravan (of Mahabharata fame) with marriage. According to myth, Vishnu also takes on her form at the request of Shiva and the fruit of their union is the god Ayyappan. His name may derive from two different words for ‘father’ indicating that he is the son of two male parents. One Telugu variant of this myth tells that during the love-making, Mohini returned to the male form of Vishnu and he and Shiva continued undeterred.

Given these queer aspects to Mohini, it’s not surprising that she is viewed as something of a transgender deity by some LGBTQI+ and third gender identifying people in South Asia, or that she is frequently cited as evidence of historic acceptance of queer sexuality and tolerance of gender diversity in the region.

Print of Avalokiteśvara / Chenrézik – Bethan O’Reilly, Volunteer

When it came to researching for the project, the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (also known as Guanyin in China or Chenrézik in the Tibetan language) was unknown to me, but as I researched them, they serendipitously began appearing in lots of books I was reading. Once I knew there were objects in the collection relating to Avalokiteśvara, I was drawn to the depth of feeling this religious figure evokes, and the universal importance of compassion for human existence.

This woodcut print of Avalokiteśvara, made in Tibet, is just one of many objects in the Museum’s collection depicting this bodhisattva (one who has attained enlightenment but remains in the human world to help others). In the Lotus Sutra (an early Indian Buddhist scripture), Avalokiteśvara is the bodhisattva of compassion – and one of the most beloved and venerated figures in Buddhism. The bodhisattva’s mystical power of transformation has given rise to a rich iconography that varies greatly across Buddhist Asia, compared to depictions originating in India. Representations of this bodhisattva can be seen emerging out of India as Buddhist ideas and practices spread across large swaths of Asia and beyond.

Avalokiteśvara is a major patron deity in Tibetan Buddhism and can manifest in many forms – both male and female – to help someone in need. Throughout history they are said to have appeared in multiple incarnations, including the first and all subsequent Dalai Lamas. Avalokiteśvara is also associated with the multi-form female bodhisattva Tara.

In Chinese Buddhism, this bodhisattva known as Guanyin later becomes the Goddess of Mercy and compassion. In China the gender transformation of Guanyin from male or androgynous to female took place gradually over hundreds of years. Guanyin in female form appeared in art from the Tang (AD 618–907) to Song Dynasties (AD 960–1127), and became firmly established by the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).  In more recent times, Guanyin has been adopted as an icon by vegetarians and vegans. She is not only loved by Buddhists but also much honoured by pacifists and feminists.  

The images and text relating to this bodhisattva suggest an innate gender fluidity – yet as a sacred being, the human distinctions and constructions of gender don’t apply. For transgender and non-binary people, the gender fluidity shown in representations of this bodhisattva can resonate with their own lived experience. Honouring and taking strength from a bodhisattva whose philosophy for living and existing in the world is solely based on a non-judgemental compassion can mean a great deal to a community like the LGBTQ+ community. Queering the past with a bodhisattva of compassion who can be interpreted through the lens of queerness and androgyny – and who has existed for close to two thousand years – helps show that queer stories are as old and established as any other.

Collaboration

The Museum is committed to exploring and researching the collection collaboratively to identify other LGBTQ connections, histories and stories that we can add to the LGBTQ tours, permanent displays and future programming (whether online or onsite). Partnering with existing and new community organisations and passionate individuals helps to democratise how the Museum’s collection is used, adds new insights and continues to be central to our LGBTQ object-based research work going forward.

This project is just one of several current community focused projects looking at the South Asian and Himalayan regions. The Museum is currently working with community partners to acquire a contemporary statue of Kali and to co-curate its inclusion in a forthcoming exhibition. The Museum is also supporting the development of the upcoming co-curated South Asia partnership gallery at Manchester Museum. Collaborations like this – with a range of stakeholders – allows for more diverse stories, histories and ideas to be shared with audiences.

We’re really interested in hearing about objects with LGBTQ connections you have identified in the British Museum collection. If you would like to share these with us, please contact Communities@britishmuseum.org 

Find upcoming dates for our LGBTQ tours and book your place.

For more objects and stories with an LGBTQ connection visit the Desire, Love, Identity page.

You can buy Professor Richard B Parkinson’s book A Little Gay History from our online shop.