Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai published Queering India: Same-sex love and eroticism in Indian society and culture wherein they read many “key ancient texts” against the grain to state that they’re texts that challenge the assumed heterosexism of our “ancient Indian society”; Kamasutra, they said, was one such text. Burton’s translations (along with a few other Orientalist scholars like Max Muller, Clarrise Bader, etc.) saw “Indian sexuality” as effeminate, and predictably justified its colonization, whereas Upadhayaya writing in the post-Independence era, washed away any queerness the text may possibly have suggested and re-framed it to fit the needs of the Hindu nationalist agenda. Vanita and Kidwai use all these texts to illustrate how pain and sexual pleasure can coincide and how there is plenty same-sex action going on, enough to say that Kamasutra is a queer and therefore, a liberatory text. On close inspection, the incidences where BDSM seems to be evoked, it is mostly practiced on bodies of Dasis—the slaves in the Vedic age—sometimes by the wives, usually by the husband/master. Again, most queer instances happen under the surveillance and force of the husband/master. The question here isn’t whether people then were “really” queer, nor am I concerned with the politics of BDSM and consent within this particular text (not sure if consent can even exist, if one cannot say “no”). This is where I want to inspect the politics of feminism itself, if slavery is seen as liberatory simply because there are events where the boundaries of “accepted sexuality” are pushed.
Studies like Queering India create a frame that suggests Indian culture is “inherently radical” because “see queerness has always existed here too!” frames that are produced and upheld within Subaltern historiography departments, the very academic disciplines that critique and challenge the colonialism within academia! They tend to equate queerness with progress, backed with Vedic texts like Kamasutra and Manusmriti—both of which mention queerness only within the contexts of slavery and caste/skin-color based sexual domination—and the conversation is limited to “We have always been queer, because our heritage (the texts) say so.” Don’t think I need to point out the dangers of such a limited conversation again.
However, I do want to ask why talking queerness is inherently political, revolutionary, and radical, given that many of these conversations happen at the cost of erasing slavery in ancient India (books like The Palace of Illusions, The Pregnant King come to mind here). Talking sex—especially about the Kamasutra—is progressive, but discussions of the political economy of the text don’t get the same pedestal. How can I claim and embrace queer liberation (as much as I may want to), when it silences someone else?
—Battameez in “Kamasutra and the Indian Feminists,” published at Bitch Media.