In Conversation With Shyam Konnur On Art, Films And The LGBTQIA+ Community

TYPF’s Avali Khare in conversation with Shyam Konnur, the founder of Mist – an LGBTQ+ collective started in Bangalore in 2010 and the work that he’s doing

Avali Khare (AK): What does Pride mean to you?

Shyam Konnur (SK): The day of the parade is an important day in the life of a queer person. You’re not only being yourself on that day, but you’re also celebrating yourself. You celebrate the acceptance of all aspects of your life, it may not only be LGBT. It may be your sexuality, gender, caste, class, where you come from, what you do in life etc. You celebrate being proud of yourself, and accepting yourself just the way you are. I feel like the parade should stand for everything a queer person is, all the identities, not just one.

The day of the parade is one day in my life where I feel legal, I feel like I am allowed to be who I am. I don’t even talk to my friends…I am so excited, I just dance, and jump, and distribute the parchas (laughs)…whichever city I go to. I feel like getting involved in the parade as much as possible. I get lost. For me, pride means a lot of things. It intersects with so many other aspects of our identity. For some people, the work they do becomes an important part of their identity. There are such strong class biases, even within the LGBT community. Queer people within the community get discriminated on their class…some people get discriminated for the way they look, the way they dress, the way they speak English…for me, pride means being able to be proud of yourself, irrespective of all of this. And by irrespective, I don’t mean we should put this away and not think about it, but recognise that parades should be inclusive of all of these identities, not ignorant of them.

AK: Could you tell us a little bit about the work you do at MIST?

SK: MIST was started in 2010, when I first came out actually. Back then, I did not feel comfortable going to an NGO or a support group. I know we run a support group now at MIST (laughs), but I myself was one of them who was not comfortable going into these spaces. It took a long time for me to be comfortable with who I am. I met with a set of friends, shared our experiences…that’s when we decided that we wanted to start a small group, a collective. We researched, we asked people…how do collectives function and run? That’s when we decided to form our own collective…and we decided we won’t name it anything related to LGBT. We didn’t want it to have words like ‘Friends’ or ‘Support’ in the title. We did a voting on the title (laughs), and we decided on MIST, which means foggy, or unclear. 

MIST was started with an objective to not be like an organisation with rules…so as much as we could, we came together as friends to celebrate and participate in events and festivals. When we started, we did not organise our own events. That was the idea we started with. Now we do many other things. Right now, we are running a lot of initiatives. To begin with, the biggest event we organise is the Out and Loud International Queer Film Festival. Apart from that, we do a Queer and Allies Art Festival -  this is a travelling festival, where we screen movies, have events around dance, music, poetry, theatre…and we take it to different cities, like Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad. We are trying to reach out to more cities and towns. We also organise events around 2nd July…we’ve started doing this since 2010. We started celebrating it (2nd July) because it was the Delhi High Court judgement day. We used to call it the Balloon Releasing event in Bangalore. But later on as time passed, after the 2013 judgement, I decided to name 2nd July as the Indian Coming Out Day, to ensure that we don’t forget our victories…also because we celebrate a lot of days within the LGBT community which are not relevant in the Indian context as much as this one…now we celebrate this day in Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad.

This year we are targeting six cities to do this event. We consider this event like our baby, a baby of MIST’s (laughs). It is the smallest event, but also the most important to us.

AK: Through your experience of organising events as a part of MIST, could you tell us what are some of the immediate challenges to queer organising in recent times?

SK: When we first came together…in Bangalore and Hyderabad, mobilisation was easier. But in Pune when we started it was difficult. People first of all discouraged us, they told us Pune was a conservative city. So automatically, when people said this, we felt a little skeptical. We were scared starting our work in Pune. But when I started talking to my friends, I realised it wasn’t entirely like that. We used to talk loudly in open spaces about being gay…it was never a problem. We did our first event at a bar in a corporate space, but we didn’t face any problems…we faced some problems from within the community…since we were new, some older organisations were hostile to us. Some of the older organisations directly responded to our events by saying that these new kids need to go a little slow, the city is not ready for this. And we hadn’t even done anything! We just had a film screening in the afternoon. (laughs)

AK: So you’ve been a part of the organisation of different pride parades in different parts of the country, like Bangalore and Hyderabad and Pune…do you think different pride marches in the country have a different character and feel to them, in terms of the issues they prioritise, the composition of the people who attend it?

SK: I have been the controversial reason behind something to do with Pune Pride, so I don’t attend it anymore, I boycott the Pune Pride. I have attended the Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad parades. I don’t like to attend those parades that restrict people from carrying certain slogans related to religious or caste identities. It’s ridiculous to separate queer identities from other identities. Maybe I am being discriminated for being queer in my family because I am, say, Hindu or Muslim or Christian. So prides that want to be non-political, not want to address other issues…if they only want to talk about LGBT, I don’t like attending such prides.

AK: Since MIST organises events around art, like film festivals and art festivals, how do you think art as a medium is effective in creating awareness around issues affecting the LGBTQIA+ community?

SK: When we first came together in 2010, MIST used to organise events centred around conversations…we used to host talks and discussions and conferences. But we soon realised that it was just one bunch of people who used to attend these events…even the ally presence was very low. Though they were supportive, but they were not willing to give up time to come listen to someone talk or debate…so that’s when we did an experiment in Bangalore. We thought we’d try doing something fun. We started with small things like a Freeze Mob…we did something around queering metro, like the metro often created issues around taking placards inside the premises, so we hid it in our bags this one day and we gathered in a coffee shop and as soon as we got inside the metro rail premises, we took the placards out and held it and walked through the metro…so we did these things, allies started approaching us. There were a lot of people within the community who also showed interest for these things more than others.

When we organised the Queer and Allies Art Festival, we got the idea because we realised there are many events in many cities which have the same people coming in and performing. The crowd reduces because of such repetitions. The main agenda behind screening movies and showcasing art was to be able to talk about issues other than exclusively LGBT things. We wanted to have conversations about how it’s not always just about being LGBT, it’s about other identities and oppressions as well, it’s about the intersections. I’ve noticed this also encourages allies to participate more. I’ve realised most allies and queers that came to these events were laymen, they were not familiar with LGBT lingo. So through art, we tried to simplify things so nobody would feel left out.

AK: Since MIST has always been open to allies, what space do you think allies should have in queer movements? And could queer movements extend solidarities to other movements and form alliances, without taking up space?

SK: Because I work with MIST, I know that 50 percent of our volunteers are allies, not all are part of the LGBT+ community. I think allies play an important role, but I don’t know what space they could have in the community. When an ally understands the experiences of queer people…and tries to relate to them…I mean, you don’t have to be a queer person to hate cricket, for example. (laughs)

About solidarities…I think we need to be intersectional. I’ve learnt this in Bangalore, I’ve always walked the pride with different organisations dealing with different issues…organisations working for women’s rights, Dalit rights, not all organisations directly related to LGBT issues. So this kind of diversity I experienced in Bangalore Pride earlier makes me think that being intersectional is possible. We wouldn’t be a ‘minuscule minority’ if we come together. I don’t think we should go to support other marches and change their entire agenda. But…if we are intersectional, and we extend support to other minorities, we will receive their support as well.

AK: Could you tell us something about the support group ‘Queer Talks and Meetings’? Do you think offline support groups are still relevant in the era of social media and the internet, where online communities are more easily accessible?

SK: Online spaces are more accessible to younger people who don’t have a lot of space or opportunity to be mobile. Online communities do play an important role, but they are also harder to monitor. Sometimes there is a lot of bullying that happens in these spaces, which does not really get addressed. What happens in outside support groups like QTAM, we make sure we moderate the conversations, we make efforts to diversify opinions. I know some people don’t feel comfortable coming to offline support groups…but the existence of these spaces is still important because there are also others who do not have the resources to access online spaces, or don’t fit into these spaces because of language barriers. That’s why I think offline groups are still relevant.

Samuel Konnur, publicly identified as Shyam Konnur in the LGBTQ+ community, friends and family members, a 29-year-old out and proud gay individual, hails from a small town called Sindhanur in Northern Karnataka. Shyam is the founder of Mist – an LGBTQ+ collective started in Bangalore in 2010. His journey of working for the LGBTQ+ community began from the day he came out to his parents and now he is one of the prominent faces of the community.