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Lessons in love
Introducing teen readers to the topic of homosexuality was a bold step by the Bhopal-based Hindi children's magazine Chakmak. And, it was an eye-opener for parents as well.
Nestled amidst pages of a generic magazine for preteens and teens is a painting of two young men, seated intimately on a couch, limbs enfolded. "Ve ek doosre se itna pyaar karte the ki unhone ek hi jaisa suit pehna tha (They loved each other so much that they wore suits of the same design), " reads the caption accompanying the quiet, contented pair.
The painting, by late artist Bhupen Khakhar, ran as a double spread in a recent issue of Chakmak magazine, as part of a column titled Chitro ki Bhasha introducing children to art and artists. Editor Sushil Shukla says he was ready to cross the line and educate his young readers, aged 11 to 15 years, about the different faces of love. That this initiative comes from a Hindi magazine based out of Bhopal may seem daring to some, but Shukla doesn't believe in sugar-coating life. "We Indians have always believed our children should be kept in a cocoon, a make-believe world where animals talk, fairies dance and dwarfs and gnomes are the only evils they may chance upon, " says the 27-year-old educator, referring to the elaborate fantasies promoted by most children's writing.
At Chakmak, Shukla has never shied away from telling it like it is. Though they launched as a typical children's magazine featuring stories with predictable plots and characters, the magazine, which has a subscriber base of 15, 000 plus, charted out a bolder course within the next few years. "After 2007 we began tackling serious issues like caste and gender discrimination, " says Shukla, a member of the National Curriculum Framework committee that frames curriculum and textbooks for students. The focus hasn't alienated his regular readers;on the contrary, it's brought newer ones into the fold, Shukla says, revealing that Delhi Public Schools in Lucknow, Patna, Ludhiana and Pune today are subscribers.
The decision to introduce young readers to men who love men was one that Shukla's team supported. Co-editor Shashi Sablog says, "Why should we fight shy of sharing a subject like homosexuality with youngsters? We are in the business of information, so we are simply presenting them with a perspective on love, without promoting or condemning it. "
The text accompanying the painting is written by Shefali Jain, a visual arts professor from Ambedkar University in Delhi, and opens with the lines, "Kya tumne socha hai ki chitron mein pyaar kaise dikhaya jaaye? Kisi vastu kaa chitra banaana to aasaan hai, lekin pyaar, jo ki ek ehsaas hai, use kaise chitrit kiya jaaye?" (Have you ever thought about how love can be depicted in a painting? It's easy to draw an object, but love is a feeling;how do you sketch that?)
The rest of the column is equally forthright, and explains in easy terminology the struggle to decriminalise homosexuality in India, including Delhi High Court's landmark ruling, abolishing the penalty for same-sex love among consenting adults in 2009. "Yeh kuch logon ke lambe kaanooni sangharsh ke baad hi hasil hua. Par iske baavjood hamare samaj mein samlaingik pyaar ke prati virodh, bhed-bhaav aur ghrinaa ki bhaavnaa hai (This only came about after a few people and their prolonged legal battles. Despite this, our society's attitude towards homosexual love today is marked by discrimination and disgust), " the write-up reads.
The article also mentions that the late Khakhar, a self-professed homosexual, was an Indian artist comfortable portraying homosexual love in his work and highlights the "extremely sensitive manner in which he successfully conveyed deep love between two young boys". Jain concludes the article asking young readers to think about the art and social message it carries, artfully suggesting people be more tolerant of those who love differently, allowing them to lead life on their own terms.
Shukla says he had anticipated the backlash to the story, published in their February issue, claiming a parent from Jodhpur even threatened to sue him for "corrupting young minds". However, he remains confident about his approach, given student feedback - over 4, 000 children write in to him regularly and even their teachers are very encouraging.
The recent spread has been praised by the Naz Foundation (India) Trust. "Youngsters today are well-informed and a sensitive and frank approach, like the one taken by Chakmak, goes a long way towards preparing them for future situations, " says Anuradha Mukherji, project officer, adding that the younger generation is very accepting of alternative preferences. "During the summer vacation, we had several children visiting our office for their project work and one of Delhi's leading schools even offered to take up the cause of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community (LGBT) awareness to other schools, " she says.
It isn't just young readers who are being educated by these endeavours. Sangeeta Sarkhel, a professor from Jabalpur University, recalls finding her 13-year-old son, who subscribes to the magazine, reading the story. "At first I thought it was trash, " she says, candidly. "I snatched the magazine from his hands, and saw the anger and shock on his face. " She threatened to cancel his subscription but had second thoughts the next day. "I realised there was no point in pretending that it was something that didn't exist, " she says, concluding, "The magazine did us a favour explaining the subject, otherwise a taboo, to a growing boy in a dispassionate manner. "
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