HIDDEN CITY // 90's queer spaces for VERVE mag

I photographed some of the spaces that were safe for queer men and the trans community to navigate conservative social norms & meet & dance & cruise in 90s Bombay for @verveindia ‘s iconic 90s issue ! 🌈My photos accompany intimate anecdotes and stories as told to @ojaskolvankar by noted members of the queer community back then. Read the entire feature here. It’s an incredible read and I hope you grab a magazine copy if you haven’t already !

 
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CSMT Station (Formerly Victoria Terminus)
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“There were the ‘respectable’ queer-friendly public places...What I mean by ‘respectable’ is that these places were where the upper-middle-class, English-speaking, gay-identified men of Bombay hung out, and could admit to it. There were also more subversive spaces, which, according to me, were more interesting because of the possibilities they held. In this category were the gents’ restrooms at the Churchgate, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT), Marine Lines and Dadar railway stations, as well as a host of others on the Western and Central train lines. This category also included public urinals on busy thoroughfares, like the one on Haines Road off Worli Naka; as well as the two maidans in South Bombay; Azad Maidan and Oval Maidan.”
- R. Raj Rao

Train on the Churchgate-Borivali route
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“After spending time at Gokul and then at The Walls (a popular cruising area along the Gateway of India promenade) most of us had to get back to the suburbs. We would take the last train (nicknamed The Maharani Express by the community) from Churchgate to Borivali. Our revelry – singing, dancing, gossiping and laughing – would continue on the train. Since we were a big gang, and very raucous, no one dared to trouble us. A lot of us would even go hang out at Horizon Hotel in Juhu (now an address that houses several restaurants), where we gathered on the lawns next to the sea and talked into the wee hours of the morning. We owned Saturday nights!” - Sridhar Rangayan

Azad Maidan
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“In the ’90s everything was so hush-hush and underground. ‘Gay’ was not a word that was spoken out loud, and there was a lot of fear in the community about people’s identities being disclosed. Since there was
no internet then – or online dating sites – gay men met at either house parties or in public places, like parks and train stations.This was always fraught with danger, and exploited by the police and blackmailers. Many gay men I know lost a lot of money and were sexually molested” - Sridhar Rangayan

Kamal Mansion, Colaba (where Voodoo Club was once located)
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“It was empowering to be at a bar that was mainstream, yet predominantly queer and underground. The door of Voodoo opened into a little chamber-room that housed a desk, a phone and an affable Parsi owner, Shapur Irani. The entry fee was 60 rupees a night. There was an open dance floor, a small DJ booth, a bar that ran along the left and a large revolving ‘storm’ fan. This would later claim its own popularity for the excessively sweaty ones who would monopolise it – hoping that their hair was flying in the right direction. The DJs were in sync with playing queer music – think disco, some early techno house and a large smattering of Bollywood. I’m still haunted by the endless shrill refrains of Alisha Chinai’s ‘Sexy, Sexy, Sexy Mujhe Log Bole/ Hi Sexy! Hello Sexy Log Bole!’ Fashions were changing too – our wardrobes began to include a lot of Lycra and we all wore tight T-shirts made of this impractical material. There was sheer, sheen, sparkle and shine – and there was more than one time when we raided our girl friends’ wardrobes. How we had the gall to leave home and traverse the city undressed like that amazes me!”
- Ashish Sawhny

Gokul, Colaba
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“Gokul – and later Voodoo as well – became default community locales where
we felt like we belonged. We visited the bar not only for fun and enjoyment, but also for queer community-building. International visitors and gay men from other cities would meet us there too – that’s how links were made. Some of us hung out together to start India’s first gay magazine, Bombay Dost, and later, the first registered gay organisation, the Humsafar Trust. Gokul also became a space where we could invite young men, who were just coming out, to get a sense of the community. The older gay men would be mentors (actually hen mothers!) to the younger ones and teach them the ropes of how to interact, be safe and avoid dangerous situations. A public gay movement was beginning! History was being made.” - Sridhar Rangayan

Promenade adjacent to the Gateway of India
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“The Walls have been a cruising place since time immemorial; the area allows people to line up and check out one another. Eye contact, its duration, looking back at someone you liked and body language were used to show interest.” - Pallav Patankar

Promenade adjacent to the Gateway of India
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“In the ’90s we saw the division of filtered information coming, the internet generation had not begun then. People were still within specific silos, and places like Gokul were the melting pots. Because gay men from really high socio-economic backgrounds were meeting those from lower middle-class or middle- class backgrounds, there was a sort of cultural exchange taking place. People did not mind fraternising with one another for the sake of sex. They also realised that HIV or AIDS do not discriminate.The class and caste differences went out of the window, because it gave rise to the larger movement.” - Pallav Patankar

Kamal Mansion, Colaba (where Voodoo Club was once located)
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“The question “What spaces did queer women have in the ’90s?” when asked blithely, draws bitter smiles from most of us who were around at that time. No, we did not then, nor do we today, have any public “cruising” areas like the ones for men, to meet other women in search of like company. 
Public spaces for the transaction of sex, lust or love, have traditionally not been available to women, except for sex workers and transwomen and that too because men also seek them openly. The very private, ‘alone’ places have been the only real ones that those biologically-assigned women, especially, lesbian and bisexual women, have had all along. 
To reminisce about the ’90s is to first remind ourselves that it was a time without any personal means of communication – mobile phones, the internet, social media – and the small but important virtual spaces of privacy that these devices create. 
So where on earth could two women meet? The answer is both nowhere, and everywhere. each of us grew up believing “I am the only one who feels like this”. And yet, we did fall in love or lust.
...The ’90s saw the powerful beginnings of this community, and yet so many years later there is still much to be done. For those with the means to traverse this metropolis and with access to the privacy of the internet and a home, the world seems to have changed today. But for many, life is no different.
Until public spaces can be equally claimed by all, and the private ones open up to different ways of being, we shall still smile and answer the question “Where do two women meet?” with the same answer – nowhere and everywhere!” - Chayanika Shah, feminist activist and author

Maheshwari Udyan
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The transgender community in india, the ‘T’ in the formulation LGBTQIA+, has always felt doubly marginalised – marginalised within a marginalised group. So how did the trans community network in the then bombay in the ’90s, in the days prior to the internet and mobile phones?
It must be said at the outset that the hijra community was the most visible face of the transgender community back then. Most hijras, as 37-year-old activist, gauri Sawant puts it, were from the non-english-speaking lower middle class. Thus, expensive hangouts like voodoo, where westernised gay men met, were a no-no for them.
Instead, they confined themselves to their respective gharanas (a house that is ruled by the hijra leader with many teachers who, in turn, have many disciples) where they socialised with each other. Other than that, there were a few places that by convention became their rendezvous points.
One such place was maheshwari udyan at King’s Circle, where hijras and kotis (effeminate working-class homosexual men) regularly met on Saturday and Sunday evenings. They would spend a few hours here, feel happy in each other’s company, and then return home. Sawant and fellow transgender-activist Laxmi narayan Tripathi, fondly refer to Maheshwari Udyan as a place of refuge. - R. Raj Rao

 

fancy mess // with chef rehan mehta

I asked Rehan Mehta (aka @raybirdeats aka king of casual sandwiches at the soon-too-open Framroze Deli in Bombay) to cook something inspired by each piece from The Fancy Collection . After putting him through a minor existential crisis, the result is a bizarre mix of comfort food made from quality ingredients, garnished with sophisticated surprises, and plated on porcelain tableware in generous quantities on extremely comfortable and totally made-up "table-quilts". Its one big "fancy" mess really, and that's exactly what we were going for !

 

1. FANCY WHITE

A large round platter for lots of things to be shared.

 

a fancy fried chicken party

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garnished with posh pickled cucumbers !

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a fancy mess of golden crispy crumbs and confetti

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& fancy crown-fold origami tissue paper

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for fancy oily fingers !

 

2. fancy grey

A long serving platter for dishes with a beginning and an end.

 

fancy naked birthday cakes

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for the beginning of a linear life till the end .

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a fancy flimsy rounded knife to cut fiery frosting!

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fancy sugar bits to fancy black burnt sugar bits!

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fancy pools of ash, wax, & sweet cream!

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a fancy serving of ditzy dots and destruction!

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3. fancy charcoal & 4. fancy black

A small plate for the sides, which are as important as the mains. A dark bowl for broth / something that took time to be so complex.

 

fancy tsukemen noodles that get their own plate!

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fancy soft-boil egg marinated in mirin, sake & soy!

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fancy spicy miso broth, jaunty nori & sesame!

fancy cold velvety noodles on warm fuzzy fleece!

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a fancy dip, followed by a luxurious swirl, ending with a polite slurp!

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