Michael and Balbir’s love story will remain one of my favourite love stories of all times. It is Cinderallesque. Back in 2014, when the Supreme Court had upheld the ban on 377, I had written this story. It was a mild form of protest against injustice. Now, in the wake of Supreme Court decriminalising section 377, I repost this love story again — as an expression of joy.
— Sudha Pillai
June 15, 2014. It was a sunny morning. A small group of people had gathered on the lawns of the historic Rhinecliff Hotel on New York’s Hudson River. There was Michael Giangrasso’s two adopted adult sons; their wives and baby Julia, Michael’s first grandchild, other members of the family and friends. And a special guest — Michael’s school-teacher who he hadn’t seen for 35 years. Then there was Balbir Krishan — the prolific Indian artist, whose visceral and pioneering artworks hardly gets shown in India. Galleries and curators in India “love Balbir’s” art, but they aren’t keen to associate themselves with it since they consider his art “too risky”, and fear the moral police.
40-year-old Balbir has lived in his village in Baghpat in Uttar Pradesh for the last 39 years. This was his first visit to the US. That morning, dressed in a black tuxedo, with Michael’s favourite tenor Aria from La Gioconda playing in the background, Balbir walked across the manicured lawn towards the motley gathering. Michael’s mother, whom Balbir also calls “mom” was walking beside him. Balbir’s walk down the aisle was slow and measured because of his wooden legs. But it didn’t matter
At the end of the aisle, under the white arch, stood Michael, a teacher by profession and American by birth. A broad smile was stretching his face into a happy smiley. Reverend Erica was eager and waiting — to unite the two men in holy matrimony. But before that Michael’s school teacher read a poem, a friend sang a song and played the guitar. And a few eyes brim with happy tears.
Balbir’s family and friends were not present. There were Indian elements to the wedding — Erica applied roli, the auspicious red paste on the grooms’ foreheads and tied the kalava, the sacred yellow thread, around their wrists. Vows were read. Rings exchanged. And finally, the two men became…a legally wedded couple. Faraway from Balbir’s land of birth. Balbir always dreamed about getting married, but he never imagined it would ever happen to him.
Balbir came under the spotlight when he held his first solo exhibition, Out and Here (2012), in New Delhi. He was attacked by a masked man inside the gallery; he was pushed to the ground and kicked repeatedly. The assailant then escaped after destroying one of the artworks. The subject of the paintings? Homosexuality and homoerotic. The paintings, acrylic on printed canvas, were Balbir’s way of being true to himself and the world. His second solo exhibition, My bed of Roses, in Hyderabad was cancelled after the gallery received threats from the moral police.
Balbir was dejected and lamented: “Will every show of mine be shut down in this manner? When will I be free to express myself?”
Balbir is one of the most talented contemporary artists of modern India. Many in the art world agree but in private. Vocalising their support would attract unsavoury attention and affect the commerce of their business because Balbir’s art draws “trouble and controversy”. But, his art also hits you in the solar plexus. It is raw. It is bold. Laden with meaning — layers that you might need a lifetime to peel.
Balbir’s childhood was filled with violence and abuse. “I wish I could tell you that I enjoyed a happy and carefree childhood in my village,” Balbir says. At 17, he ran away from home. He wandered the streets of Delhi, scratching out an existence till he found a job — as a cargo-boy with cross-country truckers for 14 months. “Those were mean, ugly and desperate times,” he reminisces. What was a teenager to do when life turned into a destructive demon? Run back to the ‘known’ even if it is hostile. Balbir returned home — it wasn’t a comfortable place, but at least it was familiar. When he came back to his village as a battle-hardened 19-year-old, he let all the rapists (in the village) who thought that he would still be their victim know that “they were done.” He went back to school to complete his education. Later he went to college to study art, despite opposition from the family. “My family always knew of, and disapproved of my sexuality,” Balbir recalls.
His family — who still lives in the village and tends to their farm — disowned him when they discovered that he was going to marry a man. The village became an intimidating place and Balbir, who was teaching art at a local school, had to flee to save his life. “I’m no longer welcome at the house,” Balbir says. “The village is unsafe for me. My only link to the family is my two nephews, who keep in touch with me on the phone.”
“Life in the village as a gay man….you have no idea,” he says.
“Difference is not appreciated. And I was different — I knew it, and others sensed it. The physical and psychological persecution I endured from early childhood is not reading material for the squeamish.
But it’s the resulting internalised self-hatred that truly tears at the soul.”
Balbir began drawing from the time he could hold a pencil. But he was frowned upon. “Because that’s (art) what girls did,” he was told. He got a lot of grief over joining a drawing class in secondary school; He was the only boy in the class.
Even as a youngster, Balbir was always interested in drawing the male figure. While in college, he drew a series of figures based on the cave paintings of Ajanta. “Somehow, my drawings were discovered in my village, and I was called out and ostracised for depravity.” He destroyed some of the drawings and hid a few.
Balbir pursued MA in fine arts in Agra in 1996. It was a seminal year in his life. It was the year that Balbir had the accident — as the world knows it — where he lost both his legs; amputated at the knee. But, it was in fact, a suicide attempt gone wrong. In college, Balbir had told a friend about his sexual orientation only to realise that his confidence was betrayed. He was ridiculed, humiliated and ostracised. He thought it was the ‘end’ of life. College can be a harsh place for those who don’t fit the mould. For the youngster, who had been battling doubts, fear, shame, and confusion all his life, it was the last straw. So, he walked to the nearest railway tracks and lay down.
When the 23-year-old woke up he was stunned: “I was still alive and still gay,” he would later say. But with no legs. Today, Balbir will tell you: “I lost my legs, but won my life back.” It was the beginning of the awakening of the artist within.
He was bedridden for almost two years. Laying on your back, staring at the ceiling for unending days can lead to life-changing introspection. “I felt that my days of sacrificing for the demands of others were over and that I had little else to lose,” he recalls. Balbir returned to drawing what he wanted — the male form. But not without controversy and trouble. “The important point is that I did what I wanted without caring anymore.” It was during this time that his style and theme began to emerge. He finished his MA, with the help of a university instructor while still bedridden. He later went on to do an M.Phil too.
Balbir’s works are autobiographical. Early on, he painted “wretched children and suffering humanity” because he was that child against that backdrop. “I survived my shattered youth, though not with my entire body, which accounts for the fragmentation that you see inside my work, and across much of it; even in my short, purely abstract period a decade back. But emerging from fragmentation is transformation, especially in the work I’ve done over the last several years.”
His subjects are all in some form of dialogue with themselves — testing conversations on success, failure, pleasure, pain, and dreams. “All of these figures are me, as I journey back to my past and into my present,” he explains. “These men in my drawings and paintings are moving on to something better, though they may need to pass through hell before they get there. Some may turn to ash before they rise again.”
And love happened
A couple of years ago, when Balbir was exhibiting at the United Art Fair in Delhi, he met Michael who had been in India for five years. “It was not love at first sight, but definitely ‘like’ at the first meeting,” he recalls. “Love, I think, is a return that comes from a good investment. We spent time, and love came.”
Ironically, the two did not speak the same language and the first few times they needed an interpreter. “I had the language inside me, but I never used it,” Balbir explains. “I never needed to.” Once he gathered the courage to speak English, he didn’t stop. “Mike says I’ve learned a lot since we met. I feel like I can say most anything I want, maybe not with all the words or the standard structures, but I know how to get my point across. I can beat Mike in an argument. He likes my English and has adopted some of the ways I say things. Writing is hard for me, and Mike helps me with it. But I’m getting better at that too.”
The duo shares many similar interests. “But one deciding factor rose above all others, and that’s belief. I believe in Michael,” he says candidly. “This is love. He knows everything about me.”
Michael, on the other hand, admires Balbir’s courage in resolving to live happily, especially after having experienced the appalling cruelty of others. “That’s real strength,” Michael says. “There are scars, of course, but they don’t impair his ability to love, and that is miraculous. I love him for the kindness with which he treats people. We live in a profoundly stratified society. Balbir doesn’t recognise these divisions. For him, all people are entitled to their dignity, and worthy of his respect. I love how he marvels at the world, and how he understands the truth of beauty. He travelled on an aeroplane for the first time when we went to South India last November. The awesomeness of nature as we sailed through the clouds was palpable (on his face).”
Michael’s family has grown to love Balbir. The duo had always dreamt of marriage. “But there were too many reasons for not believing in that dream — both personal and societal, for both of us.” But things were about to change.
Michael proposed to Balbir in April 2013. “Though we had no idea how we’d marry,” he says. It wasn’t possible for them to get married in India. Back then, the Supreme Court reinstating the ban on Article 377. In July the same year, the US Supreme Court struck down provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to married same-sex couples, including immigration benefits. It was a highly-anticipated decision that hinged on one crucial wild-card vote. “We and the country won 5-4. The victory changed our world forever. We began planning our marriage for the following summer,” Michael says. “Someday we hope that history will look back with incredulity that governments ever prohibited people who love one another from getting married.”
On their honeymoon, the couple went gallery-hopping. “I saw the work of great artists I grew up seeing only in badly-printed black and white books. It was breathtaking,” says Balbir who wept with joy at the museums. Today, the couple lead a healthy, happy life like all the other married couples in love do.
“You don’t know what I’d give to be able to run for five minutes or to kick a ball even once. The legs I have now are nearly 15 years old, and cumbersome and clumsy. I need to strap them on to my waist and move around by dragging them,” Balbir explains. The couple is saving money for a new pair of legs with hydraulic knees for Balbir. “He gave me my life back; a life that I never had,” Balbir says. “Michael’s love for me is like magic, and that magic makes everything possible.”
Fairy-tale weddings might be a cliche, but Michael and Balbir’s wedding was one. Of course, there was no dancing, limousines, and bouquet-throwing. But there was lots of love and joy. When it was over, they “just wanted to do it all over again!”