“Maiki” | Verve Magazine
India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
January 29, 2021


Text and photographs by Imdad Barbhuyan

Delhi-based visual artist Imdad Barbhuyan recalls the memory of when his mother dressed him up in one of her saris – it was a moment in which he felt like the most authentic version of himself. Over two decades later, the now-27-year-old recreates the emotionally significant series of photographs taken that day in 1999

I was tired of watching. I wanted to touch. My palms longed for the potent stain of henna, to surrender to the harmony of its fading and lingering, but I was told it was inappropriate. My lower back wanted to be brushed by my thick braid, but boys shouldn’t grow out their hair, they said. My skin revelled in the comforting familiarity of the fluidity of my mother’s clothes; it was a feeling of expansiveness, of a transcendent experience that told me I was more than my body. And yet, instead of feeling infinite, I felt confined because of my body.

My childhood was comfortable. My parents always did what they thought was best for their children. But,  I do wonder how very different my life would have been if they’d been more in touch with finer pursuits like art, music and cinema. I remember wanting to learn ballet and play the piano or the violin, but my father insisted that I focused on my studies. And so I did, never understanding why they had to be mutually exclusive. I still consider myself very fortunate because even though my parents had expectations of me academically, I was never told to not behave a certain way or to be a certain other way at home – as their son, as a person and, most importantly, as a man. I wish all families could be as loving and accepting of their children. Home is where we should find out who we are and learn how to love ourselves before we go on and face the world. In order to communicate and express our truths, we first need to believe in ourselves.

Things at school were unsurprisingly not the same. I was a shy kid and preferred the company of other shy girls; we invented games, read books and drew flowers on the blackboard instead of playing out in the scorching sun during lunchtime. In my early teenage years, I began internalising my attraction towards beautiful things, a feeling which then found ways of expression through small but intentional decisions. And this was the beginning of the conscious and troubled relationship between my body and my self-image.

I had always felt exposed and vulnerable in public; I lived with the paranoia that I was being watched every time I queued up for school assemblies or walked out in the open. So I never went to the canteen or the playground and completely avoided PE classes by initially hiding in the bathrooms and, later, among books as I befriended the librarian.

The boys called me “Maiki”, which translates to “woman” in Assamese, because of my obvious affinity towards the feminine but also partly because they were mad I wouldn’t play with them. I grew up being addressed like this by schoolmates and often by cousins and other relatives. Despite the name-calling, I remained mostly unaffected because I had support from my immediate family. I learnt to ignore the bullies and made myself comfortable living in two separate worlds: one of acceptance and love and the other of denial and abuse.

I was comfortable enough with my body, but I didn’t know how exactly I should present it to the world. What felt natural to me didn’t feel natural in the context of my external world, mainly because a similar expression of self wasn’t visible in my surroundings. Before I knew it, I started seeing myself through the same lens as others did. I spent all my time actively policing every move and gesture so that I wasn’t the odd one out (which was, ironically, how I felt inside all the time).  So there I was, navigating the discord between my inner self and my expressed identity. I was no longer the author of this image that I was projecting; I had become a product of the intolerant, ignorant and prescriptive parameters of our society.

I remember receiving an elegant lilac watch with crystals around the dial as a gift from my mother. It was the most beautiful thing I had owned until then, and I was very excited to wear it to school. But after two days of being harassed for wearing a watch that was obviously meant for women, I stopped bringing it out it in public and would wear it only at home.

I suffered through such small moments of oppression, through the denial of beauty, because beauty in so many forms, as I had repeatedly been told, was only meant for the female.

It was during college that I found acceptance outside my family for the first time. This is when I re-introduced myself to beauty and embarked on a journey of creation and self-realisation. I could finally exercise my individuality by breaking free from the rigid, performative aspect of gender norms and rejecting the heteronormative ideals of masculinity.

Through the visual exploration of my image, I am now reclaiming past pain and trauma by using beauty as my medium to undo all the wrong and speak of all the previous injustices and sorrows I have experienced. I am now embracing my appreciation and embodiment of traditionally “feminine” qualities that I had long tried to suppress, allowing them to bloom alongside and balance my more “masculine” attributes. My image now aligns with my aesthetic and cultural beliefs and is a true reflection of how I feel inside, and there is immeasurable comfort in this simple truth.

I wanted to recreate these childhood photos to show the constant force of love and support that my mother has been and continues to be in my life. I was fascinated by her appearance and demeanour, and so I played with her clothes to look and be like her. One day, she decided to make me a bride and indulge my fantasies. She draped one of her saris on me, covered me in her wedding jewellery and convinced my aunt to dress her son up as the groom. The documentation of this fun, spontaneous day resulted in these beautiful and evocative portraits that, besides possessing obvious visual appeal, say a lot more about my mother, her open heart and her relationship with me.

Still, I wouldn’t be lying if I said that I was uncomfortable calling myself a man.  I honestly don’t know what a “man” is yet, both to society at large and personally. I’ve been trying to figure it out for a while now, but there doesn’t seem to be a straight answer. And the more uncertain that answer becomes, the more comfortable and liberated I find myself.

If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like: Love Language: An artistic reflection on the connected visual subtext of queer intimacy and Hindi film songs from Verve’s Cinema Issue

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