On October 24, 2011, Sahodaran, the Chennai based NGO dealing with HIV/AIDS communication and prevention among men who have sex with men (MSM), launched its third calendar featuring sexy south Indian hunks. For those who want to get an idea of what the 2011 calendar was like, the photographer, Kapil Ganesh, has put some of the images on his blog and has promised to put up a few from the newly launched 2012 calendar by next week.
If you want to find out a bit more about the calendar and Sahodaran, you need to know a bit about Sunil Menon who set up the organisation. Sunil was one of the first activists to get involved with HIV/AIDS issues with MSM in South India and has kept Sahodaran and its outreach programmes growing, extending it into becoming an advocacy space for gays, kothis, and other MSM, and transgenders.
It was an activity I really appreciated, because when I was growing up in Chennai it seemed like this was one city where no sort of gay activism was likely. Of course, there were lots of gay men, but no one seemed interested in starting formal spaces for queer people to meet and get to know each other, leave alone plan for any kind of activism.
When Sunil set up Sahodaran, he also set up an informal group called Chennai Mitra that aimed to provide this sort of space, meeting at the office that Sahodaran had set up on Sterling Road, which was really a bit of a culture shock for me because that was just a few metres away from the college I had gone to (Loyola), at a time when it seemed like nothing gay would ever happen.
I went for a couple of Chennai Mitra meetings when I went home to Chennai, and it felt remarkable to be able to visit such a space in Chennai (walking up to the office past, if I remember correctly, the TamBrahm uncle on the ground floor who looked suspiciously at people going in, but still rented the space to Sunil. Of course, I might be completely wrong on this, and perhaps the uncle was just dyspeptic).
In time, other groups like Movenpick/Orinam (2003-) and Chennai Dost (2009-) came up, and Sunil was able to focus on Sahodaran – and also his parallel career. One of the most remarkable things about Sunil is that he has managed to build his NGO right alongside a very busy career as a fashion show choreographer, probably the best known one in South India. I’ve seen Sunil talking to his outreach workers about preparing presentations on HIV statistics, while almost in parallel screaming on the phone at designers, lighting people, and stage designers who haven’t got their act together in time!
It is an interesting combination, which has multiple benefits. There have been times, I think, when funding for Sahodaran has got stretched, at which point Sunil was able to get the kothis and aravaanis who do the HIV prevention and outreach work some side employment working backstage on his shows. If course, they LOVED doing this and, as Sunil once told me, it wasn’t just the money, but also the sense of confidence they got from being able to walk into a five star hotel or the other fancy venues where his shows took place.
This sort of sensitisation also works in other ways. The fashion and Page 3 crowd in Chennai who knows Sunil from his stage shows has also got sensitised not just to gay issues, but trans and HIV issues as well, since Sunil has always been quite open about his sexuality, activism and HIV work. That whole crowd is very supportive of him, and one happy consequence of this is that several turn up to support him for events like Chennai Pride, including a number of hunky male models whose presence is certainly appreciated!
The calendar came out of this confluence of Sunil’s careers as well. I think it started because one of his outreach workers was a talented tailor and would make colourful male lingerie as a sideline. Sunil wanted to help, and made a vague suggestion to Kapil Ganesh, one of the fashion photographers he worked with, if he could shoot a few images for a catalogue. Kapil was happy to work at something different, and somehow in the process the idea of doing a calendar came up.
The idea seemed good, but executing it in any decent way was clearly going to be daunting, but this is when Sunil’s network of friends kicked in. Designers lent outfits, models volunteered – after a certain amount of persuasion – to pose, potential customers pledged to buy fixed numbers. A few got even more involved, like Anandaroopa, an American living in Chennai with his male partner. Between them all they made sure that the first calendar came out two years back.
That calendar was really something. Many of the models were sportsmen who had wonderful lean bodies and also classic South Indian looks. One of the best things about Sahodaran’s calendar is how it provides a different picture of Indian male hunkiness from the standard fair North Indian one. The second calendar carried this theme even further, as the images on Kapil’s website show – some of the guys have even kept their chest hair!
Putting these calendars together is a real job, and after each one has come out Sunil has always moaned about how much effort it is and how he doesn’t think he can do it all again. This year I really wondered if he would, because Anandaroopa has left Chennai, so Sunil would be doing it more on his own. So I was really happy to learn, during a quick trip to Chennai, that Sunil had in fact produced a third calendar, his most ambitious yet, and that it was going to be released when I was in Chennai.
I went for the launch and it was a typical Sunil event. It was at Amethyst, an upmarket shop cum cafe and there were several designers present. Several of the models were there too, body builders this time, but not the overly muscled guys, but guys with really lean and beautifully balanced builds with really great torsos – check out Mr. July! Or Mr. May! The main concept this year is yoga asanas, and the variations on Tadasana these two guys are doing quite perfectly set off their amazing torsos! Sunil told me that the calendar is so well known now that prospective models now really want to be part of it (and all for free).
Along with the fashion crowd there were, of course, Sunil’s outreach workers and the short event to launch the calendars was as much about them and their work. Sunil spoke about the advances that transgenders had made in Chennai, with the government setting up a trans welfare board and setting in place various schemes for them, now including allotting housing for them. One of the transgenders there showed us how she had just got a new PAN card in her new female personality. And the first calendars were released to representatives of the Tamil Nadu State AIDS Control Society (TANSACS), who have been among Sahodaran’s strongest supporters.
It was all so amazing, and the finished calendars so nice looking, that it seems really bad to make one critical comment, but I feel I really have to. The new calendars are really good, well produced, beautifully composed images of the hunks striking yoga asanas in typical South Indian landscapes that are mostly of landscapes showing sea and sand, or also arenas for traditional South Indian exercise forms like kallaripayutu. Apart from the two months mentioned above, I should make special note of Mr. October, who’s not just striking one of the more challenging asanas, Uthitta Hasta Padangusthasana, but also has a more striking and really hot look, dark skinned and shaven headed.
But he’s something of an exception. While all the models are hunky, they are on the whole a bit less distinctively South Indian than the earlier calendars. Sunil explained that they have made this calendar a bit mroe mainstream, because he felt that there were people who might have bought the earlier ones, but felt it was a bit too much for them. He cited one friend who admitted he had bought last year’s calendar, but didn’t dare put it on his desk, but just put it in his desk drawer and looked at it from time to time.
I can understand that Sunil feels its better to sacrifice some of the distinctive quality of the earlier calendars to see a bit more. But I think the guys who don’t dare put it out, aren’t going to dare to put any such calendar out at any time, whereas those who might have bought it because it was so different are going to feel disappointed and the overall more mainstream look of these guys and this calendar. I hope that next year they will strike more of a balance.
But this is really only a minor criticism, and as a whole the calendar is well worth the Rs. 1000 that is the price this year, especially since you know the benefit is going to support Sahodaran’s programmes for HIV/AIDS prevention among men who have sex with men. For those who want to buy it and are in Chennai, it should be easy to get it from Sahodaran and shops like Amethyst and Chamiers. For those who are outside Chennai, it’s going to be a bit harder, especially since Azaad Bazaar in Mumbai, which stocked it, is moving to Goa this week. Sunil says he is trying to find new outlets to stock it, but till then your best bet would be to email Sahodaran directly. Their website http://www.sahodaran.org/ is still under construction, but it contains their basic contact details.
Photos courtesy : Sahodaran