RAJPIPLA, India (Reuters Life!) - Pumping the bellows of his harmonium, Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil performs with a purpose at the festival he puts on every year to celebrate homosexuality in India, where it is illegal.
“Gays are talented, creative, imagine a world without us,” said the flamboyant 42-year-old at the event that promotes gay and bisexual artists and raises awareness about HIV and AIDS.
“I was born gay with some talent and skills, this festival is for people like me,” he added as guests filled the hall of his pink palace with classical Indian songs.
Oprah Winfrey, the American talk show host, has invited Gohil to appear on her show later this month, where he will discuss his work as a gay rights activist in a country where homosexuality is a crime, punishable by up to 10 years in jail under a vaguely worded law that bans sex “against the order of nature”.
Outside the more liberal enclaves of wealthy middle-class Delhi and Mumbai, gays are often scorned and persecuted in a country where sculptures in ancient temples, murals and other arts graphically depict gay sex.
India’s flourishing film industry has often used gays as characters of humor and ridicule.
Gohil, who descends from the royal rulers of Rajpipla, a small town in the western state of Gujarat, was publicly disowned by his family after talking about his sexuality with the media.
India abolished princely kingdoms after independence from Britain in 1947, but many formerly royal families continue to lead lavish lives in sprawling palaces and use their old titles.
“I had to deal with opposition from my family and locals of Rajpipla who felt I was involved in activities that are unsuitable in society,” he said. Rajpipla is a very conservative, sleepy town, where women cover their heads and lower their gaze before men.
India’s anti-homosexuality law, which harks back to the British colonial-era law, is rarely enforced but activists say police use it to harass gays for bribes. Those that don’t pay have been detained, brutally beaten and humiliated.
In May, hundreds of gays and lesbians came out at a New Delhi festival they hoped would build on a campaign against the anti-gay law. But the government has so far said that society is not ready to legalize homosexuality.
At Gohil’s palace, gays mingled freely with socialites, flirted with potential partners and put on lighthearted shows under the gaze of scores of curious villagers who were invited to the party.
“The festival gave us a break from our lives where everyday we fight people and ourselves to understand our own sexuality,” said a gay artist who declined to be named.
“For us it is a war on the inside and the outside.”