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Prerana Kumar




When we started working with artefacts from the British Museum, I was immediately drawn to Mughal paintings depicting women in various states of affection, tenderness, and intimacy. One painting in particular, Jahán Aará Begum with attendant became the beating core of my creative project, particularly because I was also fascinated with Jahán Aará Begum, the Mughal princess, Padshah Begum who commanded vast political power, and remained unmarried.

Portraiture has always been a way of legitimising regal narratives, but also the heteronormative gaze. I began to question how the women in these portraits would express their relationships – otherwise generalised as ‘companion’ – if they had the chance to do so. I was lucky that, with the help of Dr. Imma Ramos, I was able to see the paintings in person at the British Museum. Coming face-to-face with them, I could feel the unspoken devotion, from uns (infatuation) to akidat (reverence) between these women practically leaking out of the portraits. I wanted to explore queer intimacy that might have been erased through the preservation of these portraits in a colonial, heteronormative archive.

There is a lot of research done into how heteronormativity was (re)enforced and legitimised as a direct product of British colonialism. This is not to say Indian society was entirely unproblematic before, but through leaving legal precedent, colonial legacy legitimised and cemented the erasure of queerness. The residue of this queer erasure is present even today, when being South Asian and being queer are often considered mutually exclusive identity categorisations.

Writing these, as a queer person, helped unlock a great reservoir in myself. Often, I have read queer poems at a distance, feeling displaced from language. Many times, I have said I do not know the word for queer in Urdu or Hindi. Here, I have embraced these lacunae, attempted a language of the body.

I want these poems to serve as a speaking back into existence, into joy, into tenderness. I want them to serve as celebrations of heart, to sing how they might have embodied transcendent states of love. It is not that they did not have voice, it is that you have not listened.

Prerana Kumar




            HAM• RAAZ



He chooses ivy brocade for the portrait,
cement of bodily contentment and such stillness:

                 there is a gold thread arcing in the sky
                 Sitting cross-legged, her feet are exposed
                 are bordered with wet alta, are crowned
                 with anklets, the trees are little navels
                 in second bloom, the clouds in this sky
                 separate in anxious fingers

The things we do as he asks –
be so still and sit opposite
each other on a red (khoon)
cushion on a navy (behar)
shawl, on which also, our hands
visible and carefully placed
necks propped as young bark
we can only gaze at what is closest
to the other’s body

                  the bank darkens into moss carpet
                  behind me, mouths of watery ink
                  seething beside you

The names he gives us as he sketches,
and there are many, moist in his mouth,
those well-chewed betel leaves-
friend – attendant – companion

spread their cuttings into another book,
tendril into another country/century

                  ham•raaz – our secret
                  (ham•dard – our pain) 

What does he know of my shaking ankles,
the constant snarling of these rusted bells?

What can he make of the chalice I have placed
between us, that it is an engorged tongue,
that with it I always fed you
only the darkest honey

What can he know of my restful mouth?
That I have already ruptured, vivid
sunrise; no sound
and all the heat




the concealed neck of it, behind the hammam,
nuzzled with calla lily lids, and laid in a spiral,
so only you would know to find
its heart; lapping ropes of dark marble
and between them the palm of a niloufar
spread wide for a cheek
of the moon

rustle up your skirt, run the trail
from the heaps of barhi dates, past the mint-scented
snakes of hookah, then, if at this moment,
you must keep from calling for me, bite
into the flank of rubies I have gathered you,
bloodhard pit between your teeth and proceed

past the claims of coloured glass,
here is the melonseller, the cobra charmer,
here the women bent over
sandalwood candles,
their hair tangled in the rare
ivy of sukoon

sidle into the sleight of sandstone alley
behind the misted veil of zari and then
you may run towards where I draw impatient
breath, though most times, I do not know
which entrance you have slipped in from

and hours are spent letting the air
curl around your hesitant tongue, clumsy
with prying apart the untouched cluster

of my name, desiccated by the whips
of wind, Jahan – I hear in the labyrinth,
once shivering, the tip of a bulbul’s grace
scattering with the breeze

and I am left alone with the world




I have been steady, all court, in the face of artifice,
but with you, I have giggled in this bathwater

You, curly-haired eel, spilling its playful reels
of iris ink, and so deceitfully
nested, bursting in moments,
such a hook of branches!

Between us is only the warm mercy of lilac, a cluster
of cinnamon stick, chandan, lemongrass

We do not speak of the grain of perfume,
dripped carefully, between our chests
like an unfinished, treacherous pearl

What lifts off me when I look
into that oily mirror,
the stalk of a third body in heat,
and silent

to hear you in this slow cocoon-
your lingering laugh a whorl of lotus
stripping by petal in the air

Please, laugh once more. Again,
let me lace my robes with it
so I may feel those rogue
sepals of thread
scratch into my shallow sleep

The language of flowers can be a slow rot
of what I must face in my bed, but still

what use is it to whisper which wind
parts the wilful bush in my chest

You will not rest your head here
after the last drop has drained away



ATTENDANT SWALLOWS WORD FOR DESIRE                                              

The woven shutter of mehfil lifts, reveals scene of this cloth,
a gold ornament between our folded feet, a soft spoken clot

what is the word for coiled flower, for [      ], liquour
forgets my mouth, spreads to relieve your knotted cloth

in absence of tongue, I name you Sparrowsong, flickering
bead of oil, I name you  [            ] rising in soaked wickcloth

here is the match in your lavender palms, hissing strike, flame
unfurling its neck, your beckoning, I set down my hot veilcloth

gauze loosens from your waist at my [     ] curls toward
my body’s lamp, candles with blood of your flesh cloth

I reach through the smoke, the eyes of  [            ],  praying
reham take me instead, make my skin this light’s vessel cloth

there were flames for hours, my skirt an embered twirling- sabr,
Jahan Aara, I have become sootsmear to save our bodies



About Prerana Kumar


Read  Fahad Al-Amoudi   Lydia Hounat

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