Visual arts

Debashish Paul, artist in residency at the Cité international des arts

As an artist, I don’t want to define myself with a particular gender or a particular type of body. My internal body has no boundaries; it transcends gender.

Debashish Paul is an Indian artist known for his unique performance style, which involves elaborately designed attire. His work revolves around gender and identity and incorporates multiple mediums, including drawing, sculpture, craft and even dance. He is currently in Paris as part of the residency programme of the Institut français at the Cité Internationale des Arts and tells us more about his research. 

Updated on 25/07/2023

5 min

Debashish Paul
© DR

Your work focuses on the problems of queer identity in a society dominated by heterosexual norms. How and why did this become your primary theme? 

I have to go back to my childhood to explain this. My friends and people around me teased me about my effeminate appearance and manners. This was very painful, and I started hating myself and spending time alone. During that time, I made up my imaginary world where I started making and playing with dolls; I made clothes for them and adorned them with necklaces with flowers. My pain was a constant motivation to find an inner voice. Perhaps that was the start of my journey to feel comfortable with who I am. My sisters would make up their faces and dress up. I copied them and sometimes dressed like a woman. I liked those things. My village has many weavers who make beautiful saris (a traditional garment in India). I felt that these colours made my internal body more colourful. 

Since then, as I started my artistic journey, I have spent a lot of time with nature to understand who I am and overcome the guilt deeply embedded in me about my gay/queer identity. Now I see the body and nature as connected. I tell my story through my art. Art, for me, is a journey of freedom. 


What has been the response to your work in your home country? 

Artists and art lovers understand the pain around queer identity. In art, it is much easier to talk about and express my individuality. While the art world accepts it, Indian society as a whole does not. My family still do not know about my identity. I cannot come out to my family because, in my village, the queer community is not accepted. 

My art helped me to come out to my curator three years ago when I was doing my Masters. She helped me a lot and gave me the strength to identify myself. 


You have recently started using gender-neutral sculptural costumes in your work. Could you tell us the concepts behind this? 

When I started working with costumes, the magic of fashion helped me to hide the body that made me uncomfortable and that society didn’t accept. The costumes are a medium that allows me to reveal my internal desires and self. As an artist, I don’t want to define myself as a particular gender with a specific body type. My inner body has no boundaries; it transcends gender. It transforms according to my emotions. 

I performed at the Dutch Warehouse in Kochi, where the river meets the sea. From my childhood, the river Ganges has accompanied me. It passes through my village. The flowing of the river gives meaning to my internal body making it more fluid and giving me a sense of freedom. The costumes are usually adapted to the specific site/place I am in. 

Debashish Paul
Personne Citée
Debashish Paul
When I perform, the most challenging part is engaging with the audience and making us all one collective body.

For your new project - ‘Kas’ – To Shine/ Enlightenment’ – you will be bringing together the cities of Varanasi and Paris and their two rivers, the Ganges and the Seine. Could you tell us what inspired the project? 

There are lots of similarities between Varanasi and Paris. Both cities grew up around a river. Like Paris, Varanasi is a very cultural place. People go there to enjoy many different forms of entertainment and knowledge. Varnasai and Paris are both called ‘the city of light.’ Through my body and emotions, I think I can connect with both cities. A lot of culture and philosophy originated in Paris. I believe this knowledge will help me find enlightenment. It is more than an art project. It will help me to get to know myself better, and my artistic practice will help me achieve enlightenment, which according to Hindu philosophy, is the ultimate journey. 

Hindu pilgrims go to Varanasi for enlightenment. It is known for music, classical dance and literature. Its mythology also inspired me. Most Hindus believe in the deity Shiva. One of his roopa (manifestation) is the Ardhanarishvara (which means half male and half female). In this, Shiva is depicted as half-male and half-female, equally, split down the middle. The right half is usually the male Shiva, and the other half is the female Parvati. Ardhanarishvara represents the synthesis and inseparability of the masculine and feminine energies of the universe. This mythology dramatically inspires me. We are both male and female in our internal self. 

I hope visitors will be able to connect to the spirituality. When I perform, the most challenging part is engaging with the audience and making us all one collective body. My recent body will carry Varanasi, and my present body will carry memories from Paris. Through my body, I want to present the two cities as one. 


As a winner of the Prix Pair, awarded by the Prameya Art Foundation and the Institut français in India, you benefit from a 3-month residency in Paris. You are hosted as part of the residency programme of the Institut français at the Cité Internationale des Arts. How will the residency help you in your research? 

There is so much culture and so many museums in Paris. There will also be a lot of different artists at the Cité Internationale des Arts. I will learn from all this, which will help me in my practice. I want to see how my body will react to a new country. During the residency, I want to develop my new character or characters. I create new characters for all my projects, and I want to see how this new environment and culture will inspire me to do this. 

I also look forward to meeting artists, thinkers, art lovers and other cultural figures and exchanging thoughts with them. This is my first journey outside my country, and I know this will be extremely special to me. 

Debashish Paul - "Me with my pet"
© DR
Debashish Paul - "Me with my pet"

You are known for working across multiple mediums. What form will ‘Kas’ take? 

The different mediums – photographs, videos, costumes - are all tools to help me tell my story. These come together to make a singular whole. I will use all these mediums during my residency, but I do not know what form it will take. I am curious to learn new things. I will create my costume according to my surroundings and compliment it with other mediums. 


What are your plans for the future after this residency? 

I have no plans at present. I don’t like to make plans far into the future; I prefer things to develop organically. Different situations always help me to expand my knowledge, and then I think about how it will help my next project. What I create in Paris will help in the future. 

L'institut français, LAB