On the last Sunday of January, a motley crew gathered at a recently renovated house in Kolkata’s Jadavpur area. At first sight, you might have dismissed it as just another house party. But this wasn’t any ordinary party. It was Queer Evening, an evening for members of the LGBTQ community to meet, greet and eat together.
Amra Odbhuth is a one-of-its-kind café in Kolkata, arguably in all of India, that gives the city’s queer community a space for creativity and fun.
Operational in a renovated family home, Amra Odbhuth is the brainchild of a group of friends looking for a queer-friendly place. Leading the pack are Upasana, a queer activist and artist who organises Take Back the Night, Kolkata, and Nandini Moitra, a queer activist and artist.
They are joined by Raina Roy, a veteran trans activist and one of the co-founders of Samabhabona (an organisation working to empower the grassroot LGBTQ community), where Upasana and Nandini also work, and Pritam Bhaumik, an academic, writer, and secret artist. There’s also 17-year-old Abhimanyu who handles all the difficult, not so fun aspects of managing the space.
Around April 2016, the group was on a quest for spaces that were open to queer readings and performances. Upasana says, “For a while we discussed it and wrote to a few cafes. They were interested but wanted to view the performance to determine whether it met their standards. We thought this might lead to censorship, and externally imposed ideas of good and bad.
We wanted a space where LGBTQ folk felt comfortable being themselves and being free without looking for approval and having to meet ideas of acceptability, etc.”
During a frantic search for the right space, Nandini suggested using an old family home on Ibrahimpur Road (a residential part of Jadavpur, close to Jadavpur University). The friends agreed and immediately began work on the repairs. With limited time and resources, they did everything themselves, starting from decor and cooking to repairs and accounting.
“We scraped off cement splattered walls, painted them ourselves as much as we could before seeking professional help. Since we are all students and technically not soundly employed, monetarily it was difficult. We’ve put our life savings into this because it wasn’t just the décor. We had to arrange for a fridge, an oven, gas and stove among many other things. All of us divided our duties, did what we did best individually.
We definitely think time was a challenge, but we did an okay job.”
Amra Odbhuth opened its doors in January this year, with fairy lights, posters and murals done by the team, and a full-house party. The cafe currently remains open only for about three events, as the founders manage the space along with their jobs.
Regular events at the cafe include performances, film screenings, and showcasing queer artists, entrepreneurs and performers. Nandini, who is also a talented cook, leads the kitchen with delectable recipes. The team is still exploring its options, and want to have evenings dedicated to drag performances in the future.
One of the main aims of the space is to reach out to more members of the queer community in and around Kolkata.
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“We are located in a rather youth-centric space in Kolkata, of course we are not aiming just at young people either,” says the team. “There is a very vast community and we want their voices to be heard too. We feel that so far we have experienced larger non cis male presence than most other LGTBQ spaces in Kolkata, barring Trans and Lesbian Organisations which have separate events.”
In keeping with their inclusive approach, the team opted for a Bengali name for the cafe. Amra Odbhuth translates to “we are queer,” a phrase from Rabindranath Tagore’s famous play Taasher Desh (Kingdom of Cards).
The team is optimistic that their hopes of making the space a platform for the quieter voices will happen organically. Till then, the team reaches out to people via social media and word of mouth.
Situated in a residential area, Amra Odbhuth Cafe is open to anyone, as long as they are kind and empathetic. Bigotry is not welcome here. The team is firm about not having anyone who might risk the safety of the LGBTQ folks who come to this space to feel free.
Not unlike other cities, the queer community in Kolkata isn’t always accepted with open arms. While pride marches and success stories emerge once in a while, the community is also subject to harassment and exploitation.
In the midst of a complex, difficult situation, Amra Odbhuth offers a space for the community to let their hair down and engage with each other.
“We want to think of this as a space for queer artists, designers, communities that exist in the districts surrounding Kolkata as a space to showcase and sell their work and gain maximum profit without being exploited,” says Upasana.
“We are also thinking of this as a space for LGBTQ persons to work from when they want to get away from home and a collective of LGBTQ and feminist artists who believe in trying alternative forms of art and engaging with relevant political, personal issues.”
The team wants to start books and film clubs, as well as a queer library. “We want to eventually translate some of the material available in English to Bangla and have a multilingual publication,” says the team. “But these are very long term plans, we are still learning to deal with one goal at a time.”
With an ambitious plan in the works, the team is now engaged in their next event, a Valentine’s Day special, fund-raising and outreach. The team says, “We have quite a few helping hands but we would definitely like the word to be spread among LGBTQ people living all over Kolkata who might not have access to the larger masses of the community.”
So the next time you are in the City of Joy, drop by Amra Odbhuth for a not-so-usual perspective on the city. And remember, be kind!