Cutting the phallus and destroying binaries: Transgender activist Kalki's battle through art

Actor, author, artist and activist - Kalki shares with us her journey from the time she was born as Sabari into her family
Cutting the phallus and destroying binaries: Transgender activist Kalki's battle through art
Cutting the phallus and destroying binaries: Transgender activist Kalki's battle through art

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Penning ‘Kuri Aruthean’ (Phallus, I cut), her first collection of poetry, was not just a literary effort for gender activist Kalki Subramaniam, but a literal outpouring of all that she had to undergo in her transition from man to woman.

To quote from her eponymous poem:

“Cut the phallus

of your chauvinism,


you will know

who you are.

And then,

only then,

you tell me


I am not a woman.”

Catching up at her maiden ongoing painting exhibition at Alliance Français in Thiruvananthapuram, the NDTV Woman of Worth award-nominee comes across as a warm human being with an attractive smile that leaves sparkles in her eyes, long after the moment of laughter has passed.

Kalki shares with us her journey from the time she was born as Sabari into her family, which luckily for her has been immensely supportive of the life-choices that she made for herself.

“Of course there was the initial shock and confusion that emanates from a conservative thought-process usually associated with traditional families. But later, all of them simply accepted me for who I am. My mother, sisters, even my brothers-in-law who have been a constant source of strength and support,” Kalki says, smilingly. Her father passed away when she was a teenager.

Kalki plays coy when asked about her birthday and simply prefers to offer a vague reply as some time in the 1970s. Born as a boy in Pollachi, she always loved her feminine side, but came to conscious terms with it only in her adolescence.

A request for sex reassignment surgery when at the cusp of teenage however left her mother shattered and had her even doing a stint at Christian Medical College Vellore Mental Health Centre.

“The doctors there were surprisingly very understanding and for the first time in my life, I felt as if I was not being judged for who I was,” she recalls.

It was at the health centre that she decided her family would have no cause for embarrassment because of her. Hailing from a well-to-do middle class background, her transformation from Sabari to Kalki was complete by 2008, but it was not all about sex and gender alone.

As she puts it, “Yes, I am transsexual, but that is not a holistic definition of who I am. I promised myself that I would make my family proud of me.” With an MA in Journalism & Mass Communication and another in International Relations, Kalki is an entrepreneur, writer, actor, artist and motivational speaker rolled into one.

She is very active on social media and uses Facebook as an online platform to work for the development of her community. She is also the founder of Sahodari Foundation, established in 2008, which works for the civil and legal rights of transgender, intersex and non-binary gendered people.

A vociferous campaigner for bestowing legal status to the third sex in India, Kalki considers the Supreme Court’s verdict in their favour as a huge landmark and the first step to integrating her community into the mainstream society.

Shuttling between Pollachi, Coimbatore, Auroville in Puducherry and Chennai, Kalki believes that it was in Chennai that she actually bloomed fully into a woman.

Responding to her choice of name, she elaborates: “Kalki, the tenth and final reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu is a destroyer of evil. I identify with that and the name is a tribute to my own bold and fearless nature.”

Her poetry captures not just her own angst but that of other members of her community, who have been psychologically mauled by a callous society and left emotionally and mentally scarred for life.

In her poem ‘A Mutilated Vagina named Eelam’, she grieves:

“…the agony and scars

of my Tamil race

are buried in my

withered and mutilated


Even her paintings reflect the gender fluidity she identifies with. Titled ‘Love beyond Gender’, ‘The Rainbow Queen’ and ‘Free Spirit’ epitomized by a horse, to name a few, her works of art reveals Kalki’s preference for a unisex approach to life rather than conform to a conventional male-female outlook as prescribed by societal norms, “I am someone who loves to celebrate life and not just get tied down to a mere mundane existence on earth.”

Kalki has also had the honour of being invited by the U.S government in 2010 to participate in a Human Rights Activism & Awareness programme held under their aegis.

She made her acting debut with ‘Narthaki’, a movie which detailed the journey of a transsexual woman in India.

Each day of Kalki’s life is hence a living tribute to herself to celebrate who she really is deep within - someone unique, someone who has carved out a living space in a niche of her very own making.

(All photos by Anne Line Siegler)

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