'We are capable of much more than beggary and sex work.'

Families accept rapists murderers why not us Notes on transgender lives and art
Flix Monday, May 02, 2016 - 14:12

“Her name was Husna and she lived in Dharavi. She used to be a dancer, but then that became illegal. So she started begging.” 

For Purnima Sukumar, founder of the Aravani Art Project, hearing stories of persons like Husna first brought transgender issues into prominence. And then there was a refrain she often heard from transgender subjects: “When we spoke to them, they said that there had been many like us – who came and shot films, took interviews, became famous and forgot about them. I didn’t want to be one of them,” she says. 

And so, Purnima began the Project on January 3, 2016, aiming to create awareness about transgender issues through art. Currently, the Project is painting a series of public murals in KR Market as a way of integrating transgender issues with public art.

On Saturday evening, the Aravani Art Project collaborated with Dramanon Bangalore for a talk and a play on transgenderism and gender fluidity at Shoonya Center for Art and Somatic Practices. 

Ahead of the event, Purnima juggles between ironing clothes for the drama team and taking calls as she talks. She is awaiting Priyanka, India’s first transgender radio jockey and a trans-activist, who is hosting the talk. After directing Priyanka to the building, Purnima goes on to explain the sort of basic niceties that are denied to transgender persons. 

“Anywhere they go, they are not included. They have to stand outside. ‘What is your name?’, ‘how are you?’ – they aren’t even asked this much.” 

It’s this exclusion that Purnima wants to do away with, and it is why she has chosen the medium of art. She explains that unlike other organizations which work within these communities, she wants to bridge the distance between those within and outside these communities. “How can they be in the mainstream if they keep working within the same circles?” she asks. “During one of our projects, the trans-persons I am working with had their backs painted too; and they understood that they are a part of the painting, not outside it.” 

As Priyanka arrives to join the conversation, Purnima talks about the kind of reactions she has gotten while painting walls with members of the third sex. 

“Generally, people don’t talk to me when I’m with them because they are scared. But sometimes, they are curious and they’ll approach us. Some of them have even asked us to come and paint their walls. But as soon as we say that we will charge a fee, people have second thoughts.” 

Priyanka joins in at this point and says that while her family has been supportive of her sexual identity, others are less fortunate. “There are families who have accepted even rapists and murderers. We on the other hand have not done anything wrong. We are born this way, so why can’t you accept us?” she challenges. 

“If the family itself doesn’t accept us then how will the world? What right does the world have to call us names? Chakka, hijra… Are we only to be used for begging and sex?” she asks.

From left: Purushi, Purnima, Prakash and RJ Priyanka 

These stereotypes generated about transgender persons are all too pervasive. “One time I was at the Sangama office (an NGO working for the rights of sexuality minorities), in KR Market, when a man just came up into the building thinking it was a brothel. All because he saw transgender persons outside,” recounts Purnima. 

“We are capable of much more. Even in films, they just get men to play our roles. If they actually took people from our community, they would know what we are really like,” says Priyanka. 

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