“I have gained more respect as an artist than as a transgender woman. But I hope there is a day when transgender people are given the same respect that the other two genders get,” says Rajyotsava awardee Manjamma Joguti, a folk artist from Karnataka.
The Karnataka government recently chose Manjamma for the Karnataka Janapada Academy’s Loka Nage Gowda award, to be conferred next year. She is a Joguti, a transgender woman considered to be possessed by Goddess Yellamma.
Fifty-two-year-old Manjamma is the one of the few transgender persons in the state to have been conferred awards in the field of art and probably the youngest to have won so many of them. She excels in theatre, Karakatta dance and Chaudaki songs. She is a part of a 11-member troupe called Sri Renuka Joguti Kala Tanda in Ballari. All the 11 in the team were trained under her. she also teaches her disciples theatre where they perform both male, female and gender fluid characters.
Her journey into art was an unexpected one. “It came to a point when I was left with nothing to live for. I didn’t pursue art for money, it was my catharsis.”
Watch Manjamma perform with her troupe at an event in Bengaluru. They dance while balancing decorated pots, filled with water, on their head.
Manjamma was born in an Arya Vaishya family in Ballari district and was assigned the male gender at birth. For 20 years she lived as Manjunath Shetty until 1982.
One day, she decided to tell her family that she did not identify with being male. At the time, she had been with a finance company in Ballari for 18 months.
“When I told my parents they themselves took me to Yellama temple and carried out the rituals and poojas. But my family was not okay with me walking around in a saree. They asked me not to do so. My father to objected me speaking to women and men. It was claustrophobic,” she recalls. She wanted out. She consumed poison but fortunately survived and 15 days later, she was stable.
As one problem was tackled, another cropped up. Her neighbours objected to her living in her parents’ house. “I was forced to leave the house so that my parents could live in peace. And since then I’ve longed for the day I could step into that house with respect. And it happened, many years later.”
After leaving home, Manjamma lived in Davangere with her first guru. “His son was a dancer and theatre artist. It once struck me, that when he could play a woman’s role despite being a boy, I could very well do both. I started getting involved in plays, mostly handling props,” she said.
After a year, she moved to Hospete in Ballari to study under Rajyotsava awardee Kalaba Joguti. Kalaba Joguti, Manjamma and Akkai Padmashali are the only three transgender people from Karnataka to get the Rajyotsava award.
“Kalaba taught me acting and music. We would go to many villages and perform. People would watch us and pray to us,” said Manjamma.
Manjamma has the distinction of having performed in every district in Karnataka. Besides acting in mythological roles, Manjamma does acting and singing performances incorporated with social messages.
“The state government asked me to include them as a part of my performance. I first gather crowds through my regular acts and then perform these. I have done on sanitation, polio, and pregnancy etc.,” she says.
She has also played a cameo role as a dancer in the movie “Kuvempu Atmakathe” (Kuvempu’s autobiography). As an afterthought, Manjamma added, “I turned down an offer in the last season of Big Boss as she was unwell.”
Manjamma says that awareness about transgender persons’ rights has been spreading, but more needs to be done.
“The government has recognised my existence. The same way, it must help other transgender persons too. Now Aadhaar card has a transgender option, voters ID too should have it. The government must educate transgender persons. I have studied till Class 10. I can work, but there is stigma. This discrimination will be wiped off only if the government takes an initiative,” she says.