Sunil Mohan, the Open Space Fellow in Bangalore, is a young activist who has gone through a personal political journey and come to terms with his transgressive gender and sexual identity. Sunil works to expand the space for human beings to be who they want to be without being boxed into categories. In the course of his year-long fellowship he is building a video archive of stories of people with transgressive identities in four Southern states. These narratives will be woven into the script of a play that he and his associates will perform in order to reach out to diverse audiences in different cities in South India.
Says Sunil: "I felt the need to create our trans stories, our own histories, and our own experiences, documented by ourselves. Female-to-male trans people especially are invisiblized because we do not have a legitimate history or mythological back-up. Our histories are written by people who may or may not empathize with us and if they are written, we are made to seem exotic.
"It was a close friend who recently asked me if she could document a day in my life from 6 one morning to 6 the next morning. I felt strange about this request. I didn't think I was different from anyone else in this country. I too wake up in my own time, brush my teeth, go for a shower (maybe), do my work, watch TV, play cricket, talk to my girlfriend, talk to my friends, eat lunch, dinner…
"This made me think about what I would document if I had to document the lives of marginalized genders and sexualities. Most of the stories documented only show the facts suppressed, not the negotiations, not the humour used to deal with painful situations, not the assertions, not the triumphs, nor how we cleverly escape from bad situations. All this is what I hope will come across in the stories that follow."
Maraladi: A god's sanction
Maralu is the belief in a kind of possession by a god resulting in the possessed becoming god's wife. It is a process that allows a male with an alternative sexual orientation or one who identifies as female to transition to being a woman with or without surgery.
Mayamma, a friend who is a Maraladi, gave us an interview and talked about her struggle to convince her family and society about being a Maraladi.
Sowmiya: Such a long journey
I met Sowmiya in Chennai when I went to watch the play "Aanmayo Aanmay" directed by Mangai. The play had yet to begin at Spaces, a wonderful threatre in Besant Nagar. We were talking and meeting friends and that's how I came across Sowmiya. We talked, each listening to the other in turn.
I went to Chennai again for the video interviews and Srijith, our friend and theatre director of the group Kattiyakkari, reintroduced Sowmiya to us, 'And this is Sowmiya the Great.' Initially she told us that she was a trained beautician. Later we came to know that she was also an actor and had acted in a few plays.
Talking about her work as a beautician she said because she is transgender many people refuse to avail of her services making it is difficult for her to work in a mainstream beauty parlour. So she began going to people's homes as a beautician. Mangai and a few other friends call her home when they need a beautician but that is not enough for her livelihood. She perseveres and keeps trying to establish herself as a beautician. After she acted in a play called 'Molagapodi' by the Kattiyakkari group, which was staged in many places, people began recognising her and came to know of her work. Now many people call her to avail of beauty services. I wish her all the best in her acting and her career.
Sankari: The support of the aravani community
Naan Oru Chindu is a Tamil film song.... Sankari sang this for us and said that it relates to her life......Every time we go to Tamil Nadu for work, mostly crisis intervention for lesbian or bisexual women and female to male trans people (LBT), she is there and ready to work with us. She is always pleasant, possessing a soothing manner. She has always maintained that the LBT community is not like our Aravani community. There is no support so she is always ready to help in a worst-case scenario. The work that she has done for us cannot be called help; it is a bond of friendship and extension of the feeling of belonging that we share.
Sankari is also a theatre activist and has been part of many plays. She is now working in Nirangal, an organisation working for peoples' rights. Here is another wonderful friend that you can all get to know.
Breaking caste and gender barriers
Ponni and Anjali, friends from the Aravani community in Chennai, struggled against all odds to learn Bharatanatyam and become teachers. They have established a dance school in a working-class area where they are well-respected dance teachers. It is now in its second year. Initially their students were only from their community. Now they count among their students other people from the area, children and more. They have 30 students and earn their livelihood from the school. They also give performances not affiliated with the school and act in plays.
The area they teach in is not affluent. It is a dalit colony where the population comprises of cobblers, vegetable vendors, people who cook food and sell it in more affluent areas and so on. It is these people's children who learn Bharatanatyam from Ponni and Anjali. Both teachers identify as women and neither the students nor the people from the area question this. It's simply amazing to see how Ponni and Anjali have broken the caste restrictions around this traditional dance, making it easily accessible to everyone, even training students to become performers.
Artist, activist, Aravani
I saw Smiley in a play directed by Mangai in Tamil Nadu. It was called 'Anmayo Anmay' (Macho-O-Macho). She was taking part in it along with friends we had in common such as Ponni Arasu. All of us from LesBiT went to watch the play. It was staged in Bangalore and Smiley stayed with Sumathi and me at our house and we had a wonderful time. I told her about the oral history documentation work on LGBTI people that we were doing and she immediately agreed to grant us an interview insisting that we stay at her house. We agreed.
Smiley..... full of smiles yet a most intense and complex person who struggled hard to be what she has wanted to be -- an actor, writer, theatre director, working in films, as an activist and so many other things. Smiley lives in Chennai and is the first in the community to have written an autobiography about the experience of transitioning from male to female.
She is constantly talking, laughing, entertaining and being friendly. Her house immediately identifies her as an activist and artist at the same time. There is a beautiful painting on the mirror in front of her cupboard and photos of Bob Marley everywhere. She is one of the few people who initiated herself into the Aravani community. After living her life on her own terms she set out to explore life independently, something she achieved through theatre.
Before initiating herself into the Aravani community she had completed her post-graduation. After the initiation she followed all the customs of the Aravani community by choice even though very well-educated. She is from a working-class dalit background and has struggled hard to educate herself, going on to even work in a bank. When we said we wanted to do a video interview with her and were looking for a location, she chose Spaces, a theatre in front of the Besant Nagar beach where she has staged plays many times saying that Spaces brings out her most intimate side.
Sowmya: Our strongest support
There was a time in Bangalore when an entire area, a suburb, was the most secure area for most female-to-male trans people and their female identified partners. They had migrated here from all over south India. This was because most of the Hijra and Kothi community lived in that area. Sowmya lived here like a queen and took care of every resident of the community. Being a male to female transperson (a Hijra) she would be the first to attend to any crisis among the people from her community. Every festival was celebrated like a party in her house where she would host all the people from her community, including us. She would flirt with us and at the same time gave us all the care that even our family could not.
Dashing, daring, sexy, Sowmya is a close friend of mine and is a very outspoken person. She is a very articulate public speaker. She was vibrant In a recent public meeting with Karnataka politicians regarding the removal of the Karnataka Police Act 36 (A), lashing out at the Karnataka ruling party for having introduced the law. It was proposed to the government in 2011 while the Karnataka government spoke about trans reservation and giving jobs to trans people in the Karnataka High Court. There were protests against introducing this law in July 2011 but the government ignored them. This law came about from the extremely unconstitutional Hyderabad Eunuch's Act. Now the sexual and gender minorities of Karnataka are organizing themselves strongly to protest against this law and urging its removal. Sowmya is a strong and leading trans activist who is at the forefront of this struggle.
Revathi: Breaking the exploitative rules of the hijra community
Our most interesting interview was the very enjoyable shoot with Revathi (a Hijra and mother to all of us). Revathi mummy is dear to activists and our entire community for many reasons. She is an activist who has struggled beyond belief and she is a person with a lot of love and compassion for not just the Hijra community but all those of us who are sexual minorities. She has also broken many of the violent and exploitative rules of the Hijra community. I had the privilege of working with her at Sangama when she was its Director. She rose from the post of office assistant to that of Director. She was the only working-class person of our community who struggled and subsequently rose to this position.
Mummy is currently researching the life and struggles of female-to-male trans people. She has written two books in Tamil which have been translated into Kannada and English. Her book was published by Penguin publishers. She reclaimed her property in Namakkal (Tamil Nadu) with great effort but in the wake of her mother's death her brother and father are contesting this. She is fighting for it. She is at a crucial stage where she does not expect much and is struggling to live as an independent activist not working in a prominent position at any NGO or CBO. She harbours an ambition to be a writer and an actor.
Where do I belong?
Personally I think every one of us are in endless search of the answer to the question, "Where do I belong ?" When Vit (name changed), voiced this, Sumathi (who was helping me), our camera person Neethu and myself, felt we had just revisited our own lives. In this interview she describes the forcible cutting of her hair and the pain it caused her, the disapproval of her father, and her desire to be accepted by her mother and sister the way she is.
Moments lost, moments gained
Continuing to present my work, I am introducing a friend. This is someone who felt peer pressure to identify himself initially as a female-to-male person but later started defining himself as a 'trans person', one who had shifted from the established constructs of gender. He has the excellent talent of converting a tense situation into a light one and is a gifted actor. He is also a dedicated activist working for the rights of lesbian, bisexual women and female-to-male trans persons as well as other sexual and gender minorities. Additionally, he has composed various powerful scripts for plays and writes poems in Tamil.
I share a strong bond with him and I have been aware of his struggle ever since we met. I wish him lots of luck, peace, and best in life.
Chandni: A passport to acceptance
In my first month of work, I found that activists are the people most ready to grant me interviews and permission to document their lives. One such trans woman is Chandini and this is an excerpt from her interview. Chandini, an activist and poet, has been a good friend of mine for almost 8 years. In this interview she talks about her transition to the female gender, and the importance of getting the government to recognize her identity by issuing her a passport as female, not transgender.