After years of struggle and endless debates, the Supreme Court of India in 2014 legally recognised the transgender community as the third gender. It was a major step for a country that has long been unaccepting of diverse sexual identities that exist in society.
With minimal interaction and little to do with the general ‘normal’ populace, transgenders often live alienated lives. “We don’t see anyone coming back,” commented a transgender woman, in reference to the work that NGOs do to aid the community, to Poornima Sukumar at the Aravani Art Project event that took place on Sunday near the K.R. Market in Bengaluru. With a BFA in painting from the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath, Poornima is an artist who first interacted with the local transgender community while working on a documentary with a London-based filmmaker. She told us that being the primary communicator and translator between the director and the community members she soon developed a strong friendship with them over their meetings and interactions. She would visit their homes and met their families. Interacting with the transgender community in close quarters, Poornima saw what life for them was like. “Their life was mundane, not even mundane...I can’t find the right word for it. They try to find happiness in the littlest of things; organise meet-ups, dance, wear sarees….the little pleasures.” For Poornima, their relationship wasn’t one of tokenism and as the last leg of the shoot began in November, she says, she felt guilty for just leaving and not doing something for them. “I decided I wanted to do something in the only way that I could -- art”
Poornima launched the Aravani Art Project with the intention of integrating the transgender community into mainstream society through art. Project 001 consisted of painting a mural on a wall in a bustling market, it kicked off on Sunday as a part of the larger art project. It brought members of the transgender and art community together to paint, create, interact and open up a platform to discuss and exchange stories. Members of Indian society from different communities came together to paint a beautiful mural on a dilapidated wall on the busy streets of Bengaluru. “They may not be so connected to art, but it’s a start...they said it’s relaxing with big smiles which was exactly what I wanted.”
“The reception was beautiful,” comments Poornima on Sunday’s event, further adding, “I have no words to properly explain it, everyone was overwhelmed by the experience. The Aravanis would tell me that people come and tell us they’re going to work with us but we don’t see anyone coming back….they were really moved. There were about fifteen to eighteen transgender people and after we were finished they were just clapping for almost an entire minute and blessing everyone.”
“The project aims to use art as a means of expression for the Hijra or Aravani community. I feel this provides a platform for the Aravanis to share their stories and experiences through creative arts,” says Abhishek Choudhury, one of the artists who was part of the project. As friends and colleagues, the two artists have worked on several mural and street art projects together. “She shared with me her idea about the Aravani Project and I was really excited to help her out.” Other artists who collaborated on the project are Sadhna Prasad, Anita Isola, Deepak Ramola and Sharanya Ramprakash. “The wall mural was a brilliant way to kickstart the project; the painting of a derelict wall in the busy and hectic streets of K.R. Market initiated a dialogue between the Aravanis and curious bystanders. The wall painting aimed at the much deserved inclusion of the Aravanis into mainstream society.”
With several more projects planned, the wall art installation is just the beginning. Another initiative launched by Poornima, along with her best friend, titled Embrace Impermanence involves the collection of glass bottles which are recycled, cleaned and hand-painted, then kept at various cafes, such as The Rogue Elephant, free of charge. With a lot of transgender people depending on sex work and begging to make ends meet, Poornima wished to start something that would provide them with other opportunities to earn a living. Her painted glass bottles were highly admired. “An agency sourcing gifts for a corporate has asked for 1,000 painted glass bottles, paying Rs. 100 per bottle. We plan to include four transgender people in the painting.” In this, they have an alternative method to earn Rs. 5,000. Wooden corks are bought to plug the bottles for Rs. 4 apiece from a local man belonging to a low income group. Being an artist in development and on a professional journey of her own, Poornima says she’s in no position to have them as interns but tries to make as many work opportunities as she can available to the transgender community. “They can earn with me,” she says.
You can see the Aravani Art Project community in action as they paint the wall mural for Project 001 in the images posted below, courtesy Poornima Sukumar. Follow their Facebook page for more news and updates on their work.
Words: Sara Hussain