I was invited to Devanapattinam, Tamil Nadu, India to photograph a celebration of the Mayanakollai festival. The festival, to celebrate the deity Angalamman, was put on by a group of Kothis. Working in India, where I lived for almost three years, I was always struggling to capture the extraordinary visual experiences of the country without falling back on cliché or kitsch.
The most fascinating thing about spending time in this community was how within the structure of religion, everything was embraced. At one point some of the performers were teased by a group of drunk boys, and though they were upset, they told us that they would have been far more vulnerable to taunts had they been "actual" women."
Scroll on to see the fruits of her labour:
"Much of it was a matter of letting go and looking for a beautiful moment to unfold."
The term “Kothi” describes a wide swath of identities and relationships, including “married fathers who have male lovers, people born male who wear female dress and male-born people who wear traditional women’s clothing only during religious festivals or celebrations”
"There was a goat sacrifice and an "Indian Dracula." There was a simulated fight over the soul of a baby that involved the destruction of a huge effigy of a man constructed out of sand and placing flowers on the graves of the dead."
A goat being prepared for sacrifice during the Mayanakollai festival in the village of Devanapattinam. The Mayankakolli festival celebrates the deity Angalamman.
"That surreal scene provided a backdrop to a dressed up chase through the village cemetery at dusk."
One of the community member's, Sheetal, does Puja on her 1st birthday.
"My goal during it all was to somehow absorb the exoticism of the event - while trying not to rely on or exploit that exoticism."
Mohana, preparing to play the Goddess Kali at the Mayanakollai festival in the village of Devenappatinam.
"Because "kothis" are often treated as other, or forced to be outsiders, it became even more important to try to show the nuances."
Sheethal smokes a cigarette in her apartment in Pondicherry. Sheethal acts as a guru to many of the younger kothis in this community who refer to her as their mother.
“Some Kothi are quietly battling with their families about the expectation that they will soon marry and have children, while others are completely estranged from their families as a result of their gender identity expression."
Jagada Guru, whose Kothi name is Arundhati, sits with his two children.
"Even as traditional culture allows small spaces for Kothis, they are inevitably forced to be outsiders – something that the debate over the ruling re-criminalizing homosexual sex brings into sharp focus.”
A group of people, including several kothis prepare food at Sivagami’s house. For many of the kothis, who live with their families, being able to prepare and serve food – considered to be “women’s work” is a way for them to express part of their female identity.
"The idea was to make pictures beautiful and quiet, while also showing humanity in the people."
Two daughters of Sheethal get ready for a function celebrating Sheethal’s first birthday — marking one year after her gender-reassignment surgery.
[Candace Feit lives in Johannesburg, and has been working as a photojournalist since 2004, first based in Senegal and later India. For the past several years, she has embraced other genres of photography to move beyond short stories and into a deeper narrative of people and their relationships with their environment and with the objects around them. She uses 120mm film as a way to slow down the constant shutter click and interact differently with the people she photographs. You can explore more of her work and purchase her photographs here.]