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Transwomen tell their stories through fashion

Ahead of International Transgender Day of Visibility, creative directors of Varanasi-based label Shanti Banaras talk about their latest campaign that documents the lives of eight transwomen

Sujithra, who's part of the campaign, is Tamil Nadu's first radio jockey and a criminology student.
Sujithra, who's part of the campaign, is Tamil Nadu's first radio jockey and a criminology student. (Courtesy Shanti Banaras)

Fashion can a powerful tool to raise awareness. Both Amrit and Khushi Shah, creative directors of Varanasi-based label Shanti Banaras, known for its rich Banarasi saris, understand this well.

That's why their latest campaign is Akathya ("inexplicable" in Sanskrit) is a photo essay, where eight trans women narrate their own life stories. There's classical dancer Razia, who's also a history student; make-up artiste Sara; dancer-chef Shobhana; homemaker Vinita; tech professional Yamini; activist Taslima; radio jockey Sujithra; and autorickshaw driver Anushya—all decked in rich saris named after them.

We spoke with the brother-sister duo about the idea and aim behind Akathya and the role fashion plays in bringing societal change. Edited excerpts:

What's the story behind 'Akathya'?

The whole ideation started with my (Amrit) mother-in-law who's a social worker and works on the upliftment of the transgender community. She would feel bad if I just call them that; they are her close friends. So when we designed our new collection of verticals, which is about making oneself feel present in an otherwise neglected world, we thought of the community. They are fighting every day to make themselves feel present in society. My mother-in-law works to provide them a platform to showcase their talents to the world and we decided to pitch in.

Our idea is to bring forward a sense of confidence in oneself and be proud for what we are. It’s to bring transparency in society where we are not judged by our birth or status or colour but for the innate talent we possess.

Each saree is named after the wearer.
Each saree is named after the wearer. (Courtesy Shanti Banaras )

All the saris in the collection are bold in colours. Any particular reason?

The sarees are a projection of boldness and strength. They are very strong vertical lines that portray a sense of being present and cannot be missed by the world. It is an antonym to subtlety and being hidden under the shadow of any design. The colours support our intent in being loud and clear. We also tried to level our colours very near to the multicolour flag of the LGBTQAI+ community. For this part of the campaign, we have only used silk fabrics to give it the glaze and shimmer which the thought requires.

What do you want viewers to take away from this campaign?

We want everyone to look at every transgender with a new piece of eye and not to judge them for how they are born but how hard they have worked to be successful. It is a call for participation rather than a thought to take-away. This is not a pity-asking campaign; it is an opportunity for both us and the transgender community to jointly work on this endeavour for a fresh look.

Fashion industry is often called out for tokenism. Your thoughts?

Well true that is for the people who don’t know the subjects in focus and are using strong emotional sentiment to uplift themselves. In our case, it’s a different sense since we, as a family, have known them closely. The idea is not to use their sorrows to uplift our campaign, but give a platform.

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