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Colour purple

Dignity comes in many shades for this group of transgender women, thanks to the Aravani Art Project

(From left) Sanjeevani, Vicky and Sarita from the Aravani Art Project at Dharavi, Mumbai. Photo: Ankur Jadhav
(From left) Sanjeevani, Vicky and Sarita from the Aravani Art Project at Dharavi, Mumbai. Photo: Ankur Jadhav

Today, a few members of the transgender community will take over a wall in Dharavi, a slum cluster in the heart of Mumbai, and transform it into a riot of colours, as part of the month-long festivities leading up to the Mumbai Pride on 28 January. The cisgender woman responsible for this is Poornima Sukumar, who initiated the Aravani Art Project exactly a year ago in home-base Bengaluru.

The 29-year-old calls herself an accidental artist. “I was walking past the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath one day and decided to apply," she says. She has since used her art to create awareness and drive the message of inclusivity. “With walls, the scope for interaction and inclusion is so much more than a canvas in an art gallery. That is what I love about creating art in public spaces—art is for everybody, after all," says Sukumar, who has been painting on walls, including the walls of schools and homeless shelters,since 2012. Last October, the Aravani Art Project collaborated with St+Art for the annual street art festival, and painted a wall near the railway underpass at Majestic, in Bengaluru.

The project’s first experiment happened in January 2016 at Bengaluru’s crowded KR Market, where Sukumar, together with 15 transgender women (also known as Aravani in Tamil), painted one of the walls at the office of Sangama, a non-governmental organization that works for the rights of sexual minorities. The act of painting turned performative as members of the group painted parts of their own bodies in a continuum to the painting on the wall. “The theme," says Sukumar, “was inclusion." And the visual continuity between the wall and the body of the transgender artist proffered a tangible instance of this.

Sukumar hopes to expand her project and build her network in more places. “I hope to open people to the community and introduce them to the concept of gender fluidity," she says. According to her, art is the best tool to foster this social transformation simply because “it doesn’t have too many barriers, puts people at ease and reaches out to more people".

For Sukumar, the Aravani Art Project is a way to direct the gaze of mainstream society towards the transgender community, which is surrounded by many myths—and considerable social inequality.

Every summer, the tiny village of Koovagam, in Tamil Nadu’s Viluppuram district, sees a gathering of Aravanis, in keeping with an ancient ritual. Legend has it that the victory of the Pandavas in the Mahabharat came at a price—the life of Aravan, the bastard son of Arjun, one of the five Pandava brothers. Before offering himself up to die, Aravan wanted to marry. Knowing that it was unlikely any woman would marry a man destined to die the next day, Lord Krishna transformed himself into a woman, Mohini, and married the young man.

Poornima Sukumar at Bengaluru’s Majestic railway underpass wall. Photo: Hemant Mishra

Members of the transgender community who attend this festival—held at the Koothandavar temple dedicated to Aravan—mimic this narrative. “They all get decked up as brides and marry Lord Aravan at this festival," explains Sukumar, who first attended the festival while working on a documentary project with a London-based film-maker. The wedding festivities, which could include a passionate first night with local men, are cut short the next day, when widowhood is thrust upon these Aravanis. “They wear white saris and break their bangles," says Sukumar, admitting that the three-and-a-half years spent working on the film opened her eyes to a community she had known very little about till then.

“While the stories culled out of the community may have benefited these people, very little has changed for the community itself," says Sukumar. They still remain cut off from the mainstream, mostly eking out a living through begging or prostitution. “I found it extremely unnerving that they were completely excluded from nearly everything simply because of their gender," she says.

“I wanted people to look at them as human beings," says Sukumar.

Priyanka, a transgender woman from Bengaluru who uses only one name, has been part of the Aravani Art Project. “It is the first project that really includes us." It has helped her make genuine friends, she adds. “Our lives are mundane and lack so much humanity—this project is a breath of fresh air and so colourful," she says.

Nisha Gular, a transgender woman activist from Bengaluru, says that while the project has made the community feel more empowered, “it needs to reach out to more communities around the world.... It is important to see how social impact can be made both creatively and effectively."

The Aravani Art Project and The Humsafar Trust will paint a wall near the Kamraj School in Dharavi, from 10am-4pm, today. For more details, visit events/371683216527357

It’s pride month

Highlights from the Mumbai Pride calendar

14 January

10.30am: Queer Lit Live organized by Saathi, a queer support group at IIT, Bombay.

15 January

3pm: Games on Juhu Beach, organized by queer youth group Yaariyan.

21 January

11am: Best of Kashish, by the Kashish Arts Foundation, at the Godrej India Culture Lab.

22 January

4pm: Poster-making for the pride march organized by the Gay And Lesbian Vaishnava Association at Beach Garden, Juhu.

26 January

6pm: Colours Of Love, a dance performance by Dancing Queens, at Anti Social, Khar (West).

28 January

3pm: Pride march starting at the August Kranti Maidan.

7pm: Party at Upstairs Studio, Tardeo.

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