India’s Trans Artists Finally Take Center Stage - OZY | A Modern Media Company
The visibility of trans people in the performing arts translates into confidence and empowerment for the community.
SourcePratik Chorge/Hindustan Times via Getty

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India’s trans community is finally taking center stage in the performing arts.

By Shailaja Tripathi

While directing Nava last year, Sharanya Ramprakash felt challenged like never before. Before co-founding the theater group Dramanon, she had directed and acted in several productions.

Yet all her experience still hadn’t prepared Ramprakash for what was to come. Nava narrates the stories of nine trans women through nine rasas, or emotions. “Trans people go through so much normalized violence,” says Ramprakash. Two days before the show, the team realized that one of the actors wouldn’t be able to perform due to “trying circumstances.”

Normally, the actor would have been replaced. “But in this process, in her absence, there is a story which is as powerful as her not being there,” says Ramprakash. “Not all of us have the privilege of showing up where we want to.”

Nava isn’t an exception. India’s trans community is finally taking center stage in the performing arts, through cultural events, radio shows and growing recognition by cultural bodies.

Even opening up that door a little bit allows for the light to come in.

Joshua Muyiwa, co-founder, Bangalore Queer Film Festival

If Nava questions the conventional performance and whom a stage belongs to, Freedom Begum deals with inclusive spaces of expression, resistance, memories and loss of freedom. The cast, which includes several trans people, is integral to the play, which is about the loss of Begum Mahal, a Bangalore space that once welcomed people irrespective of caste, class and gender.

In 2019, Manjamma Jogati, a well-known performer of the folk art form Jogati Nritya, became the first trans woman to head a cultural institution in the state of Karnataka after she was appointed chairperson of the Karnataka Janapada Academy. Jogati Nritya is a ritual dance performed by Jogappas, a community of transgender people in north Karnataka and in some parts of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, to appease the goddess Yellamma.

This shift comes even as the trans community is challenging the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2019, which was framed without consulting them and has been criticized as ignorant and insensitive on questions of sexual and gender identity. Trans Indians are also protesting the National Register of Citizens and Citizen Amendment Act that could leave them particularly vulnerable. With a majority of trans people having no ties with their families, producing adequate documentation to prove citizenship will be difficult.

Transgender-Revathi-in-Parayan-Maranna-Kadhakal2

A. Revathi (center, in blue) in “Parayan Maranna Kadhakal.”

Source Bavin Lal

Yet amid these challenges, “performance has given us a language and a narrative to talk and change it from sympathy to assertive politics,” says trans rights activist and Hindustani classical musician Rumi Harish, who wrote Freedom Begum.

In every performance, Harish talks about voice, gender and sexuality. The trans queer performer ditches the expected attire of a sari to present a Hindustani classical music concert in shirt and trousers. The positions he articulates in his performances have meant he’s lost several concerts. “But I don’t care,” he says. “I still practice my politics, and every performance I get a chance I still talk about these things.”

Writer, poet and Bangalore Queer Film Festival co-founder Joshua Muyiwa feels that the recognition Manjamma Jogati has received could pave the way for others. “I think anyone’s achievements in any domain always make one of us feel like it is possible, and even opening up that door a little bit allows for the light to come in,” says Muyiwa.

To some, like RJ Uma — a trans woman — the recognition of Jogati’s work is an anomaly, not the norm. “The community needs to be visible, for which it needs more platforms to express themselves. I write poetry but where do I go and showcase my talent?” she asks.

As host of Jeeva Diary — a show based on the lives of working-class sexual minorities on Bangalore’s first community radio station, Radio Active 90.4 MHz — since 2015, Uma is aware of the impact such platforms can fuel.

“A lot of listeners call us and say that they never considered transgender people beyond their presence on the streets,” Uma says. She recalls a regular listener, a retired bank employee who would call to congratulate Uma for spreading awareness about the community. “He would also visit our office and distribute chocolates,” says Uma. “Why can’t commercial radio stations or [state-owned] All India Radio have shows like these?” Last year, the state of Kerala held a two-day trans art festival in Thiruvananthapuram, its capital. Uma says Karnataka should do something similar.

Others are also helping spread awareness. Since 2016, transgender rights activist, writer and actor A. Revathi has performed approximately 40 shows of Vellai Mozhi, a Tamil play in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Jaipur. The 40-minute solo act is based on her autobiography, The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story. The play, which was conceptualized by theater director A. Mangai, features a poem by Kalki Subramaniam and music by Shyam Balasubramanian. Both Subramaniam and Balasubramanian are prominent members of the trans community.

“I have performed it for different kinds of audiences, students, teachers, doctors and so on, and I feel it has definitely been able to change the mindset of a few,” says Revathi. “People started writing on the subject, researchers started studying the subject after watching the play. After the play is over, I find audience members waiting to speak to me.”

According to Revathi, the growing visibility of trans people in the performing arts translates into confidence and empowerment for the community. “We are becoming more assertive about our identity,” she says.

But while art and activism do cross paths, some trans activists question the idea of putting the onus of activism on art. Akkai Padmashali, recipient of the prestigious Karnataka Rajyotsava Award and the first trans woman in the state to register her marriage, points out that most people from the trans community can’t afford to see a performance. “Imagine a person or a sex worker or a vendor who can go and watch a performance?” 

Ramprakash recalls a lot of people telling her that they were moved by Nava, while some found the actors amateurish. “I felt that maybe they were amateur viewers. We all have a great responsibility in all these processes,” she says. “Don’t we?”

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By Shailaja Tripathi

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