By us, for all

Runa Mukherjee Parikh | Updated on October 19, 2018 Published on October 19, 2018

The androgynous ardhanarishwar idol   -  IMAGE COURTESY: RANJITA SINHA

A small group of transpersons put up a rare idol during the Navratri in Kolkata to celebrate the decriminalisation of Section 377

A rare Ardhanarishwar idol — an amalgamation of the male Shiv and female Shakti forms — welcomed worshippers at Ranjita Sinha’s cosy flat in Kolkata’s Gokhale Road. Fondly called ‘ma’ and ‘didi’ by the transgender community, Sinha had opened her home to people from all sections of society for the nine days of Navratri, celebrating not just goddess Durga but also the striking down of Section 377 by the Supreme Court to guarantee LGBTQ rights.

Sinha, a transgender activist and founder of Gokhale Road Bandhan, an association of transgenders/hijra of Bengal, has been celebrating Navratri in her house since she was a child. “We have had an orthodox childhood, growing up on mythology and always celebrating Navratri and Durga Puja. But this year, all my children (the trans-community) insisted we have a grand celebration, one that is by us, but for all,” says Sinha, also a member of the West Bengal Transgender Board.

While puja committees across the state begin preparations months in advance, Sinha’s puja, supported by the NGO Prantakatha, was set in motion barely 15 days in advance. However it gathered steam in no time.

People in charge

“Our community has many artists, including sculptors, but we had very little time on our hands. We visited Kumartuli (where the idols are made) , but were told we were too late. But mystically enough, we found an artist, a trans-man called Joe Tapashi Dutta, who helped carve the beautiful idol for us under the guidance of a Kumartuli legend, Bishwanath Paul,” says Sinha. Two days before Mahalaya (the auspicious start of the seven-day period before Durga Puja), the petite ekchala (one frame) of Ardhanarishwar and family (Lakshmi, Ganesh, Saraswati, Kartik) was brought to Sinha’s home. The activist’s house soon turned into a frenzied mini puja pandal teeming with people.

In transition Ranjita Sinha, transgender activist, decorates her Kolkata home-turned-puja pandal for the androgynous ardhanarishwar idol   -  IMAGE COURTESY: RANJITA SINHA


While Dutta is the sculptor, Kabirag Poddar, another trans-man, conducted the puja. Tania Das, Boishali Das and Anuradha Sarkar, all trans-women, were active behind the scenes — making bhog (prasad) and taking care of the decorations. Traditionally, the Navratri period has been one of suffering for the transgender community, but Sinha’s puja pandal marked a new beginning. “Our community is most insecure during puja, especially at nights. People revel in the festivities and then harass us. The trans-people never get to enjoy or celebrate; so this time, it really came down to us to do it ourselves,” says Sinha.

The ancient texts and epics speak of Hare-Gauri and Ardhnarishwar, which are a dual embodiment — the male and female deity in one body. “There has been a systematic rejection of our existence and identities from historical texts and mythology to serve patriarchy and marginalise us,” explains Sinha.

She elaborates how Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, a 16th-century mystic, used to worship goddess Katyayani in her Vaishnava avatar in Puri. While those rituals are now almost extinct, the Gokhale Road puja was conducted in the Vaishnava way — where goddess Durga is in the avatar of a yogini or sadhika.

Sinha’s tiny puja, which hopes to get bigger next year, is teaching inclusion in a manner many of Bengal’s big-budget, starry pujas know little of. All nine days of the festival were open to not only the LGBTQ community and their families, but also other marginalised sections such as the elderly, acid attack victims, Muslim women activists and orphans.

“On Ashtami and Navami (the eighth and ninth day of Navratri), we invited street children for kumari puja,” she says, referring to a ritual where pre-adolescent girls are worshipped. “We are also considering sponsoring them for a year.”

The striking down of Section 377 this year and the NALSA verdict of 2013 that identifies transgender as the third gender have been great strides forward for the community, but, on the ground, much remains to be done .

“We can come out, maybe even accepted by our families. But there is still plenty of crime and discrimination. We need the government to start a census to get a measure of our numbers. Then it needs to pass the Right of Transgender Persons Bill, which brings with it protection, security, health, welfare and education initiatives.

“These are rights to be armed with while going to the grassroots to spread awareness. Schemes such as the ones we have for the girl child will help the rural section of our community live an empowered life,” says Sinha.

Going by the cheerful atmosphere in her home — full of flowers, incense and smiling faces — the community’s fight for equality has begun on a festive note. They are banking on the spirit of goodness triumphing over evil.

Runa Mukherjee Parikh is an independent journalist and author

Published on October 19, 2018
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