Sitting in her new office, Manjamma Jogati (62) looks visibly nervous. She has just been appointed president of the Karnataka Janapada Academy, the department in charge of promoting folk arts in the state. Her phone has not stopped ringing since then.

“All this attention, love and appreciation overwhelm me,” Manjamma says, blinking back tears. “I have spent my entire life yearning for this acceptance and love.”

Manjamma is the first transperson to head a government academy in Karnataka. Established in 1979, the Karnataka Janapada Academy has, so far, only had male presidents. An award-winning folk artiste, Manjamma was a member of the academy under the previous state government. Last month, the current government elevated her to the post of president.

Dressed in a yellow and maroon silk sari, she looks regal, despite the nervousness. “My hands were shaking when I first sat on this chair,” she says. “I used to sit there on the opposite side and would be nervous to even say ‘Namaste, Sir’ to the then president. How could someone like me ever have dreamt of reaching the skies?”

Born Manjunath Shetty in Kallukamba village near Bellary, Manjamma has seen unimaginable pain in her life. It all began when a teenaged Manjunath began to identify as a female. “I’d wear a towel around my hips as if it were a skirt. I’d help my mother with chores. I loved to be with the girls in my class, to dance and dress up. By the time I was 15, I had fully embraced my identity as a woman.”

The family tried to “rid” their child of these feminine tendencies. “My brother thought a goddess had entered my body. He tied me to a pole and beat me to make her leave.” The teenager was referred to a doctor and then to a priest, who said Manjunath was “blessed with devi shakti” (goddess power) and should be left alone. “But after the visit to the ashram, my father said I was dead to him,” Manjamma recalls.

Finally, in 1975, the parents took the teenager to Huligeyamma’s temple, near Hospet, to be consecrated as a Jogappa. She assumed the name Manjamma Jogati. Devotees of goddess Yellamma, Jogappas or Jogatis are mainly transpeople who believe themselves married to the goddess. “The initiation ritual involved the cutting of my uddaara (a string traditionally tied around the hips of young boys). I was given a skirt, blouse, bangles and a nuptial thread. All I can remember to this day, however, is my mother’s piercing screams that she had lost her son that day, that her son was dead.”

The ordeal continued. Her parents wouldn’t have her at home. She tried to poison herself and was hospitalised. Once she recovered, she left home and started begging for money. One day, six men raped and robbed her. “I decided I had to die,” she says, as tears stream down her face.

But just when she was contemplating death again, she saw a glimmer of hope. At a bus stand near Davanagere, she saw a performance by a father-son duo. The father sang a folk song and the son danced while balancing a steel pot on his head.

“This was Jogati nritya (a folk performance of the Jogappas) and I had always been fascinated by it. So I went up to the father, Basappa, and asked if he would teach me. Wonderfully, he agreed.” She went every day to his hut and learnt the dance. “It was exciting to balance the chombu (pot), and sometimes even the idol of a deity on my head while moving gracefully.”

What Manjamma did not know then was that art would play a more transformative role in her life. A fellow Jogappa introduced her to Kaalavva, a folk artiste from Hagaribommanahalli. “I still remember the day Kaalavva asked me to dance in front of her — what you would call an audition. She got someone to put make-up on my face and I remember looking at the mirror and feeling so shy. I was so dark and this make-up had made me look fair and beautiful! I danced as Kaalavva sang, and that was that. Soon, she began calling me for small roles in plays and then bigger lead roles too.”

Theatre and dance then occupied her days. “It was like someone had found the real me and set me free on stage,” she says.

Jogati nritya, as it is known today, owes its identity and popularity largely to her. A typical Jogati dancer is an expert in stunts such as lying down and picking up coins from the floor using just the mouth, while also balancing a pot on the head.

Manjamma was honoured with the Karnataka Rajyotsava Award in 2010 and her life story is part of school syllabi and the Bachelor of Arts course at the Karnataka Folk University in Haveri district.

“Art, for me, is god,” she says. “It filled my starving stomach, it fills my soul each day and it cared for me when I had nobody.”

She now wants Jogati nritya to be recognised as a unique folk form. “It doesn’t have to be performed only by Jogappas — children could be taught this form just like other dance forms.”

The phone rings yet again. I squeeze in a last question. How does she view her selection as the president of the academy?

“I hope my life story can send a message to all those who harass transpeople, taunt them and abuse them. I hope I can be an example for them and show them that there can be achievers among the trans-community too. That we must be treated with respect and dignity too,” she says.

Archana Nathan is a Bengaluru-based freelance journalist