The Aravani and the art of inclusion

Hari Adivarekar | Updated on February 21, 2020 Published on February 20, 2020

Wall art: The project has worked on dozens of large-scale murals all over India and abroad   -  Hari Adivarekar

Inch by inch on walls around the world, transpersons paint their way to bridge the disconnect they face with society

Poornima Sukumar and Sadhna Prasad are covered in a Jackson Pollockesque splatter of paint. They are a little drained but find time for banter and laughter, among themselves and the rotating roster of small children that keeps frequenting the murals in progress on two buildings in Mumbai’s Mahim East. This neighbourhood has been earmarked as an art district in partnership with St+Art (short for Street Art), an organisation that has been facilitating egalitarian art in public spaces across the country.

Sukumar and Prasad are the co-founders of the Aravani Art Project, which they set up with members of the transgender community about five years ago. Aravani refers to trans women who pray to Lord Aravan, the son of Pandava prince Arjuna and the Naga princess Ulupi. With the involvement of local communities and trans people, the project conducts workshops, art sessions and interactions with adults and children through the year.

“The idea of Aravani came about when I was working on a documentary film related to the culture of the transgender community,” Sukumar says. “I realised that there was a huge disconnect between the rest of the society and the transgender community and I felt a need to bridge this gap.”

And art, she decided, would be the bridge. In 2015, she invited some of her trans friends and artists to join the project. “I just put them together on the street with supplies, gave them a task to complete and it started from there.”

Since then, the project has worked on dozens of large scale murals all over India and abroad, including one at the Facebook headquarters in California, opposite Mark Zuckerberg’s own cabin. Sukumar is quick to point out that she is just a facilitator, and that the real stakeholders are the kinnars, the term that trans women use to describe the community.

They are usually invited from cities such as Bengaluru and Mumbai, trained for a short while, put to work — and then paid for it, the payment depending on the budget or the size of the project.

Among the kinnar collaborators is Kanamma Mangeshkar, a 19-year-old dancer from Colaba. “I was scared at first to climb the scaffolding and paint a building (in Mahim) but they explained patiently and I understood what I needed to do to keep the lines straight,” she says, referring to the experience of her first artwork. “When I do the work little by little and then come down and see the whole image it makes me happy and I wonder, did I actually do all that?”

The Aravani project works for the government, corporate clients and other non-governmental organisations. Transpeople are involved in each of their projects. The not-for-profit body doesn’t have any stated agenda of social reform. But in working together, the local communities go from a misinformed suspicion of the kinnar people to an admiration for their hard work and skills as artists.

“This project is not about helping, and it isn’t about us and them. It’s about all of us being able to use our creativity, our intellect and our ability to work together. The transgender people don’t want sympathy or pity from anyone,” says Sukumar. “I wanted the art to be very every day. I wanted it to be part of life for people who pass by a mural every day.”

For Kajal Meher, a 20-year-old trans woman, the Aravani project spells respect. “I really like to work with them [the project people] as they give us dignity and speak to us with respect. We also feel happy that they lovingly call us to work and we have fun with them. We get more love from Aravani than we even do at home. They are like our family,” says Meher, who has been attached to Aravani for three years.

There are other benefits, too. “Painting also makes the mind more gentle and calm; we forget our fears and stresses,” says Aishu Koli Pujari of the Jogti community (Jogti kinnars refer to male-to-female transgender people who devote themselves to the service of their deity). Acceptance for trans communities is much harder to come by on the streets of Mumbai. Aisha, another member of the kinnar community, elaborates, “Even after all this time, with the new laws and new understanding of trans rights in other countries, society hasn’t changed their attitude towards us. Freedom might have reached some high-flying places in our cities but it still hasn’t reached the slums. And that’s where we live. Trans people are called by slurs, people pass nasty comments.”

The kinnar community is often discriminated against, abused both verbally and physically and harassed by medical professionals, policemen, municipal authorities and the general population. They also face stiff opposition when looking for employment; they are either turned away or, if employed, asked to cut their hair and dress and behave like men. But art, they hold, gives them solace.

The kinnars also end up giving some life lessons to other people involved in the art projects, Sukumar points out. “They’ve taught us so much about staying grounded. Whether we are painting in Dharavi or San Francisco, they have always remained humble. They’ve always also retained their originality.”

She adds that it is important for the people to speak for themselves. Aisha, indeed, speaks for the community when she says, “If in this world someone is trans, they are also human and they deserve respect. Ask them what they feel and what they are passionate about and then support them. If society supported our community, then there would be doctors among us, there would be police or lawyers.”

Hari Adivarekar is an independent photojournalist based out of Bengaluru and Mumbai

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Published on February 20, 2020
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