What a Transgender Art Project Wants You to Know About Friendship

“One day, it won’t matter that our murals are created by the hands of transgender artists.”

Published
Art and Culture
5 min read
Artists of the Aravani Art Project.
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The face of the woman being painted is larger than life, with haunting eyes.

The mural almost touches the Sonagachi sky, Asia’s largest red light area. The art celebrates the women of Sonagachi, their lives and their choices. It is one of many being created across the country by artists from the transgender community who are today, proud participants of the Aravani Art Project.

A Bengaluru-based art collective, the Aravani Art Project came to being in 2016, after its founder, muralist Poornima Sukumar attended the Koovagam Koothandavar Festival in Tamil Nadu.

The annual festival re-enacts the Hindu mythological story of Lord Vishnu taking the female form of Mohini to marry the ill-fated Lord Koothandavar or Lord Aravan. The name ‘Aravani’ refers to a person who worships Lord Aravan, the patron Hindu god for transgender people in Tamil Nadu.

A Fight for Equal Rights

The mourning and dancing associated with the festival opened Sukumar’s mind to a world unknown to her. The friendships she made as she worked on a documentary on the festival so deeply impacted her that she dedicated her life to her transgender friends, to create safe spaces for open dialogue and exchange.

A two-year-old collective, many people joined Sukumar in her endeavor - Priyanka Divaakar, India’s first transgender radio jockey, Sadhna Prasad, an MA in visual arts illustration, Shanthi Sonu, a transwoman artist and Victor Baskin, an anthropologist and producer.
The recognition for the community happens on many levels.
The recognition for the community happens on many levels.
(Photo Courtesy: Pranav Gohil, St+Art India Foundation)

Simply put, through these murals and street art, Sukumar and team are fighting for the transgender community of India to have the same rights as every other citizen.

“For many complicated reasons, the transgender community of India is thought of as less than human. In many contexts and conversations, the lives they lead are unrecognised or are considered to be morally corrupted, psychologically abnormal, wasteful and unhealthy. We want to shed a light on the fact that they are human beings and valuable contributors to our diverse society.”
Viktor Baskin

The recognition for the community happens on many levels: at homes with families, on the streets with broader communities and at a government level through policy reformation and legal changes, says Baskin.

“We play a small part by trying to influence the everyday conversations and interactions on the street, amongst people, friends, families and colleagues.”
Viktor Baskin

Each mural they create is not necessarily or explicitly political; the only political act of the works is that they encourage people’s language and behaviour to change.

“In India, people seem to love art. I think art creates this space for curiosity. People also love seeing it made and they love being able to join in. We see a real celebration in the participation. We want to drag art out of its white-walled galleries and onto the streets; into the hands of the people who will walk past it every day, engage with it and hopefully be proud of it.”
Viktor Baskin
Each mural they create is not necessarily or explicitly political; the only political act of the works is that they encourage people’s language and behaviour to change.
Each mural they create is not necessarily or explicitly political; the only political act of the works is that they encourage people’s language and behaviour to change.
(Photo Courtesy: Pranav Gohil, St+Art India Foundation)

A Large Body of Work

In the past year, this collective of diverse women artists who identify across the spectrum as transgender- women, gender-fluid women and cis-gender women, has worked with St+art India, the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, India Culture Labs, Instagram, the Mission for Indian Gay & Lesbian Empowerment among others.

Shanthi Sonu, an artist and documentarian with the core team says that the project has given her the power to mix art and activism to make what she calls ‘artivism’.

“I participate with a long and complex history of the transgender community behind me. I have dreams for myself. I want to see my culture and community survive without any fear in any form, to see them live with liberty and to be accepted as normal humans in the society. I also want to see transgender people be accepted in mainstream society. I want to open all the doors that have been shut and create a safe space for queer people in all fields; we are not just fit for begging or sex-work.”
Shanthi Sonu

Shanthi is changing the perceptions of the society we live in by simple conversations and the stroke of a brush.

“I am stepping into an unknown future as I constantly fight for LGBTQIA rights and freedom through my art and poetry. I use the brush and the pen as my tools to fight for social inclusivity.”
Shanthi Sonu
This collective of diverse women artists identify across the spectrum as transgender- women, gender-fluid women and cis-gender women.
This collective of diverse women artists identify across the spectrum as transgender- women, gender-fluid women and cis-gender women.
(Photo Courtesy: Instagram/Aravani Art Project)

In a short time, the collective has worked for big festivals, corporate clients, private commissions - but at the centre of their work are the interventions.

“Our team spends three to six months working with different transgender communities to gain an understanding of the unique localised cultures, rituals, festivals, challenges and celebrations within their neighbourhoods. Over cups of chai, delicious lunches and sweets, our friendships grows into spaces for creation and sharing. The wall paintings that come about as a result of these friendships are not designed solely by the Aravani Art Project but by the collaboration of the communities we work in.”
Viktor Baskin

Transgender Communities Around the World

While the core team is based in Bengaluru, the teams that work on every project aren’t the same. As a number of projects happen at once, a dedicated team of volunteer collaborators emerge in different cities that help out where and when they can.

“We have had the joy of working with the Hijra community in Hyderabad, the Shiv-Shakti community of Mumbai, as well as the many transgender communities of Kolkata, Pune, Chennai, Bengaluru and Jaipur. We have also stretched across the water to work with the transgender community of Colombo, Sri Lanka.”
Viktor Baskin
While the core team is based in Bengaluru, the teams that work on every project aren’t the same.
While the core team is based in Bengaluru, the teams that work on every project aren’t the same.
(Photo Courtesy: Instagram/Aravani Art Project)

One of the biggest revelations from this fascinating project is that there is no one transgender community - the identities within the community are as diverse as the identities of India itself.

“With a number of international collaborations, we have been able to bring India’s unique transgender community into conversation with transgender communities around the world. That said, we can’t believe that we didn’t make an effort with each other before; that we missed out on being friends all this while!”
Viktor Baskin

Baskin adds, “One day, it won’t matter that our murals are created by the hands of transgender artists; people will simply love the ones we’ve created in their cities, homes, and businesses in their honour and in celebration of the friendships that painting these walls created.”

(Runa Mukherjee Parikh is an independent journalist with several national and international media houses like The Wire, Bust and The Swaddle. She previously reported for the Times of India. She is the author of the book 'Your Truth, My Truth (https://www.amazon.in/dp/B076NXZFX8)'. You can follow her at @tweetruna.)

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