What to Expect at Gender Bender, India’s 1st Festival of Its Kind
A teaser poster of the installation <i>Trial Room</i>.
A teaser poster of the installation Trial Room.(Photo Courtesy: Gender Bender)

What to Expect at Gender Bender, India’s 1st Festival of Its Kind

The Gender Bender Festival, that is currently being held in Bangalore (22 - 26 August), is a heady mix of artistes from across the country talking about gender and what it entails. From women calling out body shaming, an artist's expression of being raised by a single mother to a docu by a trans-woman who has changed the lives of many in the trans-community of Manipur, the fourth edition of the arts festival has gotten significantly bigger.

Kitchen Utensils and Patriarchy

The five-day festival will see Jinal Sangoi bring Stories of Invisible Labour to life.

A graduate of California Institute of the Arts, Sangoi uses performance, installation, writing, sculpture and photography to construct temporary spaces to heal from individual as well as collective memory of violence, exploitation and segregation of women.

Being an inquisitive observer of domestic spaces, Sangoi noticed engravings on kitchen utensils:

Decoding these engraved alphabets, I realised it belonged to the oldest male in the family, usually considered the ‘family head’; this, while the women are the main users who cook food for the family. It was one of my earliest realisations of complex social structures in terms of stratification and dominance that questioned gender politics, identity and ownership.
Jinal’s was a process of creative resistance against the tradition of inscribing initials of the male head on the utensils.
Jinal’s was a process of creative resistance against the tradition of inscribing initials of the male head on the utensils.
(Photo Courtesy: Gender Bender)

Auto-ethnography led Sangoi to the Indian kitchen, where women spend maximum unpaid hours working for the family. For her project, she interviewed six women and engraved visual forms on their kitchen utensils. This was a process of creative resistance against the tradition of inscribing initials of the male head on the utensils.

Sangoi says,

These utensils will be used by women in their everyday lives, making visible their hidden identities; thereby engaging with the oppressed, the forgotten and the taken-for-granted beings.

Ita’s Questioning of the ‘Perfect Home’

Then, there is Ita Mehrotra’s Drawing Home, a visual narrative that explores gendered roles, especially in relationships, marriage and the idea of home.

 Ita Mehrotra’s<i> Drawing Home</i> explores gendered roles.
Ita Mehrotra’s Drawing Home explores gendered roles.
(Photo Courtesy: Gender Bender)

Ita has grown up in a radically different home – run by a single mum, in the middle of feminist activist meetings, protests and demonstrations with constant dialogue on society, gender and patriarchy. Her work picks on different contemporary and historical struggles that women have led, that have shaped the country through socio-political and legal means.

I question the very notion of a ‘perfect home’ with its neatly played out roles for women and men, which I find, continue to be all important in framing the bedrock of stability, or ‘settling down’. I’m weaving together notes from recent conversations, memories of childhood and also reflections on how things can be if we just dump this role-playing game all together.

Struggling With Size and Body Image

Multi-disciplinary artist Deepikah Bharadwaj and social anthropologist Saakshi Joshi have collaborated to bring the installation Trial Room to life at the festival.

The creative process that went into this piece stem from their own lives.
The creative process that went into this piece stem from their own lives.
(Photo Courtesy: Gender Bender)

Initially just sketches for a potential zine that Deepikah was trying to create called “Madame aapka size nahi hai” based on her struggles with fashion, the duo amalgamated Saakshi’s poem The Trial with the art to synthesise it into a quirky and effective installation.

The creative process that went into this piece stem from their own lives; while Saakshi literally scribbled down these lines after returning from a clothing store, Deepika has always believed she is fat as no one ever let her forget that.

From Masterjis, salesmen and class teachers to ex-boyfriends with pimples, all have added to the collective noise that now perpetually lives inside her head when she goes to buy clothes. This zine is her attempt to let go of that noise and see herself in an unconditioned light.
Sakshi Joshi

Sakshi’s poem Visa Blues was published in University of Kentucky’s journal Limestone, while It came from everywhere was long-listed for the Fish Poetry Prize 2016.

<i>Trial Room</i> teaser poster.
Trial Room teaser poster.
(Photo Courtesy: Gender Bender)

What’s amazing is that, a lot of prejudice is being addressed in these projects. For Saakshi, the words for Trial Room emerged from years of trying to manage her fluctuating weight -

I wasn’t eating junk, I was exercising daily and yet I kept getting suggestions. I remember sitting in the classroom holding my breath in so that my tummy wouldn’t roll out. I began wearing t-shirts only from the men’s section. Now, I do it as a choice. I have become much more observant of how people talk about others in terms of bodies, especially women’s. Our installation can help people reflect on these aspects. And also teach them to stop with the staring.

On Trans People in Manipur

Similarly, trans-activist Santa Khurai’s documentary on the life of a trans-child in Manipur’s Meitei community is a call to rally behind children of marginalised sections. She says,

In Manipur, specifically in my community, trans-people are subjected to violence and discrimination, but never exclusion. This non-practice of exclusion traces its roots to our indigenous history of gender inclusivity and diversity. Even though no Meitei parent wants to give birth to a trans-child, children who are gender non-conforming are never abandoned by their families. Their non-conforming behavior is mocked by society but families rally behind their children and rarely withdraw their support.
A performance from last year’s edition of Gender Bender.
A performance from last year’s edition of Gender Bender.
(Photo Courtesy: Gender Bender)

Khurai identifies as a nupi maanbi or an indigenous Meitei trans-woman from Manipur.

Her film is about a trans-child called Ate who was given the name Monica and assigned the female gender at birth, but who always identified as a boy and wore shirts and trousers to school. More importantly, it is about the hopeful possibility that if an indigenous community can raise trans-children with love, along with ‘leikai paanba’ (neighbourhoods) that protect and provide a relatively safer space, so can the rest of the society.

Khurai, a member of the All Manipur Nupi Maanbi Association (AMANA) and pioneer of leading trans-people of her region to secure livelihoods, considers Gender Bender a great initiative for bringing important issues like these to the fore.

A performance from last year’s edition of Gender Bender.
A performance from last year’s edition of Gender Bender.
(Photo Courtesy: Gender Bender)

One of the judges of this edition, Mumbai-based playwright and stage critic Vikram Phukan agrees -

The festival is focused on inclusivity, in an area in which we have seen both great repression as well as great creative expression. I especially like that it allows space for an individual artist to discover their own journey by lending, maybe, just a helping hand by way of a seed grant -- but that gesture goes a long way.

(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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