Has Chennai’s theatre really opened its door for LGBTQIA+ issues?

July has been an exciting month for theatre enthusiasts in Chennai, leaving one spoilt for choice. With the Short and Sweet Theatre Festival, and several exciting plays happening in other parts of the city, it is indeed warming to see that the art of storytelling through the medium of theatre being received well.

It is a chance to transport the audience to another world for a few minutes, make them laugh, emote, sympathize, reflect on their choices, provide a visual treat, or convey some deep hitting tough messages. From the platter of diverse variety offered to you, there is something for everyone to love! The sheer diversity of themes, mode used to get across the concept will somehow find its way to strike that chord in your heart.

And I suddenly became aware of the responsibility when such a strong platform is used to convey a message. This is not from a critical perspective or a review of anything, but rather the general musings of a theatre lover. After all it is a reflection of life as it is or maybe the life we hope to see. I recently saw ‘The Birdcage’ at The Museum Theatre which is based on an American movie by the same name. It tells the story of a gay couple Armaan and his partner Alfie who own a drag nightclub in Chennai. They are forced to pretend to be a normal heterosexual couple when their son plans to marry and brings home his fiancé’s parents. Hysteric situational comedy ensues for the next 2 hours.

It is pretty bold to introduce the premise of a plot with a gay couple, having the plot revolve around their love, insecurities, quirks and the situational humour merely through two gay people who try to un-gay for a day. I have to admit that maybe a way for the society to become more progressive is to include the vastly (and conveniently) ignored LGBTQIA+ community into the mainstream entertainment. Maybe as more people include this in their work of art it might slowly sink in that ~2.5 Million people (and probably more) identify as LGBT and this in turn might make people more sensitive about the struggle it takes to live with a different sexuality in India.

On the other hand, it stings a little when the whole idea is reduced to a mere joke. Looking at a chubby effeminate man prancing around trying to walk and talk like a “real heterosexual man” makes the audience burst into peals of laughter. Of course, one might argue that certain humour has that inherent tinge of sadism – in the same way a person tripping down evokes laughter.

But when the struggles are very much real and leads to possible ostracization, is looking for tact and sensitivity too much to ask for? This raises a very interesting question on how to portray certain themes. Maybe the intentions could lean more towards pure entertainment and not much of a social message. Can we expect the mass audience who laughed at effeminate Alfie in the ‘situational comedy’ of the play to suddenly switch to a sensitive humane mode when we come across a real-life Alfie?

Though Chennai’s theatre has been open to LGBTQIA+ issues before, it took a different turn with this year’s Short and Sweet Theatre festival. My concerns were partly addressed by the Short and Sweet Theatre festival.  I saw a lot of these issues being tackled with the right mix of sensitivity, pain, humour, powerful and memorable performances. Some of my favourites being “Under the microscope” which was an expositional dialog on what it means to explore love and sexuality beyond what is accepted by evolution. This made us smile, reflect on the conversations and just stay with the characters while they eventually fall in love with each other. “Gunapathy” was one of the best performances I have seen till date where you empathize with the person who was physically separated from the body they should have been born with, when nobody wants to acknowledge his form instead attack him from all sides. “Naramugai – Aval Oru Aruveruppu” took us into the psyche of transgenders, the raw reality of their challenges in a way that moves you. “Man in Me” took us through the mental perils faced by a woman trapped in a man’s body and her journey of self-acceptance through dance. There were many more brilliant plays across various genres.

I am truly excited by the possibilities theatre as a medium has to create an impact alongside mainstream entertainment. The power of a story should not be undermined! With the last week to go, I can’t wait to see the other performances lined up. If you are yet to get into the world of theatre, you should catch the remaining few days of Short + Sweet festival in Chennai and see for yourself the magic of theatre!

Editor’s note: The writer of this piece chose to remain anonymous. However, since Hidden Pockets was in conversation with Short & Sweet Theatre festival to cover the LGBTQIA+ themed plays staged during the edition, we chose to use the images shared by the organisers. 

#MenstrualHygieneDay Special: Period Paatu, a video on menstrual hygiene products

“Look at contraceptive pills, we are really not looking into the ill effects of these pills because women use them, same goes for menstruation products. Because women use it, it is not something that main stream media cares to discuss.” – Sofia Ashraf

Menstrual Hygiene Day is observed on May 28, annually. It is observed and not celebrated because there continues to be a certain lack of awareness about menstrual hygiene and so this day is observed with the intention of bringing about awareness, break taboos regarding menstruation, as well as educating women and young girls about good menstrual hygiene practices. Several interesting things happened in 2017 for Menstrual Hygiene Day. But one that caught our attention was Sofia Ashraf’s video on menstrual hygiene.

“Awareness about what goes inside or outside your virgina”- SofiAshraf, Sista from the South

After experimenting with several different menstrual products and experiencing each one individually Ashraf felt the need to educate a certain section of women who have access to menstrual products about the pros and cons of different products.

Ashraf explains, “I started off with pads and then moved onto tampons for functional reasons. When I moved on to tampons I started getting infection and so I approached a gynecologist and that’s when the gynecologist told me about the ill effects of tampons. Tampons have bleach and chemicals in them and they are not meant for India tropical climate so this led me to do a lot of research on menstrual products”

Ashraf undertook research for about a year, talking to people and getting to know more about menstrual products. Her research led her to find out a lot of information which she was unaware of.

Through the course of her research, she found out that sanitary pads are made of 90% plastic, moreover these pads take 600 to 800 years to decompose. Sanitary workers are compelled to take up these blood soaked pads with their bare hands which again lead to a lot of diseases. The amount of chemical used in tampons is again harmful to the body which can lead to vaginal infection.

“A lot of people are not talking about it because in this country talking about menstruation itself is such a taboo, talking about these other facets of menstruation is just completely under the table”

Ashraf works with a channel called Blush where she has started a show called “Sista from the South” which deals with a number of women related issues. She has previously worked on issues like body image and menstruation. The content of this channel, Ashraf claims, is content for women by women using humour and music to target issues that aren’t generally spoken about.

“Mainstream media is dominated by male writers, male directors to a point where a woman’s perspective is often ignored. So the whole point of Sista from the South is just to bring in a woman’s perspective into social media.” – Sofia Ashraf

Period Paatu: A video about choices

According to Ashraf, her latest video on the different menstrual products is a result of her research. While there are various issues regarding menstruation, Sofia aims to address one particular issue in this video. Her video talks about the pros and cons of specifically 3 menstrual products – pads, tampons and menstrual cups. The other menstrual products used are ignored intentionally as Ashraf says that her intention was not to address all the problems related to menstruation. She would like to deal with each problem individually. Her intention behind making a video in English and uploading it on YouTube is clear when she says that she only aims to address 2% of the Indian population who have access to an English education as well as YouTube. These are the people who can afford to buy products such as pads, tampons and menstrual cups. Her video tries to explain to women that while these products are easily available and affordable by them, they also need to know the side effects of these products to make an informed choice  about the type of product one is using.

There is a need for women to be well informed about the products that they are use during menstruation. Making informed decisions about the product one is using is a necessary step. However, there is also a need for manufactures to produce more biodegradable products and use a little less chemical while making these products. These are important issues that need to be looked at and discussed. Since these problems concern women, there is not much talk about it. Media also tends to ignore such issues because social media tends to be male centric. There is a certain taboo when it comes to speaking about menstruation and other women related issues.

Ashraf however claims to target only 2% of the India population through her YouTube video which she calls the privileged class. This class has access to menstrual products and it is necessary for them to understand the pros and cons of each menstrual product.

India however consists of a large number of women from different socio-economic backgrounds and each of these women face different problems regarding menstruation which has to be dealt with individually. Most women also suffer due to the stigma attached to menstruation as well as the inability to purchase these menstrual products.  This definitely calls for more voice. It would be definitely useful to think about different ways in which all the other issues related to menstrual hygiene may be discussed on all days and not just on Menstrual Hygiene Day.

About the writer:

Marian Dias is a sociology graduate who hopes to start teaching the subject someday soon. Apart from loving outdoor games like basket ball and cricket, she also loves to travel and visit new places.

LGBT Workplace Symposium on inclusion: Does L in the LGBT stand for Left Out?

“We don’t encourage sex at work. We actively discourage it but the moment we say LGBT, people’s heads goes to the bedroom.” – Ritesh Rajani, IBM Diversity Engagement Partner, IBM Asia

Those words rang across most sessions of the LGBT Workplace Symposium organized by Amsterdam-based non-profit organisation, Workplace Pride Foundation and Bengaluru-based non-profit organisation, Solidarity Foundation and hosted by RELX on May 19, 2017 in Chennai. Workplace Pride Foundation and Solidarity Foundation are organisations working for LGBT inclusion in different spaces.

Members from the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) community delivered the keynote address of the symposium. They shared their experiences as people coming from different walks of life and different parts of the world. The keynote address began with Michiel Kolman, Sr. Vice President, Academic Relations – Elsevier & President International Publishers Association. Apart from sharing his journey as an LGBT inclusion advocate in his workplace, he also shared the initiatives of his organisation for LGBT inclusion. In his address, Kolman also explained the different prevailing models of engagement among multinational organisations with respect to LGBT inclusion in workplaces. This included the ‘When in Rome’ model, the Embassy model and the Advocate model. Companies following the ‘When in Rome’ model, adhere to “the norms and local laws of the land but allow employees to opt out of placement” in a particular location whereas companies following the Embassy model “enforce pro-LGBT policies in the workplace but do not seek to effect changes outside their walls.” Apart from pro-LGBT policies, companies adhering to the Advocacy model seek to actively change the cultural attitudes of people outside the workplace.

While Kolman said that Elseiver adheres to the Embassy model with active pro-LGBT policies, Parmesh Shahani, Founder & Head of Godrej Culture Labs and the next key note speaker declared his employer, Godrej, as a company that follows the Advocacy model. Subsequently, Shahani shared Godrej’s policies and approach to making the company inclusive. He shared three key points to being a company that follows the Advocacy model namely: adoption of LGBT friendly policies by the company, a culture of inclusion in the workspace and sponsorship of inclusive events and activities (in Shahani’s words – “put your money where your mouth is”).

A keynote by Jaya Seelan, a transgender woman** and General Manager at Sahodaran (a non-profit organisation working for transgender rights) followed Kolman and Shahani’s talks. She outlined her journey as a transgender woman and her work and growth with Sahodaran as a transgender individual. A panel discussion that included Poongkhulali Balasubramanian, a lawyer; Lavanya Narayan, a journalist; Sunil Menon, social activist and fashion choreographer and Ritesh Rajani, IBM Diversity Engagment Partner, IBM Asia, followed the keynote address.

This session emphasised on the need for different workplaces to understand the ambit of Section 377. Poongkhulali Balasubramanian explained the scope of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code for the understanding of the audience. While Section 377 is assumed to criminalise identification of any individual as being homosexual, the section, in actuality, criminalises carnal intercourse (anal or oral sex). Essentially, this means that Section 377 may be used to penalize anyone involved in ‘carnal intercourse’. This could include both heterosexual and homosexual couples. Lavanya Narayan shared the issues faced by the present generation with respect to being LGBT. This included the issue of parents worrying about their LGBT children getting married and their questions regarding their children’s certainty about being LGBT. Sunil Menon shared about the shifts in attitude that he has seen over the years among the public at large towards the LGBT community.

Ritesh Rajani, IBM Diversity Engagement Partner, IBM Asia took the conversation around inclusion a step further by talking about the intersectionality that exists between different groups like LGBT and persons with disability, among others. He emphasized the need for workspaces and companies to become inclusive of all these different marginalized groups.

The second half of the day had four different breakout sessions on different topics to understand different issues and dimensions of LGBT inclusion and workplace dynamics. This included Defining the Indian LGBT Business Case and beyond, The Positive Effect of LGBT Employee Networks, Straight Allies – The Key to LGBT Acceptance and Executive Leadership & LGBT Workplace Inclusion. Participants were required to choose one of the four sessions to be a part of, engage and discuss the issues related to that topic. While the symposium at large and its sessions were designed to make workplaces more LGBT inclusive, there seemed to be a certain need for inclusion within the LGBT community.

Where’s the L (and bisexual women) in the LGBT?

“If transgender is the third gender then who is the first and second gender? Who goes first, man or woman?” – anonymous participant, LGBT Workplace Symposium

Beginning with the keynote, there were far and few women* speakers in the symposium. Interestingly, though there were a few images of women in the pro-LGBT initiatives by Elseiver in Kolman’s keynote presentation, there was no specific mention about lesbian or bisexual women nor was their involvement in the company’s activities mentioned during his presentation. However, Shahani during his presentation mentioned about Radhika Piramal, the present MD of VIP industries, coming out as being a lesbian during her days at Godrej. This happened to be the only mention about a lesbian woman or even a woman in the keynote presentations made in the symposium. It makes one wonder if the supposedly inclusive spaces are in fact inclusive at all. Or could it be something more deep-rooted going beyond organisations?

It is worth noting that there was no woman speaker in the keynote session. Interestingly, there were only two women speakers in the first half of the day and one speaker openly identified herself as being queer. That said, the breakout sessions had three women participating as panelists and representatives of different corporate organisations. Why were women so under-represented especially from the LGBT community? Answering Hidden Pockets’ question on the lack of representation of lesbian and bisexual women, Shubha Chacko, Executive Director and Founder of Solidarity Foundation said, “It isn’t due to a lack of effort from our end.” She admitted to speakers – two women and a transman – backing out of the symposium at the last minute. Though the women were told that disclosure of their sexual orientation wasn’t necessary, they still seemed worried and uncomfortable and eventually backed out:

“It is hard for lesbian women to come out because whatever it is, when it is a gay man there is at least the advantage of gender. Gay men face a disadvantage because of their sexual orientation but there is a definite advantage because of their gender. So if you are a lesbian woman, you are battling two things – the fact that you are a woman and the fact that you are a lesbian, so the difficulty is so much more to come out (and talk about their sexual orientation).” – Shubha Chacko, Executive Director, Solidarity Foundation.

David Pollard, Executive Director of Workplace Pride Foundation also admitted to the challenge that they face with respect to the inclusion and involvement of women in all the activities conducted by their different member companies and even within Workplace Pride:

“Women have a double glass ceiling. They are lesbian and woman. It makes it that much more difficult.” – David Pollard, Executive Director, Workplace Pride Foundation

Pollard also admitted to having been called out before on the same issue. Now the Foundation has made a commitment to have equal number of women as speakers in their different conferences:

“To be honest with you, we’ve been called out on it before. It is easy to continue the way you are. But we have learnt that we have to reach out and bring them (women) in by explaining things to them.” – David Pollard, Executive Director, Workplace Pride Foundation.

With fewer women being present and out at the symposium, it became necessary to engage with the male participants from the LGBT community to understand the challenges faced by lesbian and bisexual women in different workplaces. Speaking to Hidden Pockets about the challenges that lesbian and bisexual women face at workplaces, Romal Singh, media professional said,

“Feminine stereotype is something that is craved within a largely male run institutional hierarchy because women are considered to be the ‘break’ that you can look at. If a pretty girl is part of your team then she is someone you can go and flirt with. And large corporates think that is something that is accepted. So when someone refuses to fit into that particular stereotype and if she has the misfortune of not being accepted as a tomboy or as one of the guys; she faces discrimination on two folds and the marginalization is double.”

While men are discriminated for not fitting the masculine stereotype, Singh added that women who do not fit into the feminine stereotype are often discriminated far worse than men. Other challenges faced by both women and transmen, were shared by activists working for LGBT inclusion during the different breakout sessions. This included the need for transmen*** to identify themselves as women; to be able to use the restroom; the usage of given name vs. the name of their choice; lesbian women using the restroom being seen as a way to ogle at women; and being ostracized for coming out as being lesbian, among others. With women facing these challenges in workplaces: how inclusive is the LGBT community of women?

“Even in the LGBT spaces, it is still dominated by gay men. It is not only the general society but even in the LGBT spaces, gay men dominate and set the conversation hence it becomes more difficult for the others.” – Shubha Chacko, Executive Director, Solidarity Foundation

There appears to be serious exclusion or lack of safe spaces for women within the LGBT community, one that ironically seeks inclusion in different spaces including workplaces. Could the LGBT community break away from the norms of patriarchy? Could efforts within the LGBT community for inclusion of women also lead to an inclusion of the community within other spaces at large? LGBT community could set an example and lead the way in breaking patriarchy and making different spaces inclusive for all, for change always begins at home. Conversations around inclusion of LGBT community in different spaces like the LGBT Workplace Symposium is much needed. Such conversations definitely account for great progress considering that it creates the forum to understand the challenges of the different members of the community.

We have also captured some of the inclusive steps taken by the industry, that we were discussed during the conference. hear it here:

*Editor’s note: Women in this story refer to cisgender women who are lesbian, bisexual and queer. Cisgender women are women whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth.  

** Transgender woman is a woman who was assigned male at birth but whose gender identity is that of a woman.

*** Transman is a man who was assigned female at birth but whose gender identity is that of a man.

Men Talk Consent workshop by Prajyna for young men in Chennai colleges

India is struggling to grasp the concept of consent. It may need more than just a little nudge to make people understand what consent means. Acknowledging the importance of consent to reduce and eventually prevent gender violence especially in relationships, Prajyna, a non-profit organisation working around gender related issues, is organizing its Men Talk Consent two-day workshop on April 29 and 30, 2017. The workshop will be addressing young men studying in colleges across Chennai. Dr. Sharada Srinivasan, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Gender, Justice and Development, University of Guelph will be the facilitator of the workshop.

Consent is a conscious and unforced decision made by a woman to an offer to enter into a relationship or for sex with another human being, mostly men. It includes her decision to say Yes or No to invitations.

“Even if women doesn’t express a clear No or if they seem unsure or even confused in their exercise of consent, it still tantamount to a No and not a Yes from her”, explains Sudaroli Ramasamy, Programme Officer, Prajyna.

She elucidated on this point since a majority of Indian men take a woman’s hesitance or confusion or a lack of clear No as a Yes.

Apart from engaging the male students in a conversation on consent, this free workshop will also train the students to be facilitators of similar workshops among their peer group. The students attending this workshop will commit to conducting 5 such sessions among their peer group with one session having a minimum of 10 men.

Dr. Sharada Srinivasan, who has been working in the area of gender for the last 25 years underlines the importance of conducting such a workshop:

“The discourse around gender focuses a lot on women but I don’t think we engage with men enough; and more importantly, I also think, we don’t know how to engage with men. So I think it is about time (to have workshops and similar spaces wherein) men have healthy conversations around ending violence against women, gender discrimination and other gender related issues.”

But why a ‘Men only’ workshop

Previously, Prajyna had done a series of workshops called Conversation about Consent involving college students: both men and women.

  • These workshops emphasized the need to understand that lack of clarity is lack of consent.
  • Videos on consent were shown to the participants as part of these workshops.
  • Prajyna intends to take the above initiative of conducting workshops to the next level by training male student volunteers as facilitators of similar workshops among their peer group.
  • These workshops had mixed gender groups and it was noticed that men feel more comfortable when men talk about the Right to Consent of a woman thereby highlighting the need for gender- specific workshops; especially, Men- addressing- Men workshops.

Explaining the reason for training male facilitators to address men, Srinivasan says that there are certain things that men may not be comfortable talking to a woman about. The intent of enabling male facilitators is to create safe comfortable spaces for men to engage with.

“If you want a group of women to talk about domestic violence and all of it, and  if you put a bunch of men there, there are certain things that the women are not going to talk about. It is about just creating that respectful comfortable space where they can have this conversation among themselves. We have had mixed group conversations and those conversations will only go so far.”

Srinivasan adds that it would be hard for women to think that they can do these sessions with men around.

“There are some no-go zones and I think it is best that men have these conversations among themselves. There is a certain idea associated with it in their minds. It is not the case with all. But if men talk about it, it will be that their own gender is talking about it and they will hear what the facilitator says. It is comfort zone for them to freely discuss things without any blocks.”

But what have been the problems with women addressing men about the issue of consent? Though Srinivasan emphasis on the lack of any problem or the need or lack for a safe space, she underlines the fact that we are not in a situation where men and women can sit down and talk about these issues yet. She points to the unintentional yet quick tendency to polarize: among men and women; as the reason for the need for gender-specific workshops male facilitators. In the case of men,it was largely found: this polarization often discourages many men from sharing their concerns and questions due to the stigma of being labeled as anti-women.

“This is exactly why it is good and important for men to think that gender related issues including gender violence is not solely a women’s problem and that men have a lot to address among themselves and these conversations need to happen a lot more.”

Hence Prajyna’s initiative in organizing ‘Men Talk Consent’ two-day workshop on April 29 and 30, 2017 between 10AM to 4PM.

Editor’s note: Any male college student can enrol for the workshop. Details regarding registration can be found in the poster above. 

An ode: International Day of Transgender Visibility with Aravani Art Project

graffiti work on wall

“Initially, they (transgenders) are very unsure of why they are doing it or what they are doing which is completely understandable because it is a very new thing to be painting a wall. After the first day, they just want to come and paint. They like the process, they like the fact that they are doing some work and the results are in front of them. And it is also more fun when all of us are together. It is some sort of a meditational thing, coming here every morning and painting and eating lunch together,” – Poornima Sukumar, Founder of the Aravani Art Project.

This International Day of Transgender Visibility, the Aravani Art Project is at the government allocated housing to the transgender people in the Tsunami quarters in Ernavour (on March 30, 31 and April 1, 2017). “We are going to be painting the same building where they all live,” notes Poornima Sukumar, artist and founder of the Aravani Art Project. Unlike other cities where the transgender community wanted a voice with the Aravani Art Project, in Chennai they already are part of a community and hence the project chose a space where they belong.

Aravani Art Project in Chennai

“I found them to be so bold and so much more like a woman. We (cis-women) are also like that but we have been pushed down by patriarchy for whatever reason. But it was nice to see these women coming out and fighting against all odds, believing who they were and following their heart.”

Growing close to the transgender community during her work with a documentary film involving the community, Sukumar decided to start the Aravani Art Project in early 2016 as way to continue her engagement with the community and to also get them involved with an art project that is for them and by them. It was her first project, an experiment involving her friends and the transgender community, that gave her the confidence to take the project to other cities.

The objective of the project is to get to know the transgender community more personally by getting them involved them like anybody else in a project. The idea is to also give the public an opportunity to have conversations with the community. Sukumar notes that though many want to engage and interact with the community, they don’t know the right way to go about it.

“We do not force people to talk to each other. Neither do we encourage people to know about each other’s back story because that’s not what we always want. We want to know them as just people and hang out with them just as we would with any other friend.”

With every edition of the project focusing on a specific aspect that the community in the city wishes to focus on, the Chennai edition’s focus has been the policing of the transgender community in Chennai. This has been a serious concern in Chennai following the death of Tara, a transgender woman under suspicious circumstances outside a police station in the city.

“This time, their concern is only about why the policing has not stopped. They are worried about themselves because they don’t know how safe they are. There is no guarantee for their safety. So that’s the safety issue that they want to raise. We also want to push the fact that they are in need of humanity,” explains Sukumar.

Though the project is not partnering with any one organisation in the city, members from Sinegadhi in Chennai are participating in the Chennai edition. Katiyakaari, a theatre group from Chennai has also been supportive of the project in the city. The project also comes with its own set of challenges. Sukumar notes that though “people are ok with peeing on a wall, sitting on it, letting it crack away“, they aren’t too comfortable when someone wants to paint it, giving it some attention. She says people seem to be averse to the idea. Hence permission always seems to be a concern for the project. There is also the need to build trust with the transgender community in any city before they decide to be a part of the project in their city. It also took her four trips to Chennai before she was taken seriously.

“I can’t just go one day and say I’m going to paint a wall for you, so come and paint with me. They are not going to immediately say ok, we’ll leave everything we everyday and come there to paint. It requires a lot of time and patience for them to know that I’m serious about what I’m saying and I’m not doing this for any media gimmick of sorts and that it is purely for them and by them.”

This, Sukumar notes after taking the project to Mumbai, Bangalore, Jaipur and even SriLanka. Thanks to the economic environment in Mumbai, the transgender community in the city, according to her is relatively more street smart. Bangalore, on the contrary, is still a little closed and sadly, has no time for the transgender community per say. In Chennai, it has been more about relationship building for the Aravani Art Project. Being the smallest of the Indian cities that the Project has been to, the Jaipur edition was about addressing and being their voice for their issues.

“In Jaipur, people were really shocked to see transgenders coming out and painting. It is just that they have never even imagined them doing anything else. It was a really nice experience for the community themselves that they could do it. And we’ve painted it in the metro station so they are very proud of it. They feel really good.”

Apart from some support from an organisation called Arogya Seva that supports them for the food and paints, the project is completely voluntary. The Aravani Art Project’s members are all artists and individuals who volunteer for this project. The project is also open to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) support from different organisations. If sufficient funds can be raised, Sukumar hopes to also teach art to the transgender community.

What happens after the Aravani Art Project’s edition in Chennai is complete? How will they take it forward? On that note, Sukumar explains that being a part of this project is not going to get the transgender community any direct attention. They feel satisfied when they do something like this and that’s the reason they are doing it.

“It is an overview and a homage to what has happened. It is a homepage and ode to Tara and all the other transgenders who went before her.”

Here is a podcast  about celebrating the Koovagam festival :

A look at the Hindu Literature For Life 2017

books stacked on one another
The Lit for Life 2017 conducted by The Hindu had  twelve thousand registering themselves online.  This says a lot about the success of this festival. This year, the festival began with remembering  Chandralekha a dancer and choreographer, Sadanand Menon, Tishani Doshi and Shashi Kumar remembered her in their own ways.  There was a archival footage from the programme Tana Bana directed by Shashi Kumar for PTI TV.  This session made clear one fact that she did not have a conflicting relationship with the classical form, but, she was a person who wanted to modernise and modernise in her own terms.
 In the session about Gandhi – Gandhi. A name.  A Life. My World were G.N. Devy-literary critic Ghulam Mohammed Shaikh-port and artist and moderator Amandeep Sandhu. In the course of the discussion Gandhi was referred as one of the tragic heroes of India, a perpetual loser and his children did not think big of him.  All along in our life we have read books written by him, we find a Gandhi statue or road named in every town, village, city and metro, he is so common a sight that he is on the currency and postage stamps. Can you think of a charkha without him?  This session spoke of the other side of Mahatma, a conscience keeper. Then, father and daughter team of Mark and Talia Kurlansky spoke on cooking and writing, their various experiences in different countries, clearing our prejudices about food, its preservation. Four popular young writers spoke about love and losing. Durjoy Datta,Ravinder Singh, Preeti Shenoy, moderated by journalist Nandini Krishnan. There is no formula for a bestseller, be true to your self, packaging is the individual choice.  They were all open and candid in their replies.
In the Return of the word Perumal Murugan was in conversation with A.R. Venkatachalapathy. Perumal Murugan spoke about the double standards in the Tamil society. One of his book which was prescribed was withdrawn later because it contained swear words. It is a fact that such words are spoken. He spoke of how he lifted his pen again and wrote 200 poems in a short span, how he returend to the literary world with his novel Poonatachi allathu Oru Vellatin Kathai (Poonatachi or a story of the goat).
It is not easy to establish a Hindu Rashtra. This was the conclusion of the session – Dreams of a Hindu Rashtra, with Akshaya Mukul author of Gita Press and The making of Hindu India and Saeed Naqvi author of Being The Other: The muslim in India, moderated by N.Ram. In the age of terrorism, Karan Mahajan author of Association of Small Bombs, came out with a statement that terrorists were idealistic, and termed terrorism as the crime  of ideology. The session The Great Ones with author Ira Mukhoty and Sunil Khilnani, moderated by Raghu Karnad, discussed the contrasting place the heroes and heroines occupied in the nation’s conscience. Khilnani saying that Vivekananda, Bose and Bhagat Singh were rebels but they are considered heroes at a time when it is considered a dissent if your speak against authorities and you are branded as  anti-national.
The Rishi kapoor session, the whole auditorium was jam packed, hardly had he settled in his chair, one woman shouted full throated “We love you Rishi!” This woman could have been a teen when Bobby was released, and one could understand, why she said we and not I.  Shantanu Ray Chaudhari discussed along with Meena Iyer who co-authored the book. Rishi spoke of how difficult were his times with giants like Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna, Dharmendra and Shatrughan Sinha and he was not an action hero, so survival was tough for him. As he went off to sign the book, the crowd refused to leave him and he had to be escorted to his car. It seemed like the release day of Bobby, all over again.
Rajinikanth was present in this festival through a book written by his daughter Aishwarya R.Dhanush- titled, ‘Standing on an Apple Box’, which according to her showcases his other side, a Rajnikant you really wouldn’t know. One went back to the sixties and seventies of Hindi Cinema right here in Chennai in the session Music, Masti, Modernity: The films of Nasir Hussain.- a book written by Akshay Manvani and Balaji Vittal co author of the book R D Burman- The Man, The Music.  The discussion went into minor details and finally Akshay said that Nasir Hussain did not need even Amitabh Bachchan during the 70’s. R D Burman was the hero.
There were coffee breaks, with Vivekananda coffee having positioned their stall just outside the venue, snaking queues waited for that cup that gave a kick and cheered them up, later tea was also served.  The food court was outside the venue, slightly uncomfortable with hardly any chairs, Wangs, Kailash Parbat and another food counter  served but it was not satisfactory, next time the food counter should be. designed for easy movement and place to sit, only then can delegates enjoy their food and be ready for the post lunch sessions.
During the session, Is India Ripe for a revolution, Kanhaiya Kumar held his own and said let me have my romanticism, what we today are fighting for is for democracy, allow me to have food of my choice, allow me to marry the girl I love, why does the state interfere into this?  The audience roared and he was mobbed outside for selfies. Indeed, Kanhaiya Kumar has come a long way. Sadanand Menon pointed his index finger and said he is the trigger- the audience clapped. Rebooting the Indian Economy was moderated by N.Ravi. Former Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram held his own by attacking demonetisation quoting figures of new 2000 rupee notes seized in various places just after this was announced.  Sanjaya Baru felt that there was no road roko, bandh, burning of buses hence demonetization was largely accepted by the masses thought they stood in the queue. These queues, he felt, was a case study for sociologists.
Many workshops, a separate section for kids and children decked as if it was a fairy world saw enthused and excited kids attend in large numbers. The entrance being decked up with kites, decoration, festoons giving the whole place a festive atmosphere, when you had crowds inside, there were crowds outside too, an atmosphere which you will miss and have to wait for another year. Probably you have lesser rush for buses and trains, as all the lovers of books, literature, poetry, arts, music, performing arts, food,,history, cinema all line up at this venue.  One grows rich by listening to favourite authors. personalities speak about issues, which clears our cobwebs and pushes our thinking in the right direction. One hardly feels sad that some book shops have closed, here  is a festival that makes up for all that collective loss.
About the writer:
Chandramohan Naidu is a poet and former Bank of India employee. Currently, he is an amateur photographer and freelance writer.

The Crisis of Tamizh Identity politics; what this means for women

 

Who am I? I am a Tamizh woman. I was born in the capital city of Chennai and I spent 20 years of my life there. I am characterised by that typical Tamizh Pride that India knows too well and, like every other one of my fellow Tamizhs, I hold my language and culture in the utmost regard, wear my identity on my sleeve and do not hesitate to school anyone who dares to pronounce ‘Dosai’ or other references that are stereotypically associated with Tamizh culture, incorrectly. It has been endearing to witness youth in Tamizh Nadu, lead the movement and claim the shores of Marina in peaceful and organised protest; It was elevating to see youth categorically refuse to accommodate film stars or politicians lest they dilute the debate with their side agendas; It was heartening to see the shared accountability of the protestors as they tirelessly clean up public space even as some others retire due to physical and mental fatigue. Despite the violence that ensued on the 23rd of January, we must sustain the momentum of our solidarity. There is much to take away from the movement against the ban of Jallikattu: but there is as much to interrogate, as much to transform and so much more to be brought into similar, if not more critical focus.

In the last couple of weeks, our own articulation of our identity politics has been reduced to a dismal state of impoverishment. Granted, there is a trickle of emergent discourse that has efficiently utilised this opportunistic moment to both: critically reflect on the practice of ‘Jallikattu’ as well as deepen the imaginary of “Tamizh” identity: subtle but deliberate efforts to subvert an increasingly monolithic rendering of Tamizh culture, in an effort to widen, even diversify, the floodgates of Tamizh compassion. However, the dominant discourse of dissent seems to be in diametric opposition to this trend. For instance, in the past week, there has been a selective privileging of issues that were raised against the sport. As a result, one now finds – scattered across the interwebs – numerous counter-arguments that go out of their way to clarify our love for the native breed, our staunch compliance with the safety regulations mandated by the Act of 2009, the great goodness of A2 milk etc. However, in stark contrast, there has been an insidious lethargy to address questions around the missing women and Dalits from the primarily male caste-exclusive sport of Jallikattu. I will attempt to wrestle with the former question, as I am unconvinced that my theoretical knowledge or experiences equip me to effectively address the latter.

 

Kaalaiyai adakkunaatha, Kalyananam kattikkuven” (“Only if the bull is tamed, will I marry”)

 

 

One only has to look as far as the language of the plaquards, speeches and the sloganeering on ground to detect the secondary status that the sport accords to women. Young girls are spotted carrying banners bearing slogans that reinforce passive femininity – “Kaalaiyai adakkunaatha, Kalyananam kattikkuven” (“Only if the bull is tamed, will I marry”) – and younger boys in turn carry posters sporting slogans that enhance their machismo and strips both women and bulls off all agency, in the same breath – “Kaalaiyai adakkurom, Kalyanam panrom” (“We shall tame the bull, we shall marry”). The symbolism of the imagery evoked is stark in its irony. Women calling upon men to evince their capacity to ‘subjugate’ another being, after years of women having been ‘subjugated’ at the hands of men, themselves. The imagery is further disturbing as it points to the ominous indoctrination of the unsuspecting present and future generations into a culture, which is in dire need – not of banning – but of critical self-reflection and transformation. Meanwhile, news narratives that huff and puff to highlight the ‘involvement’ of women in the primarily male sport of Jallikattu are essentialist to say the least, as they persist to unquestioningly recast women in the stereotypical mould of the domestic ‘nurturer’ whilst reinforcing men as alpha ‘conquerors’. Women nurture the bulls, just like women nurture the man, nurture his family, their children and then, if energy permits – themselves. Evidence suggests that a healthy percentage of the household budget (sometimes 4500 INR, sometimes more) is dedicated towards the maintenance of the stud bulls who are well nourished and cared for, which is more than can be said about the plight of too many women across the country whose health is barely budgeted for: by neither patriarchal state nor family.

The online public sphere is just as lopsided. Social Media is rampant with images of male icons conquering bulls accompanied by text that appeals to a narrow vision of #TamilPride: “Veeram engal thaai thantha thaalattu, maranam engal veera vilaiyaattu” (We derive valour from our mother’s lullaby, and death from the brave game). But, what happens if the bull conquers the man? (‘aanal, kaalai aalai adakkunaa?’) What happens if the man dies like Karupaiyya from Kalathipatti ? Were a man to die a hero, what becomes of his family? Does the legend of his virility or bravado serve as sufficient compensation for the family? Or does the demise of the primary wage-earner thrust additional burden on the woman of the household? These are all critical questions to raise – fundamental even, to the foundations of ‘Tamizh identity’ formation. Yet, we find that such questions have been tactically circumvented, lest they disrupt the ‘solidarity’ of the recent protests. Dalit scholars and activists who have formally highlighted the sport’s exclusionary designs have been written off by citing meagre instances of tokenistic participation. There is generous guilt being meted out to even the most cautious of critiques being offered on social media, which comes in the way of directly challenging this hegemonic hyperbole, which is fast spiralling out of control.

It is worrying that a staggering majority of the Tamizh public are geared towards reclamation without simultaneous introspection: a resolute regurgitation of history, of cultural practice, in the name of ‘conservation’. Let us take a moment to reflect. Why is it that we resist critique so? Does critical self-reflection diminish our collective identity or lend strength to it? In critically examining ourselves, do we diminish or in fact, resuscitate? Is not resuscitation essential to evolution – to retain relevance in, or correspond to a constantly changing context? In fact resuscitation, can be crucial for a culture to become more inclusive. Time and again we find that any critique posited on the identity debate has been indefinitely parked, and marginalised identities have been told to wait their turn. Until when will ‘being Tamizh’ mean usurping the experiences of multiple cross-cutting identities who constitute the state only to forge a singular myopic narrative?  If a movement fails to integrate the experiences of women, transgenders, Dalits and other marginalised groups interpellated by multiple subordinate-group identities – what kind of ‘solidarity’ is it really achieving? As long as ‘we’ conveniently unite against the external ‘other’ whilst simultaneously turning a blind eye to the ‘othering’ that ‘we’ perpetuate from within, than ‘we’ cannot sustain. Let us be the authors of our own critique, so that we can reflect and transform towards an intersectional, inclusive and sustainable Tamizh Identity.

 

Article by: Manasa

#IWillGoOut Chennai goes online due to Jallikattu issue

A campaign went online on the 21st of January 2017 in Chennai. The campaign –addressed as #IWillGoOut (IWGO)that went online in Chennai was part of a larger nationwide gathering that happened on the 21st of January in over 20 Indian cities including Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Nagpur, Bhopal, Ahmedabad, Udaipur, Thrissur, Silchar, Ranchi, Puducherry, Kolkata, Jaipur, Lucknow, Karimganj, Chandigarh, Kangra and Gurgaon.

The campaign, as per IWGO website, is to convey solidarity, solidarity against sexual harassment and misogyny, solidarity to reclaim women’s rights to public spaces enabling safety and security for women. The campaign was also about easing of approach to report crimes (by women) committed against them and compulsory gender sensitisation training. IWGO, which has a team of1500 members with about 80 active participants was initially started to condemn the sexual harassment of girls and women in Bengaluru on New Year’s eve.

Nationally, IWGO intends to present a national manifesto with region specific petitions under sexual harassment,misogyny,women’s right to reclaim public spaces enabling safety and security for women. While the other cities and towns had a mass gathering, #IWillGoOut march in Chennai decided to change the format of the event and go online with the campaign. The reason was the mass Jallikattu protest happening in Chennai with the Marina Beach as the nerve-centre of the protest: #IWillGoOut had also planned to hold their campaign in the Marina Beach. The 2017 pro-Jallikattu protests, refers to numerous leaderless apolitical youth groups protesting in January 2017 in large groups in several locations across Tamil Nadu, against the Supreme Court ban on Jallikattu- a Tamil -traditional bull taming sport held during Pongal, a harvest festival in the state of Tamil Nadu.

The organisers of #IWillGoOut Chennai didn’t see sense in having a march on the Marina beach. “Owing to the large-scale Jallikattu protest happening in the city, we realised that the impact of a march on the Marina beach wouldn’t have had a huge impact, said Archana Sekhar, one of the many organisers of #IWillGoOut Chennai. Hence it was decided to have an online campaign in Chennai that to voice the personal thoughts of women from all walks of life, one of the highlights being the female version of the song SaddaHaq with verses in both English and Tamil rendered by singer/rapper Sofia Ashraf.

Though Chennai had planned to show its solidarity online to this nationwide gathering, many women and men took to the streets and had a peaceful march inside the Nageshwara Rao Park in Mylapore. It was a small gathering that ended with a self-defence Silambattam performance by Aishwarya Manivannan. Silambattam in Tamil (often) refers specifically to stick-fighting.

The region specific petitions for women’s right to reclaim public spaces enabling safety and security for women were supposed to be given to the State Police Department, Ministry of Home Affairs and Women and Child Welfare Ministry,but Chennai doesn’t seem to have had any such petition given to the Ministry.

Sofia Ashraf, one of the organisers of IWGO, Chennai had said two days prior to the nationwide #IWillGoOut march about the Jallikattu protest:

For the first time in my generation, there is a mass uprising of women across the country and I’m desperate to be part of it. But, I’m uncomfortable about calling other women to join me on the streets considering the Jallikattu Protests are at their peak right now. Yes, women are safely protesting alongside the Jallikattu Protesters. But, it needs to be noted that these women are on the side of the protestors. While the Jallikattu Protests are laudable with regard to sheer passion and discipline, it must be noted that there is also a huge thread of chauvinistic cultural pride that echoes through their chants. The Jallikattu Protests are being misappropriated by many to spread an agenda of cultural supremacy. In such an environment, a mob of women stepping out wearing what they like and espousing what most see as ‘western ideologies’ when actually it is just ‘human ideas of freedom and liberty’ seems like an easy target for the cultural chauvinists to attack. This is a risk i don’t want to impose on others.

Photo credit: I Will Go Out, Chennai Chapter
Photo credit: I Will Go Out, Chennai Chapter

More on Chennai’s online campaign here.

The hues of love at the Chennai Rainbow Film Festival

My memories of Chennai dates back from my adolescent age. It is a city of people who welcome variants and stand together for anything that they believe in. Some would say they are just Kanjivaram cladded mamis with studs bigger than their ears but to me, they are introspective people who would always want to learn something new!

Recently, my mum and I visited the 3rd Chennai Rainbow film Festival, one of the very diverse initiatives by Chennai dost which is a community-based group for lesbians, gays and bisexuals in south India. This film festival showcased the films of LGBTQIA filmmakers and others from various parts of the country. It was a 5 day international film festival that took place from the 4th to 8th of January, which had almost over 45 short films and videos extending from fifteen countries; Bulgaria, Spain, Ireland, France, Sweden, Turkey – to name a few. Though it was spread across for five days, it never felt too long neither did it get too boring since the people and their ideas seemed to me each day. The event happened at various places inside the city for the five days, of which the day 1 showcased a fashion show for the LGBT community while the remaining days focused on movie screenings and music performances by/ for the community.

Photo credit: Rashmi Raja

Being an annual event, this festival usually has a thematic overview to the films featured during the festival.  With this year’s theme being ‘hues of love’, the festival featured films which touched upon the genre of love and the duality that exists in the queer community. All films had a queer narrative portrayed in an optimistic manner. Though some lacked professionalism, the films never set aside its pragmatism. Also the approach of screening a film and inviting the filmmaker to speak was very warm and welcoming.

Lighting up the rainbow spirit, there was a music performance by Mr. Adam Grieg and Ms. Alisha who sang a song on how to celebrate oneself. My personal favourite was a short film from Netherland titled Nasser. Nasser a.k.a Naseerah understands that she is queer and the rest of the film is about how she makes her mother understand about her sexuality. There was also a short film from Maharashtra titled Pudhaakar which spoke about a gay couple who got married with their parents’ support. It took me by surprise when I realised that it is the life story of the filmmaker himself. The film spoke for itself and was given a five long minute ovation. The filmmaker’s mother who had accompanied him, was asked to speak.

She came up to the podium and first hugged her son and said, “For me, him being a gay is like a god sent gift”.

She didn’t know what more to say and hugged him again.

While I was secretly wiping away my tears, a voice next to me shouted, “Wish we have more mothers like you, May God bless you!”

The spotlight followed the voice and I saw my mum teary eyed standing and waving at the filmmaker’s mother. Seeing her that excited, I couldn’t contain myself.

I secretly asked my mother, “So do you support the LGBT community as well?”

She replied with a smile, “I support love”.

Like I said, they are not just Kanjivaram cladded mamis with studs bigger than their ears but they are introspective people who always want to learn something new.

Author profile:

Rashmi Raja is a 25 year-old cinephile, an obsessive compulsive human and an oracious animal lover. Pursuing my PhD in Queer studies at the Anna University Chennai, I teach Carnatic Music for kids and learn to love my life from them.