Communities

Indian Trans Women Turn To Art For Identity

by Nick Pachelli

April 15, 2016

Three months ago, a 27-year-old artist in Bangalore, India named Poornima Sukumar started inviting transgender women to join her in painting murals. Contributing artists have the opportunity to get paid for contracted works, and are given the chance to engage with both fellow artists as well as curious onlookers in high-traffic areas like K.R. Market, a massive wholesale area in the center of the city.

For a community that often turns to sex work as their principal means of survival in India, this seemingly benign opportunity to paint in a public space is a lifeline for trans people struggling to find acceptance in India. As Sukumar recalls, “One woman couldn’t paint with us that day… She had sex work.”

Sukumar is the founder of the Aravani Art Project, which aims to “Create platforms for the Transgender Community creating consciousness, well being through art, awareness and social participation.” And she isn’t just issuing polite invitations, either. Sukumar spent three years delving into the transgender community alongside documentary filmmaker Tabs Breese, and after completing the project knew she had to stay involved with the people she met, “I could not dissociate from the community,” Sukumar says. “I wouldn’t be one of those people who leaves with empty promises.”

One woman couldn’t paint with us that day… She had sex work.

The experience affected her so intensely in part because of a major decision by the Supreme Court of India that came down during the filming process. Justices granted “third gender” legal status for transgender individuals, and Sukumar witnessed an invigorated interest in trans rights due to the government’s display of acceptance toward diverse sexual identities.

When filming wrapped this past November, the muralist wanted to harness the potential of the transgender community for its own benefit, to draw a fragmented group together and give it the momentum of a real movement for change. So she started asking for phone numbers and gaining trust in a community that can seem impenetrable, “It’s a space where time is money, and if time is not spent in sex work or begging, it’s seen as wasted.”

And out of that hustle, Sukumar created the Aravani Project to increase inclusivity by upending a narrative surrounding transgender people that too often focuses on sex, “I don’t want to be a leader [for the community],” she says. “I want to be received as approachable, an access point for inclusion. I’d like to make ten more people ‘approachable’ like me. That’s the goal.”

And in addition to seeking out more ambassadors to help Indians embrace trans people, Sukumar wants to expand the Project to festivals across the country. So as she continues working at home in Bangalore she is preparing to take her endeavor east to Chennai and north to Mumbai. With a burgeoning collective of socially conscious creatives like Sukumar, efforts both uncomplicated and elaborate will continue to integrate marginalized groups into India’s mainstream society and dialogue. 

Keep up with the Aravani Art Project on Facebook

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Indian Trans Women Turn To Art For Identity